From frigid nights to soaring daytime temperatures to scarce water, the desert can be an unforgiving place. Desert-dwelling birds put up with many challenges to survive. Have you ever wondered what birds live in the desert? Continue reading to learn more about 15 birds that reside in the scrub, brush, and sand of United States desert habitat.
15 Birds That Live In The Desert
Scientific name: Cardinalis sinuatus
Present in the U.S. only in areas of Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas, the Pyrrhuloxia is reminiscent of a Northern Cardinal. That’s because they are relatives. Both sexes look the same, however, and they have a much smaller range than their bright-red cousin.
They live in upland desert habitats, especially where mesquite grows. Their diet includes large insects, seeds, and cactus fruits. The Pyrrhuloxia is very territorial during the breeding season, but may join in flocks of other birds during the winter.
2. Hepatic Tanager
Scientific name: Piranga flava
This bird likes to live in the uplands of the southwestern deserts, among pine and oak trees. Like many other North American tanagers, males are red while the females are greenish-yellow. They spend the spring and summer months in the United States, then migrate south into Mexico and South America.
Spot them in the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona. They move through the interior of trees and shrubs to find insects and berries, often foraging in a pair or small group.
3. Common Poorwill
Scientific name: Phalaenoptilus nuttallii
The Common Poorwill is harder to spot than other desert birds on this list because it is nocturnal. Thankfully, in the breeding season males will sing “poorwillip” loudly for many hours, letting you know they are there. After dark, grab a flashlight and a pair of binoculars and follow the sound.
The Common Poorwill is a member of the Nightjar family. They have mottled gray and brown feather that camouflage them perfectly with the ground, where they lay motionless for most of the day. At dusk and dawn, they do most of their hunting for flying insects.
If necessary, they can enter a state of deep sleep or torpor, similar to hummingbirds, to save energy when it is very cold.
4. Acorn Woodpecker
Scientific name: Melanerpes formicivorus
The Acorn Woodpecker is a common sight in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Some make their way into southwest Texas too. They can be found near oak woodlands, as one of their main food sources is acorns. They store acorns, as well as other nuts, in the bark of dead trees. Holes are drilled in the bark, then the nut tightly pushed in. When available, they also eat plenty of flying insects.
Their unique coloring makes them easy to recognize. Their black, white and red head with light colored eye gives them a bit of a “clown-like” appearance.
5. Gray Flycatcher
Scientific name: Empidonax wrightii
Gray Flycatchers are dusky gray and easy to confuse with other flycatchers. Luckily, there’s a trick to tell them apart. This species flicks its tail downward while perching, not upward like its relatives.
They’re easy to find in the scrubby desert landscape of the Southwest and the dry regions of the Rockies. Spot them perching on sage bushes. They hunt visually, sitting and waiting to spot insects which they can scoop up from the ground or in the air.
6. Mountain Chickadee
Scientific name: Poecile gambeli
This insect-eating songbird is the backbone of flocks of songbirds in the western mountains of the United States in states such as Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. They chirp their characteristic call in pockets of forest in the dry, desert southwest.
Mountain Chickadees visit feeders year-round for seed, suet, and even peanut butter. They’re also receptive to nest boxes. Very similar in appearance to other chickadees, you can tell them apart by their white eyebrow stripe.
7. Gray Vireo
Scientific name: Vireo vicinior
This songbird knows how to stay cool in the sweltering deserts of southern Nevada and the Four Corners region. They sing at dawn and dusk, forage in the shaded brush of the scrubby desert, and rest during the hottest part of the day. Spot them on a walk through an undeveloped area in the early morning or evening.
They eat mainly insects that they pick off of branches and leaves, often foraging inside of shrubs just a few feet off the ground.
8. Cactus Wren
Scientific name: Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
The busy activity of the Cactus Wren makes it stand out among hot, quiet deserts. They are always on the move, flicking their tails or hopping around. Unlike other desert-dwelling birds that need to find a water source, they can survive on just the water they ingest from the insects they eat.
You’re likely to hear it before seeing it. Their typical call is said to sound like a car that won’t start, a repeated series of raspy “char” notes. They sing frequently and rather loudly, a common sound across their desert range.
Scientific name: Phainopepla nitens
Some might call this songbird the ‘desert cardinal’ because its crest, tail, and size are similar to that of the Northern Cardinal. Males are a dark, almost black color, while females are gray. Both have a red eye and shaggy head-crest.
Phainopeplas eat lots of fruit, especially mistletoe berries. Juniper, elderberry, boxthorn and sumac are also commonly consumed. They do supplement with insects, and feed mainly insects to their young.
You can find the Phainopepla in parts of the Sonoran and Mojave Desert, and the Colorado Desert in California. They’re difficult to attract to backyards unless there are substantial berry plants.
10. Virginia’s Warbler
Scientific name: Leiothlypis virginiae
Despite the name, you won’t find this bird in Virginia. Summers are spent in oak and pinyon-pine woodlands of the southwest, before heading south to Mexico in the fall. They are shy birds, and best found during the spring while they are more active and sing more frequently.
Unfortunately, these songbirds don’t eat seeds and don’t come to feeders. You can encourage them to stop by though by planting native plants. They’re currently threatened, so this small act could make a big difference in preserving their populations.
11. Black-throated Sparrow
Scientific name: Amphispiza bilineata
Solid facial white and black colorblocking make the Black-throated Sparrow stand out. However their sandy colored body allows them to camouflage well with the desert unless they are standing out on a perch.
This sparrow lives in the mid-level deserts west of the Rockies and east of the Sierras. Listen for the sound of bells at a rapid-fire pace. They like to forage on the ground under cactus and shrubs, looking for insects and seeds.
They may stop by a feeder with black oil sunflower seed.
12. Greater Roadrunner
Scientific name: Geococcyx californianus
The ubiquitous Greater Roadrunner is a common sight along roads and highways in the Southwest. It runs faster than a human, barely needs to drink water, and can eat poisonous scorpions and lizards with ease.
They don’t look anything like the famous cartoon roadrunner, but certainly are unique among the other desert birds. The Greater Roadrunner is about the size of a crow, but with a much leaner body, long legs and long tail. It has streaky brown and cream plumage and a crest on its head. In the breeding season, adults may have bright red and blue skin visible behind their eye.
You won’t see a roadrunner in your backyard, but you might spot one if you drive quietly along a country road in southwestern brush and grasslands.
13. Costa’s Hummingbird
Scientific name: Calypte costae
You can’t miss this hummingbird’s bright purple ‘moustache’ of feathers. Only the male has it, and he uses it to impress potential mates. Both sexes live in relative harmony for most of the year – until breeding season, when they fight for territory, partners, and food.
Spot them at hummingbird feeders in the southwestern corner of the U.S. and Baja Peninsula. Catch Costa’s from February – May in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, where they like to visit the flowers of ocotillo and chuparosa.
14. Prairie Falcon
Scientific name: Falco mexicanus
The open nature of the western deserts works well for the Prairie Falcon. It soars above on thermals as it looks for its prey of birds and small mammals. You’re more likely to see them flying than perched. Identify one based on its dark brown feathers in the ‘armpit.’
When water sources aren’t available, as they often aren’t in their dry habitat, Prairie Falcons will take dust-baths.
15. Bendire’s Thrasher
Scientific name: Toxostoma bendirei
This shy, desert dwelling songbird was once mistaken for the Curve-billed Thrasher. The record was set straight when naturalists realized that the bird was smaller and had a straighter bill than its relative.
These thrashers spend most of their time on the ground, and this is where they prefer to look for insects. They can blend in well with their environment and be somewhat hard to find. The best time to notice them is when the males perch on top of bushes and sing. This happens in the early morning hours, between late winter and early spring.
They have a small range in the southwest, and populations are thought to be declining.
Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.