Minnesota is known as “the star of the north” and birders know that Minnesota is a star destination to see amazing northern birds. While only 246 species have been recorded in the state, many of the birds in Minnesota are boreal and Arctic specialties that are difficult, if not impossible, to see in more southern areas. Winter birds are especially sought after at this northern destination, but even summer birding can yield surprising specialty birds. By watching for these 20 best Minnesota birds, birders are sure to have a fantastic time adding to their life list whenever they visit.
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Found year-round in the central part of the state, the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is one of the largest swan species. This huge, heavy bird is easy to recognize by its all-white plumage and dark, sloping bill with a slim red grin patch. The plumage may occasionally be stained brown or rusty on the belly, breast, and neck, but overall these birds are brilliantly white.
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A stunning duck with a brilliant yellow eye, the aptly named common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) breeds in the very northern part of Minnesota. Birders who have the chance to see this diving duck during the breeding season will marvel at its flexible courtship display, when males may bend their heads all the way back to touch their backs.
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An elegant swimmer, the red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena) is a rare breeder in Minnesota, preferring marshy ponds for its nesting habitat. While these birds are relatively plain in winter, seeing them in breeding plumage with the white check contrasting with a black crown and richly colored chestnut neck is a treat for any birder.
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No trip to the North Star State would be complete without seeing the common loon (Gavia immer), the state bird of Minnesota. Though only found in the northern and central parts of the state during the breeding season, these birds are instantly recognized with their checkered plumage, dagger-like bills, and yodel-like call that echoes across the forest lakes they prefer.Continue to 5 of 20 below.
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Waterfowl aren’t the only birds that enjoy the “land of 10,000 lakes,” and the black tern (Chlidonias niger) breeds throughout the state in freshwater marshes, where they feed primarily on large insects. These small birds are elegant in their dusky, dark plumage with silvery wings and a whitish tail. In late summer, these birds are molting and will look patchy and mottled.
06 of 20
Minnesota may be known for its lakes, but its grasslands and prairies offer amazing birding opportunities as well, including the chance to see the greater prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). Found in the state’s western prairies year-round, this bird is scarce and easily disturbed. Birders should arrange a responsible visit to a breeding lek for the best viewing opportunities.
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One of the most elegant raptors, the gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the world’s largest falcon and prefers wide open spaces where it can hunt unimpeded. The white morph of these birds is especially stunning. While the gyrfalcon typically stays well north in Arctic regions, periodic winter irruptions can bring it into northern and central Minnesota, much to the delight of birders.
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The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is another raptor that is highly sought-after in Minnesota, and these white wonders are found year-round in the northern part of the state. In irruption years, snowy owls will move even further south. Look for them along lakeshores and in open areas where they roost on slight rises, rooftops, fence posts, and other good observation points.Continue to 9 of 20 below.
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Great Gray Owl
Minnesota is an owl-lover’s paradise, and the great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) is one of the most desired owls to see in the state. These large, well-camouflaged owls are found in forests and along forest edges in the northern part of Minnesota year-round, spreading into the central areas of the state in winter as they range slightly further for the best food sources.
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Northern Hawk Owl
Though scarce, the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) is well worth watching for in Minnesota. With bold facial markings, these owls are active during the day as well as the night, and are found in the northernmost parts of the state during the winter months. Irruptions can be irregular, but do occasionally bring these raptors further south.
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Another winter specialty, the hoary redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni) typically stays in the Arctic region, but visits northern Minnesota during the coldest months. Often joining mixed flocks with common redpolls, juncos, and other winter finches, these tiny birds have frosted appearance, a snub-like pale bill, and a bright red forehead.
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A stunning singer, the black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is a summer guest throughout Minnesota, where it prefers leafy, deciduous woods. Though elusive, the long, tapered tail of this bird as well as its slightly curved bill and bold red eye ring are distinctive field marks that can help birders identify black-billed cuckoos even with only a brief sighting.Continue to 13 of 20 below.
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The black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) is a year-round resident of Minnesota typically preferring the northern and central parts of the state. Burned-out forests with standing snags are ideal habitat to spot this woodpecker, preferably with coniferous trees. In winter, these birds do occasionally venture further south in the state.
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Tiny but fierce, the boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) is found in northern Minnesota year-round, with rare irruptions bringing them only slightly further south in the state. These birds are hardy in the state’s brutal winters, and they prefer dense spruce forests that provide good shelter and rich food sources. Their dusky brown cap makes them easy to distinguish from black-capped chickadees.
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A number of intelligent corvids can be seen in Minnesota, but the northwestern corner of the state is special in that it is the easternmost range of the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia). These large, playful birds with their long tails and elegant, iridescent plumage are a treat to see, especially for birders who haven’t had a chance to go birding in more western states such as Colorado, Montana, Idaho, or Utah.
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The least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) may not have flashy coloration or bold markings, but they are a treat to see throughout Minnesota nonetheless. Birders will want to sharpen up their flycatcher identification skills to feel confident about seeing these birds. Look for their jerky tails and flicking wings as additional behavioral clues to proper identification.Continue to 17 of 20 below.
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A perky bird, the sedge wren (Cistothorus platensis) is an energetic guest that breeds in all parts of Minnesota. These small wrens prefer short grass marshes and damp meadows rather than coarser vegetation, but they can still be elusive and challenging to see. Birding by ear can be a great way to locate sedge wrens, but take care not to confuse them with similar marsh wrens.
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One of the most colorful of Minnesota’s specialty birds, the golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) is found in the northeastern part of the state during the summer, preferring swamps and woods for its breeding habitat. Though relatively uncommon, these birds are unmistakable with their bright crown and splash of sunny yellow on the wings.
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Le Conte's Sparrow
Shy but colorful, the le conte’s sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) is a summer guest that breeds throughout Minnesota. Damp fields and shallow marshes are its preferred habitat, and it typically stays low and hidden in the vegetation. Its flight is weak and wobbly, but its striped back, nape, and facial pattern are all good clues for proper sparrow identification.
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A bird named after tropical plants is unexpected in a northern state, but the palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum) raises its families in northern Minnesota. This gives birders a great opportunity to see its colorful breeding plumage instead of the drab colors it wears in the winter in the southeast. And don’t miss the wiggling, wagging tail that is characteristic of these bog-loving warblers.
While Minnesota may be a fantastic birding destination, if it's not in your travel plans there are many other amazing places to see spectacular birds.
Stucker, Steven P. Cygnus Buccinator. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2018.
Red-Necked Grebe-Podiceps Grisegena. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Common Loon. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Black Tern. Montana Field Guide. Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Tympanuchus Cupido. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Gyrfalcon. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Snowy Owl. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Great Gray Owl. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Hoary Redpoll Overview. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Black-Billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus Erythropthalmus). U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Boreal Chickadee. Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas.
Le Conte's Sparrow. Minnesota Biological Survey Breeding Bird Locations.
LeConte's Sparrow Identification. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Palm Warbler. Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas.