The birds of North America are diverse, and so are their habitats. Ponds provide shallow water habitat for birds that wade, swim, dive and hide among tall reeds. From small to large, we take a look at 12 species of pond birds and their unique characteristics.
12 Pond birds
1. Virginia Rail
Scientific Name: Rallus limicola
Virginia rails love to stay hidden in dense vegetation of shallow, freshwater water ponds and marshes. Look along pond edges full of cattails, grasses and rushes. Their longer legs and beak allow them to wade in shallow water and probe through mud and silt to find snails, crayfish, frogs and beetles. They most commonly forage at dusk and dawn.
The built their nests atop mats of floating vegetation, and often weave vegetation together above the nest to create a canopy. They have brown bodies with a gray face and orange beak. Their narrow body helps them slide through stands of dense, tall plants.
2. Great Blue Heron
Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
The Great Blue Heron is a large member of the heron family that uses its long legs to hunt for food by walking through shallow water. This common heron species is found throughout North and Central America. They’re the largest herons in North America, standing about 4.5 feet tall. Their long legs trail behind them while in flight, making them an easy silhouette to identify in the sky.
They have grayish-blue feathers, a white face and large yellow beak. Great Blue Herons inhabit many types of freshwater and saltwater habitats including ponds. Great Blue Herons stalk their prey, walking slowly they standing still until the time is right to strike with their sharp beak. Their diet is varied and includes fish, frogs, reptiles and even small birds and mammals. Despite their size they mainly nest in trees, building nests of large sticks lined with pine needles, reeds and grasses.
3. Snow Goose
Scientific name: Anser caerulescens
The Snow Goose is all white with black wingtips, pink legs and beak. However there is also a “blue morph” version who’s plumage is partly or entirely dark. Your best chance of seeing them is during the winter when they can be found in ponds, lakes and open fields across the United States. They spend the summer breeding season nesting far to the north in the arctic.
During migration they travel in huge flocks, often making a lot of noise with their honk-like call. You will probably hear them flying overhead before spotting them. When together in large flocks during the winter, a few geese will act as scouts and give an alarm call if they spot a predator such as an eagle.
4. Mute Swan
Scientific Name: Cygnus olor
Mute swans are large, graceful birds that are all white with a black face and orange beak. While they can be found in ponds and lakes in the Pacific northwest, New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the Great Lakes, they are not actually native to North America. They were brought to the U.S. from Europe and Russia as decorative additions to gardens and town parks, and over time wild populations established themselves.
The mute swan primarily consumes vegetation, such as grasses and water plants, but will also consume insects and small fish. They mate for life and form close pair-bonds. While they look peaceful, during nesting season they can become aggressive and will charge humans that get too close to their nest.
5. Belted Kingfisher
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. Canada goose
Scientific Name: Branta canadensis
Canada geese are large, stocky geese that live in grassy, open areas near ponds, marshes, and coastlines. They’re highly social animals that travel in groups made up of many families and their goslings. These animals are known for their loud, consistent honking, which they use to communicate with one another.
Their heads, necks, and bills are all black, with white marks on their cheeks. Young Canada geese eat insects, crustaceans, and small fish to help them develop, but adults are primarily herbivores, eating grass, seeds, leaves, berries, and algae. Unlike many pond-loving birds that look for tall plants along the waters edge, the Canada goose favors open lawn and manicured shoreline. This makes ponds in parks and on golf courses very popular areas for them to congregate.
7. Red-winged Blackbird
Scientific Name: Agelaius phoeniceus
Among the most abundant birds in all of North America, male Red-winged Blackbirds are unmistakable because of their red and yellow “shoulders” that stand out amongst their black bodies. The females of this species however, look quite different and are mostly brown with light streaks.
While they don’t swim or wade like other species on this list, they love to frequent ponds with cattails. Standing water with vegetation are important areas for them for finding insects and nesting. They often choose to build their nests low to the ground among tall wetland vegetation. In the summer, look for males perching a top cattails at the waters edge, singing their loud “conk-la-lee” song.
8. American avocet
Scientific Name: Recurvirostra americana
American avocets are North American waterbirds that can be found mainly in the western United States during the breeding season, and the southeastern coast, Mexico and Caribbean during the winter. These elegant looking birds have long legs, dark wings with a large white stripe, a pale body and a long dark beak curved up at the end. During the breeding season their neck and head is a peach color, which then turns white and gray in the winter.
Avocets interestingly shaped beaks help them while feeding. They stand in shallow water and sweep their slightly open beak back and forth, a behavior called “scything”. As the water passes through their beak, they catch water fleas, amphipods, and fly larvae. They also eat aquatic plant seeds, beetles and small fish. They can be found in both fresh and saltwater ponds and wetlands.
Scientific Name: Bucephala albeola
The tiny Bufflehead duck is most common in the U.S. during the non-breeding season. They spend their summers breeding in Canada and Alaska. Males have a white body, dark back and dark head with a large white patch at the nape of the neck. In the right lighting, you can see their head is actually made up of iridescent greens and purples. Females are are pale below and sooty above with a small white cheek patch.
During the winter they can be found in sheltered coastal areas an on inland ponds. They are diving ducks that spend a lot of time underwater as they forage. Staying underwater for about 12 – 20 seconds at a time, they forage for invertebrates, crustaceans, mollusks, and fly larvae. In the summer they nest near lakes and ponds, in tree cavities made by Northern Flickers and sometimes Pileated Woodpeckers.
10. Green herons
Scientific Name: Butorides virescens
Green herons are smaller, shorter-necked member of the heron family that you can find in freshwater marshes, ponds and other shallow waterbodies. 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.
11. Hooded Merganser
Scientific Name: Lophodytes cucullatus
The “hood” on these mergansers refers to their large, rounded head crest. Males have a distinctive black face with a large white patch, while females have a grayish face with a rusty crest. These attractive ducks can be found year-round in most of the eastern U.S. and Pacific northwest, and spread to California, Texas and Florida in the winter.
Hooded mergansers nest in tree cavities near ponds and wetlands in forested areas. They will also use nest boxes. Known for their ability to change the refractive properties of their eyes and their extra, transparent eyelid they can lower while swimming, they have excellent underwater vision. This aids them in diving for small fish, crustaceans and mollusks. Their beaks are slightly serrated, allowing them a good grip on slippery prey.
Scientific Name: Mareca strepera
Gadwalls are small ducks that live in small lakes, ponds, and marshes. They’re omnivores that eat seeds, insects, and aquatic vegetation. Males have grayish-brown plumage with delicate patterning, a black rump, and white wing patches that can be seen when they’re in flight. Females are a warmer brown with mottling and and orange beak.
In the U.S. their main breeding areas are the Great Lakes and central plains. They are known for taking advantage of “prairie potholes” for breeding, small ponds scattered on prairie habitat. In the winter they are more widespread across the country and can be found in ponds, steams and marshes and may gather in large numbers.