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13 Marsh Birds (Facts & Photos)

With over 10,000 bird species living on the planet and in various habitats, you may be wondering which ones can be seen in marshes. Marshes are areas of wetland found at the edges of lakes and streams, where the main vegetation is tall grasses and reeds. Marsh birds can use this habitat as a good place to catch insects, or as a good place to hide a nest among the tall plant life. Let’s take a look at 13 common marsh birds in North America.

13 Marsh birds

1. Saltmarsh sparrow

Saltmarsh sparrow perching
Saltmarsh sparrow perching | image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region via Flickr

Scientific Name: Ammospiza caudacuta

Saltmarsh sparrows are medium-sized birds that live in tidal salt marshes along the Atlantic coast. Sparrows that winter along the southeast coast will head north to spend the summer in coast New England. Like most sparrows their body is brown with heavy streaks, but their orange eyebrow and mustache is a helpful identifier.

Adults can be seen feeding on insects and spiders during the breeding season, but during the non-breeding season, they’ll also feed on seeds and grasses found along the marshes. They nest in the marsh either on or close to the ground. While many birds try and choose a nesting spot above the high water zone, storms and high tides still often threaten nests. 

2. Laughing gull

Image: paulbr75 |

Scientific Name: Leucophaeus atricilla

Laughing gulls are a type of gull that tend to stick closely to coastal areas including marshes, and mangroves. In the summer they can be found along the Great Lakes and the northeast coast, then travel to Florida, Mexico and further south in the winter. Many birds stay year-round in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and southeast Atlantic coast.

During the breeding season they have a distinctive black head with red beak, however over the winter they loose this for a black beak and white head, looking much more similar to other gulls.

These gulls are well-known for being a noisy and aggressive species that frequently steal food from other birds. They hunt for fish, crustaceans, insects, and will even eat dead animals found in their environment. They nest in salt marshes and construct their nest primarily from vegetation found in the marsh.

3. Osprey

Osprey perched
Osprey | image by Glacier National Park via Flickr

Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey is a large bird of prey that can be found worldwide, including in North America. It has a curved beak and distinctive yellow eyes in adults and orange-red eyes in young birds. Its plumage is dark brown above and white below, with a hooked black beak.

They build their nests by assembling sticks, twigs, and other materials into a platform in treetops or on cliffs, but will also use human-built platforms. Many states put up osprey platforms near rivers and lakes to aid in conservation of the species. In order to find food quickly for their young when they hatch, the adults prefer to nest close to water sources.

You’ll only spot this raptor if you are near water, as osprey’s diet consists almost exclusively of fish. They have an outer toe that can shift to grip forward or backward. This adaptation allows them a much better grip on the slippery fish they catch.  Find them near any shallow, fish-laden waters such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and marshes.

4. White Ibis

white ibis
Image: (West Palm Beach, Florida)

Scientific Name: Eudocimus albus

The White Ibis is a wading bird common to coastal regions of the Gulf Coast, Caribbean, Mexico and northern South America. It’s a large bird with a wingspan of about 3 feet and a height of about 2 feet. This bird is distinguished by its white plumage, black wing tips, and pink legs and bills.

They live in a variety of habitats, including marshes, swamps, ponds, and lakes. White ibis’ diet consists primarily of shallow-water animals such as small fish, insects, crustaceans, snails, and frogs. They use their long legs to wade in shallow areas, and their long curved beak to probe the sediment for food.

5. Belted kingfisher

belted kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher (female) | image by Judy Gallagher via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Megaceryle alcyon

The Belted Kingfisher is a medium, stocky North American kingfisher species with a blue-gray body and crested head. Males have a white belly while females have a rusty “belt” across their midsection. 

Belted kingfishers live near bodies of water, such as marshes, lakes, estuaries, and ponds, where they can catch a variety of prey. Fish, crayfish, insects, snails, and berries are among their favorite foods. They usually hunt by sitting on a branch above water and looking down for prey, then diving head-first into the water and capturing their prey with their bills.

6. Marsh wren

Marsh wren
Marsh wren | image by Becky Matsubara via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Cistothorus palustris

The marsh wren is a small brown songbird with black markings and lighter undersides. Their tawny coloring blends in well with their preferred habitat of wetlands such as marshes, which are densely forested with Cattails and bullrush. Insects and spiders make up the majority of their diet. 

They’re sing most at dusk and dawn, which is the easiest way to find these tiny birds that stay hidden in the reeds. In the spring, males may be more bold and perch atop the cattails to sing. During the breeding season, they’re extremely territorial and have been known to destroy the eggs of other marsh wrens.

While some remain year-round in their area, many migrate from Mexico and the Gulf in the winter to spend summers in the northern U.S. and parts of Canada.

7. Purple Gallinule  

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule | image by Judy Gallagher via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Porphyrio martinicus

The Purple Gallinule is a bird mostly found in South America, the Caribbean and coastal Mexico, but in the U.S. they can be found year-round in Florida with some spending the summer in other southeastern states. They are quite unique looking birds, with iridescent bluish-purple plumage, yellow-tipped red beaks and bright yellow legs with huge feet. 

Their extra toes help these marsh birds walk across aquatic vegetation like lily pads. They tend to stick with freshwater marshes that keep their water year-round and support floating plants like lotus, water lily, pickerel weed and water pennywort. They eat a wide variety of flowers, fruits, tubers, insects, worms, frogs, mollusks and small fish.  

8. Ridgway’s Rail

ridgeways rail
Ridgway’s Rail | image by Becky Matsubara via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Rallus obsoletus

Ridgway’s Rail is a west-coast marsh bird found in parts of California, Arizona ,Nevada and western Mexico. They live in areas with shallow water and nearby vegetation, including freshwater and saltwater mangrove swamps and marshes. They have a streaked, grayish-brown back with a cinnamon chest and short up-turned tail.

The majority of this marsh bird’s diet consists of aquatic insects, fish, and crustaceans such as crabs and crayfish. Ridgway’s Rails even have a special gland that allows them to drink saltwater. Hard to find, they prefer to stay concealed behind dense vegetation. They don’t often fly, preferring to walk or even swim.

9. Cattle Egret

Cattle egret perched on branch
Cattle egret perched on branch

Scientific Name: Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets can be found in various habitats, ranging from terrestrial to aquatic. They’re commonly found in pastures, lawns, flooded fields, and marshes. These species are about 2 feet long and have a 3-foot wingspan. Their color is mostly white with yellow legs and beaks, but these birds develop pale golden coloring on their chest, back, and head during the breeding season.

They use sticks and vegetation to build their nests, and sometimes reuse old ones during the breeding season. Nests are often built in trees or shrubs in swamp and marsh habitat. Their diet is adaptable depending on where they live, focusing on various insects, fish, frogs, spiders or even mice, eggs and smaller birds. 

Their name comes from their tendency to hang out around cattle and other large mammals in fields. The larger animals attract insects and flush insects from the grass as they walk, and the cattle egrets will take advantage.

10. Common Gallinule

Common gallinule
Common gallinule | image by Malcolm Manners via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Gallinula galeata

The Common Gallinule is a stocky waterbird found from the U.S. down through South America. They remain year-round in most of the southern U.S. states, and can be seen throughout the eastern half of the U.S. during the summer breeding season. They like freshwater and brackish marshes, lakes and ponds that have both open-water and areas of floating vegetation. 

Common gallinules eat flower seeds, vegetation and insects they take from the waters surface. They can also use their long toes to flip over floating leaves and plants to find snails. They have a dark body with bright red beak and forehead, and greenish-yellow legs and feet.

11. Greater yellowlegs

Greater yellowlegs foraging
Greater yellowlegs foraging | image by _Veit_ via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific Name: Tringa melanoleuca

Greater yellowlegs are medium-sized wading birds with long bills and bright yellow legs, thus their name. They spend winters in South America all the way up to the southern border of the United States, then migrate through the U.S. to breed in Canada. They take advantage of a wide variety of wetland habitat including mudflats, pond edges, marshes and flooded fields.

Using their long legs they can wade and probe shallow water for aquatic insects. In the summer they nest in remote, bug-ridden bogs of northern boreal forests. They tend to be more solitary than other shorebirds, and even during migration do not gather together in large numbers. 

12. Green heron

A green heron
A green heron

Scientific Name: Butorides virescens

Green herons are smaller, shorter-necked member of the heron family that you can find in freshwater marshes, mangrove-lined shores, and lakes. These birds are only 18 inches long, have shorter legs than other herons, and have a stocky build. Their back and crown are a dark green, a deep reddish-brown neck and chest, and yellow legs. 

This dark coloring can help them blend in with the shadows as they perch beneath vegetation along the edge of ponds and lakes. Unlike herons with larger legs that are often seen walking through shallow water, green herons prefer the couch and strike method to catch their prey of fish, frogs, snakes and large insects. 

These herons have actually been observed using tools to catch food. They will take small insects, feathers or other items and drop them on the surface of the water to lure fish. 

13. Seaside sparrow

Seaside sparrow perching
Seaside sparrow perching | image by C. Ben Schwamb via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientific Name: Ammospiza maritima

Seaside sparrows are small grayish birds found along the Atlantic and Gulf coast from New England to Texas. They stick very closely to salt marsh habitat, where they eat spiders, insects, seeds and invertebrates. You may notice their beak is a bit longer and thicker than other sparrows, this helps them when digging for prey in the mud.

While they mainly forage along the ground and through vegetation, they will also wade into water. These birds communicate with their spiky tails, especially when looking for potential mates or warning intruders.