You may have heard that two scientists decided to rank the 621 bird species found in the United States in terms of popularity. Publishing their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 15, 2019, Justin Schuetz, a biologist and researcher in Bath, Maine, and Alison Johnston at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, studied Google searches performed between 2008 and 2017 to learn what Americans think about those 621 bird species. The ranking proved to be quite popular among bird lovers, both professional and amateur, because it provides a framework for understanding how the public relates to birds, and, thus, offers a tool for identifying what it is about birds that people value.
I have decided to create my own top 10 list of North American birds based on those I deem to have the most interesting behaviors. Some species will not likely be a surprise if you are a frequent reader of my writings.
#1: Canada Jay
Naturally, I must begin with the Canada jay—and not because it’s the species that many Canadians hope will become the official bird of Canada sometime in the not-too-distant future. Called the gray jay from 1957 to 2018, this friendly, trusting bird will readily land on your head or hand, even without a handout present. As a corvid, it is a highly intelligent bird capable of using its sticky saliva to store thousands of food items on bark surfaces above the snow’s surface and remember their locations in winter. Canada jays are nonmigratory and often begin breeding before the snow disappears, sometimes incubating their eggs at –22 degrees Fahrenheit!
#2: Common Loon
The common loon is found in lakes across the continent. Its iconic soulful wail, sometimes punctuated by maniacal laughter, in the middle of a starry night is known to many in cottage country. In pursuit of fish, common loons use powerful webbed feet located at the tail end of their streamlined bodies, and solid bones (unusual for birds) as ballast to dive more than 200 feet below the surface and stay under for longer than eight minutes. They’re not much for walking on land, but by running and flapping their wings at the same time over a distance of about 33 yards to a quarter of a mile on water to become airborne, they can eventually reach speeds over 70 miles per hour.
#3: American Dipper
My favorite songbird of all, the American dipper, frequents only fast-flowing, cold trout streams. Often bouncing up and down while standing on a rock in the stream (hence the name), this wee gray bird loves to immerse itself completely under the water. Capable of staying under for as long as 30 seconds and with special nasal flaps to prevent water from entering their nostrils, dippers also have the visual ability to search for stonefly nymphs and other aquatic organisms among the round rocks. They love to build their nests on ledges on the undersides of bridges over rivers, but also nest in cavities in the banks and even in supplied nest boxes.
#4: Ruby-throated Hummingbird
For its size, there is no other bird in North America that exhibits more pugnacious behavior than the ruby-throated hummingbird; they are not afraid to attack hawks and crows much larger than themselves. With the passing of each minute, their heart beats 1,200 times and they take 250 breaths. They can fly in all directions, including backward, flapping their wings between 50 and 200 times a second and reaching forward speeds of 30 miles per hour and double that in a dive. Rubythroats can cross the Gulf of Mexico, i.e., 500 miles, nonstop by storing half their body weight in fat. They use their tongues as tiny pumps to drain our provided sugar water at the rate of 10 to 15 times per second, but they do also need to eat small insects and spiders for protein.
#5: Peregrine Falcon
If you want to see this amazing aviator capable of diving at speeds over 217 miles an hour, you only have to travel to the nearest large city and look upward onto the ledges of the skyscrapers, which emulate the natural cliffs that peregrine falcons traditionally nest upon. This falcon, the fastest animal on the planet, is also blessed with incredible eyesight and hunts various kinds of birds, including pigeons and waterfowl. The peregrine’s courtship involves the male passing food to the female, often when in flight. To make this maneuver possible, the female will roll over while flying to take the offered food from his talons. Peregrine falcon chicks have tremendous appetites and double their weight in around six days. By three weeks of age, they are 10 times their size at hatching.
I have to include at least one shorebird, and I choose the killdeer. Although technically shorebird, the killdeer is quite unusual in this group because they often nest and live far from water. These ground-nesting birds are famous for hiding their nests right out in the open by not using any nesting materials and laying cryptically colored eggs that blend in with the gravel and pebbles. But, most interesting of all, they rely on distraction displays to protect their eggs and offspring. Killdeer exhibit a clever and colorful “broken wing display,” in which they appear to be struggling with a broken wing while leading the predator away from their nest or youngsters.
#7: American Redstart
Although my favorite warbler of all is the black-throated blue, its behaviors are not unique enough to allow its inclusion here. I believe that the most interesting warbler from a behavioral point of view has to be the American redstart, not because of that constant tail-flaring, but because of its transgender capabilities. The subordinate first-year males of this species display the plumage appearance of females so that they can easily fool and mingle among the dominant paired males for the purpose of acquiring food and also gaining copulations from the mated females to pass on their genes.
#8: Bald Eagle
Back to those big birds. On the basis of its most interesting behaviors, the bald eagle surely makes my top 10 list. It holds the record for making the largest tree nest in North America; one nest in Florida was 20 feet deep, 9.5 feet wide, and weighed almost three tons! Chosen as the official bird of the United States, these consumers of live and dead fish and other carrion are not too shy to steal fish from ospreys. More recently, though, bald eagles have been observed chasing down other large birds, including sandhill cranes and Canada geese, to tire them out and eventually kill them for food. They also hold the North American record for carrying the heaviest load in flight—15 pounds of mule deer meat.
#9: Barred Owl
I simply must include a “bird of the night” in my list. Owls have such amazing adaptations for foraging in the dark, including fantastic eyesight and hearing and muted flight feathers for flying stealthily. I could choose any one of several owls, big and small, but the one I am including in my list is the barred owl. This owl was once an eastern species, but in recent years, it has been adaptable enough to extend its range from East to West, even outcompeting spotted owls in the old-growth forest and becoming quite common in suburban environments. Barred owls will readily strike humans approaching their nests, but also engage in noisy distraction displays in which they hang upside down and quiver their wings. Although they dine mainly upon rodents, birds, and other terrestrial prey, they have also been known to swoop down on the water to catch fish and even wade into shallow water to hunt crayfish.
#10: Pileated Woodpecker
I would be remiss not to include a woodpecker species in this list, and I might just as well choose the largest: the pileated woodpecker. Whether feeding, excavating nesting and roosting cavities, or drumming for territorial purposes, these woodpeckers can peck up to 20 times a second for a total of 8,000 to 12,000 pecks per day. All that pecking is done without a single headache, as far as we know, because they have reinforced skulls structured to spread the impact force, and their brains are highly cushioned and protected from repeated impacts originating from the bill. Their barbed tongues are 4 inches long, and they wrap around the skull when retracted. With a combination of zygodactyl feet (two toes forward and two backward) armed with sharp claws, and stiff tail feathers for bracing, pileated woodpeckers can easily climb trees and poles in a vertical position.
I suppose that I have overlooked some obvious candidates in my list from the more than 990 bird species in North America, but the truth is that all birds engage in interesting behaviors and are therefore worthy of our constant attention.