White feathers can add such a clean, crisp and elegant flair to birds plumage. For some, white helps them camouflage in with a cold and snowy environment. For others, their white feathers help them stay cooler in hot, sunny environments by reflecting away radiation. Whatever the many advantages of white feathers may be, in this article we will look at 18 species of birds with white heads from small woodpeckers to huge swans.
18 Birds with White Heads
1. Bald Eagle
Species name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States. This bird isn’t actually bald – it just looks that way because the white feathers on its head are lighter than the dark brown feathers on the rest of its body. Bald eagles live year-round in some parts of the United States: the Pacific Coast, Florida, the Gulf Coast, and select portions of Maine and the Rockies. Otherwise, they winter throughout the United States and spend the warm months in Canada.
Their iconic white head doesn’t show up immediately though. For the first few years of life they are entirely brown. Slowly white feathers are added in, and when they reach maturity at about 5 years old, they should finally have all their white head and tail feathers.
2. Snowy Owl
Species name: Bubo scandiacus
Snowy owls blend in perfectly with their white, icy surroundings. They hunt, eat, and nest during the daylight hours, which is very long in their summertime home, the high Arctic. The rise and fall of the lemming population dictates how many chicks they raise and how many owls live in an area. During the winter they disperse further south into Alaska and Canada. Some lone wanderers may travel as far south as the middle of the United States!
It’s not just their heads that have white plumage: their whole bodies are usually covered in white feathers. Males are mostly white with a few dark spots, while females are covered in dark barring except for a mostly white head.
3. Barn Owl
Scientific name: Tyto alba
Barn owls’ heads aren’t completely white, but they have white faces and temples. The back of the head is brown and gray to help the owl blend in with meadows and foliage. These owls prefer to hunt and live near open meadows, and are a common type of owl to live on and around farms.
Their name comes from their preference of roosting in old barns and other abandoned buildings near good hunting grounds. Barn owls tend to only be active at night. They have amazing low-light vision paired with excellent hearing, enough to easily capture prey in complete darkness.
4. Snow Goose
Scientific name: Anser caerulescens
Snow geese are native to – you guessed it – high-latitude places in North America with high rates of snowfall. They spend most of their time on the tundra in the high Arctic regions, but some migrate south to winter in the Mississippi River lowlands. Some individuals may wander around and join up with flocks of other geese until the spring.
They have white feathers augmented with some black on the wings and pinkish red beaks and legs. While snow geese are adept flyers, they are also quite good at walking. Newly hatched goslings can walk up to 50 miles if the parents decide move to a location with more food.
5. American White Pelican
Scientific name: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
If you’re close to a marsh, ocean, or wetland, you may have seen an American white pelican before. These birds live in the United States and Canada, where they winter along the Pacific and Gulf coasts and summer in the Rockies and Central Canadian Plains. These large birds have a wingspan that can measure up to 9 feet, and they can weigh up to 30 pounds.
American white pelicans have white heads with frond-like feathers in a crest. Their eyes are surrounded by a bright yellow extension of skin from the orange and yellow bill. The rest of their body is white too, with black wing tips. Their extra long beak has a special pouch that allows them to scoop up fish from the water.
6. Cattle Egret
Species name: Bubulcus ibis
This member of the heron family, the cattle egret, is a tenacious insect eater. It’s not native to North America though – originally, cattle egrets were from Africa. They get their name from their behavior of following cattle around while they graze. They can pick insects from cows’ hides and hunt insects disturbed by the cows’ trampling.
Non-breeding adults have completely white heads and bodies. When breeding season comes around, both sexes grow tall blonde crests and blonde chest patches. While they love insects, they will also forage in shallow water for small fish, frogs, crayfish and worms.
7. Great Egret
Scientific name: Ardea alba
Great egrets are the delicate dancers of the water bird word. They pick up each leg with grace and finesse as they walk through wetlands and along lakeshores. They move with precision; each tilt of their pure white head has a purpose, whether it’s zeroing in on prey or scanning for predators. Their super long legs allow them to wade slightly deeper water than some other species. Great egrets prefer wetlands and tidal flats.
Once highly endangered, populations of the great egret have returned now that killing birds for their feathers is illegal. During the breeding season, adults grow white frond-like feathers from their back called “aigrettes”. They can fan out, shake and hold up these feathers during courtship displays. During the breeding season, the skin around the great egret’s eye turns a striking lime green.
8. White-tailed Kite
Scientific name: Elanus leucurus
The white-tailed kite is a large-eyed raptor native to California and Texas. Its white head and body are punctuated by charcoal grey wings, a grey hooked beak, and piercing scarlet eyes. White-tailed kites are expanding into new territory in North America. The newest habitat areas for this bird are coastal Oregon, southern Arizona, and southern Florida.
White-tailed kites prefer to reside in open grasslands where they can glide overhead. The unobstructed view lets them zero in on mice and voles. They grab prey feet-first, not with their beaks.
9. Snow Bunting
Scientific name: Plectrophenax nivalis
For a bird with a limited color palette of black, gray, white, and brown, the snow bunting has no end to the molts and color combinations it accomplishes in a single year. Breeding season females have a white head dotted with salt-and pepper, while males head is solid white. Their chest and bellies are white too, with dark wings. But you’ll have to travel to their breeding grounds in the Arctic to see this plumage.
They travel south into southern Canada and the northern U.S. during the winter, but change their plumage first. During this time they appear much less white, with rusty brown feathers appearing on their head, shoulders, chest and back. This coloring helps them blend in very well with the ground, where they like to forage among cut crop fields and beach / lakeshores.
10. Snowy Egret
Scientific name: Egretta thula
Like most birds with beautiful, sought-after feathers, the snowy egret’s population suffered in the 19th century because of the feather trade. Now that exotic hat feathers are both illegal and out of style, more people have the chance to see one of these graceful wading birds in the wild.
Snowy egrets have white heads, a black bill, and yellow feet. During the breeding season, they grow a white or yellowish crest. Some have red markings in the skin between the eye and bill.
They live year-round along the California, Gulf, and Atlantic coasts, where you’ll see them using their large feet to stir up fish and crustaceans from the shallow water. Other populations migrate between the Great Basin/Mississippi River Delta in the summer and central Mexico in the winter.
11. Swallow-tailed Kite
Scientific name: Elanoides forficatus
Swallow-tailed kites have a smaller range in the United States today compared to the past. They once lived in most of the southeastern U.S., but now they reside in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Most of their population is found in Central and South America. Adults look similar; both have white heads, chests, and black wings and tails.
They thrive in Florida’s shrub-dominated, insect- and lizard-heavy environment. Males and females work together to incubate and raise their young. They prefer more nutritious lizards during this time. These kites have strong shoulder muscles which enable them to complete complex arial acrobatics as well as glide during migrations. Some migratory swallow-tailed kites have flown for over 10,000 mile-long trips.
12. White-headed Woodpecker
Scientific name: Dryobates albolarvatus
While most woodpeckers we are familiar with are a combinations of speckles and stripes, this species takes solids to the next level. The white-headed woodpecker sports a white face and solid, glossy black body with white patches on the wings. Males have a red spot on their crown while females do not. Their all black back may help them blend in the shadows of dark forests, and also against trunks of burned trees, as they are known to visit recently burned areas.
This woodpecker species is localized to the western United States and British Columbia. Populations live in the mountains and valleys of California, Oregon, and Washington state. They rely heavily on Ponderosa pines and sugar pines for their seeds. They can break into a pinecone with ease. However, their love for pine seeds limits their range, since Ponderosa pines only grow in certain conditions out west.
13. American White Ibis
Scientific Name: Eudocimus albus
The American white ibis is a wading bird found in coastal regions of the Southeastern US. These birds are completely white, including their heads, although they do have black-tipped wings you can see in flight. They have contrasting bright pinkish-red legs, beaks, and a red patch of featherless skin around their eyes.
White ibises are social birds and are often found in large flocks. They forage together, probing for insects and crustaceans in the mud of shallow water, using their long, curved bills to feel for prey.
14. Mute Swan
Scientific Name: Cygnus olor
Perhaps one of the most recognizable swans, the mute swan has a large body and long, slender neck. They are completely white with black skin on their face and a black knob at the base of their orange beaks.
The mute swan is actually not native to North America. They were introduced from Europe as an ornamental bird for zoos, parks, and estates. Escaped or abandoned, they easily formed their own wild populations and can now be found in southern New England, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and other isolated regions.
15. Trumpeter Swan
Scientific Name: Cygnus buccinator
While juvenile trumpeter swans have grayish-white feathers, adults are pure white all over, including their heads. They have black legs and feet with a black beak, and their neck often appears quite thin in comparison to the rest of their body.
However they are quite large, and in fact hold the title of North America’s heaviest flying bird and the largest native waterfowl in the U.S. They can weigh more than 25 pounds with an 80 inch wingspan. These beautiful swans breed in small ponds, lakes and marshes in Alaska, areas of western Canada, around the Great Lakes, Iowa and Minnesota, among other areas.
16. Tundra Swan
Scientific Name: Cygnus columbianus
The third swan species in the U.S. is the tundra swan. Similar to the trumpeter swan they are white all over with a black beak and legs. They are migratory birds, spending the breeding season in the Arctic tundra. During the non-breeding season, they migrate to the coastal regions of the eastern and western U.S.
Explorers Lewis and Clark wrote the first description of these swans while on their expedition, noting their shrill sounding call and nicknaming them “whistling swans.”
17. Canada Jay
Scientific name: Perisoreus canadensis
The Canada Jay lives mainly across Canada into Alaska, but can also be found in the continental U.S. down the Rocky Mountains, parts of the northwest and in Maine. These birds tend to be found in higher elevations forests where black and white spruce are common.
They eat berries, insects, amphibians and may even go after smaller birds or baby birds. These jays can store bits of food for later by sticking them to trees with their saliva. With mostly gray coloring, they do have a partially white head which sticks out against their sooty body.
18. Ross’s Goose
Scientific Name: Anser rossii
Ross’s goose is often considered a close cousin of the larger snow goose. They look very similar in appearance, except Ross’s goose has a short, stubby bill. This bird is mostly white with black-tipped wings. They breed high in the Arctic but migrate down into California, Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico during the winter. They often hang out in larger flocks of snow geese or other goose species.