The 12 Most Beautiful Birds in Texas
There are plenty of lovely avian contenders for the list.
By Cliff Shackleford
Whoever came up with the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was quite a diplomat, but I had to throw diplomacy out the window when selecting our state’s 12 most beautiful birds. Just think, Texas has nearly 640 species, and only 12 of them, or less than 2 percent, could make the cut!
Some readers will wonder why I omitted some extra-popular beauties like the cedar waxwing, wood duck, blue jay, northern cardinal and painted bunting. Sorry, but sometimes a bunch of bling — I’m looking at you, Mr. Painted Bunting — is just too much. About a century and a half ago, John James Audubon declared that the painted bunting was spectacularly colored but simply too gaudy. Who am I to disagree with one of our country’s all-time masters of bird art?
As an ornithologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, I love all birds. If diplomacy was my only consideration, I’d give the honor to all Texas birds and call it a 639-way tie.
Of course, there are lots of lovely avian contenders for the most beautiful list. The “beauty” of it is that every time I go afield, I see things differently and have new favorites. After all, Mother Nature has provided us with many stunning treats just waiting to be observed and enjoyed.
With no more apologies, here — in my opinion — are the 12 most beautiful birds in Texas.
Red-headed woodpecker: Consider the crisp, solid hues of black, white and red. Maybe a laundry detergent should use this bird as its spokesmodel because its colors “never fade, never run.” With more than 15 species of woodpeckers in Texas, this one steals the show with color and chutzpah. If you’re lucky enough to have a red-headed woodpecker visit your seed feeder, you’ll see that all the other birds make way, perhaps intimidated by the black and white tux, brilliant red hood and powerful beak.
Le Conte’s sparrow: Named in honor of a physician and naturalist from Georgia, these winter residents of native warm-season grasses are tough to spot until they finally flush. If a shrub is nearby, they’ll often sit up for a moment, showing that they’re not merely an “LBJ” (the colloquial birders’ term “little brown job” for sparrows, suggesting they all look drab and alike). Actually, there are other members in this genus (Ammodramus) that are just as gorgeous, but there’s something about the Le Conte’s broad, buff eyebrow and intricate ring around the collar that keeps me staring when I’m fortunate enough to kick one up.
Black-capped vireo: It’s not easy to see an entire black-capped vireo in a single view. These shy beauties don’t like to sit out in the open for long; they’d rather hop around in the shrubs in search of hidden insects. I once saw this endangered songbird years ago at a well-known hot spot for the species — the parking lot of Hippie Hollow on Lake Travis near Austin. Yes, this popular clothing-optional swimming area was a frequent hangout for enthusiastic birders equipped with binoculars. The vireo hasn’t been seen at this site in quite some time; its return is doubtful due to urban encroachment.
Violet-green swallow: Iridescence adds beauty and variety to the feather coloration of many dark Texas birds. In good light, nothing beats the violet-green swallow as its green-purple topside feathers contrast with a snow-white underbelly. Iridescence — caused by light bending and twisting when refracted by structural features in the feathers — offers the observer an avian rainbow of colors in a West Texas stream or canyon.
Swallow-tailed kite: Beauty can be found in the way this Southeast Texas nester flies. Picture a simple black and white bird soaring gracefully and effortlessly against a bright blue sky. They sure make flight look easy. To find one, look to the sky in spring or summer where the southern fringes of the Pineywoods meet the coastal prairies. That’s where most of them reside. Swallowtails use their effortless flight to overwinter in Brazil.
Prothonotary warbler: “Golden swamp fire” is just one old-fashioned name for this tiny songbird of East Texas’ hardwood forests, swamps and sloughs. Not only do they spritz up the dark river bottoms with a vibrant yellow when they arrive in spring, but their distinctive song also rings loudly, proclaiming their breeding territory. Prothonotary warbler and Lucy’s warbler (of the dry southwest) are the nation’s two cavity-nesting warblers. I’ve seen some cleverly placed nests of the golden swamp fire in boathouses and sheds when the door was left open. The birds sometimes come in and nest in an old boot in the closet or a coffee can on a shelf.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher: The scissor-tailed flycatcher is the official state bird of Oklahoma. When several states (including Texas) selected the northern mockingbird for state honors, South Carolina smartly switched to the Carolina wren. It’s never too late, Texas (hint, hint)! This flycatcher’s peachy sides and flowing tail can spice up any barbed-wire fence or power line. During fall migration, massive roosts of scissortails can form — sometimes in cities — with hundreds and hundreds of birds. With a background of the setting sun, it’s definitely a beautiful sight (and noisy sound) to behold.
Montezuma quail: Often called “fool’s quail,” the male Montezuma quail is a spectacular vision — no fooling. Historically found throughout most of the Hill Country, far east of its current range, this bird digs in shallow soil in search of tasty roots and tubers. What we dig with shovels, these birds unearth with strong feet and thick nails. Native grasses (often missing where livestock continuously graze) on rocky slopes out West are a favored spot for this handsome bird. The best place to see this “lifer” in Texas is the water-drip and bird-feeding station at Davis Mountains State Park.
Hooded merganser: The hooded merganser doesn’t sport any pretty greens or blues like other beautiful ducks. It’s a simple black and white bird with cinnamon sides, but the all-white rounded crest atop the male’s head steals the show. When a male gets excited or agitated, he can flare that crest to wow any audience. Unlike Texas’ other waterfowl, the hooded merganser and its two merganser cousins have an appetite for fish. A serrated bill helps mergansers catch and hold their slippery meals before swallowing.
Rufous hummingbird: The lucky backyard nature enthusiast who properly maintains a hummingbird feeder may be rewarded with a fast-flying rufous hummingbird. When one speeds by, the flash of color from this hardy hummer is reminiscent of a newly minted copper penny. Most Texas sightings occur during the colder months, when we’re not expecting hummingbirds to be around. To maintain that feeder throughout the year here in mild Texas, use a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar; red dye is not necessary. Sign up with TPWD’s Hummingbird Roundup to report your backyard sightings (tpwd.texas.gov/hummingbirds).
Purple gallinule: The purple gallinule is not only beautiful, it can practically walk on water. Strong, thick feet with long toes enable this wetland inhabitant to stride across lily pads and other floating aquatic vegetation, appearing to walk on water. While doing so, the purple gallinule is searching for a variety of vegetable and animal matter found in, atop or under this floating vegetation. The birds often cock and flick their short tail, revealing a bright patch of white underneath.
Tricolored heron: This selection was prompted by a sighting of an adult tricolored heron in prime breeding plumage foraging in perfect light along a small pond on Galveston Island last year, giving me one of those “wow” moments. Perfect light was the key, as the nature photographers all know, because it was not too bright, not too dark, just right. I observed varying shades of purple and blue, including baby blue on the bill, but it was the straw-colored showy plumes on its back that hit me like a brick. I couldn’t stop staring.
And Three “Other” Ones
There are only a few Texas species that aren’t exactly beauties.
The rumpled seaside sparrow has disheveled feathers and an “I-just-tumbled-out-of-bed” look.
Take your gaze away from her crystal-blue eyes and there’s nothing sexy about a double-crested cormorant.
When the ducks all stood in line to get their uniforms, the gadwalls must have been last and were left with drab. No wonder waterfowl hunters refer to them simply as “gray duck.”
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