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11 River Birds (with Photos)

North America is home to some amazing birds, some of which are waterbirds. In fact, there are over 200 species of waterbirds on the continent, which live in a variety of water habitats such as rivers and lakes. In this article we will look at some species that spend all or most of their time along rivers. From large birds of prey that snatch fish from the water, to smaller species that flit among rocks in fast moving water to look for aquatic insects, there is a wide variety of birds that utilize this habitat. Let’s look at 11 river birds. 

11 River birds

1. American Dipper

american dipper
American Dipper | image by Glacier National Park via Flickr

Scientific Name: Cinclus mexicanus

American Dippers are the only aquatic songbird in North America. Their chosen prey is mainly aquatic insects and insect larvae but they may also eat fish eggs or very small fish. They will fully submerge themselves in the water to find their food between rocks and among stream bed gravel. They don’t have webbed feet and don’t really swim, more like walking underwater. It’s a marvel to spot an American Dipper flitting in and out of the water to grab a snack. 

Spot them in the mountain regions with rivers and streams throughout western North America. Their shape is easy to recognize, with their rounded body and very short tail. Spot them on top of rocks and logs in fast moving streams and rivers, bobbing their body up and down. 

2. Louisiana Waterthrush

image: Kelly Colgan Azar | Louisiana Waterthrush | Flickr | CC 2.0

Scientific Name: Parkesia motacilla

Technically a member of the warbler family, but instead of searching high in trees for insects like most warblers, you’ll find them hopping around on top of rocks in fast moving water. Part of their name, “thrush”, refers to their thrush-like coloring with a brown back and pale cream underparts with heavy brown streaking. 

Louisiana Waterthrush spend winters from Mexico to the top of South America, then travel to the eastern U.S. to breed during the summer. They make their home among clear, quick flowing rivers and streams. Insects, their larvae and small vertebrates make up their varied diet, including mayflies, midges, dragonflies, beetles, cicadas, crayfish, worms, minnows and frogs. They stand on rocks and jab into the water to catch prey, or search under rocks and leaves in shallow areas along the shore. 

3. Northern Rough-winged Swallow

northern rough winged swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow | image by Shawn Taylor via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern Rough-winged swallows don’t swim or wade, but they rely on river and stream habitats to find their insect prey. They fly low over the surface of the water to catch flying insects. They may sometimes pick insects right off the surface. Find them along areas of open water including rivers, ponds and lakes. These swallows travel to the U.S. in the summer where they breed across the country, then head south for the winter. 

They sometimes mix in with flocks of other swallows, and may be less easy to notice because of their drab coloring. They are brown all over except for their white belly. 

4. Belted Kingfisher

belted kingfisher with fish
Belted Kingfisher with fish, the most common U.S. Kingfisher species | image by Andrew Morffew 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 rivers, lakes 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.

5. Great Blue Heron

great blue heron standing in water
Great Blue Heron | image by birdfeederhub

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 rivers. 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.  

6. Bald Eagle

bald eagle

Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The U.S.A’s national bird, the bald eagle, is a fish eating bird-of-prey. Some populations remain in the U.S. year-round, while others head north to Canada and Alaska to breed in the summer, then come back down into the U.S. for the winter. Winter is a great time to see them, as they tend to gather together in areas of non-freezing water such as large rivers, dams, and lakes. 

Bald eagles nest in forested areas surrounding large bodies of water. During the summer you can spot them along rivers perching in the tallest trees surveying their territory. Their habitat must include enough available food to support them, plentiful fish as well as crabs and small mammals. 

7. Common Merganser

common mergansers
Common Mergansers (mixed group males and females) | image by David A. Mitchell via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Mergus merganser

Common mergansers are slender, streamlined ducks that can be found year-round in the northeastern and northwestern U.S. During the winter they spread further across much of the country. Males are mostly white with a dark back and deep green head. Females have a gray body and cinnamon brown head with fringe along the back of their head that looks like spiky hair. 

They nest in mature tree cavities, so during the breeding season they look for forested areas near water. In the winter they can expand their habitat. They forage in rivers, streams and lakes for aquatic insects, mollusks, worms, crustaceans and frogs. Preferring to hunt in water less than 13 feet deep, in the winter they may venture into deeper waters to find schooling fish. They use their slender, serrated bills to probe sediment and catch slippery prey. 


8. Green-winged Teal 

Green-winged Teal (male) | image by USFWS Mountain Prairie via Flickr

Scientific name: Anas crecca

The smallest of dabbling ducks in North America, the green-winged teal breeds along rivers in Canada and the northern U.S., then spends the winter across most of the U.S. and Mexico in a variety of wetland areas. Males have a brown head with a dark green patch surrounding the eye. Females are mottled brown, but usually slightly darker brown than other “dabbling” ducks. They are much smaller than mallards, only reaching between 12-15 inches in length.

Nests are built on the ground in densely covered river deltas, forest wetland and prairie regions. Their diet is mainly aquatic invertebrates and seeds, which they forage for along shorelines and mudflats. They also dabble along the surface while they swim. 

9. Fish Crow

fish crow
Fish Crow | image by Peter E. Hart via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Corvus ossifragus

Fish crows look nearly identical to American crows, in fact it is easier to tell them apart by their more nasal sounding call. They can be found year-round in the eastern United States along the coast, and inland along large rivers and lakes. Fish crows eat more crabs, turtle eggs and marine invertebrates than American crows. But they also eat many things American crows eat such as fruit, berries, carrion, trash, bird eggs and nestlings. 

10. Green Heron 

green heron
Green Heron | image by Katja Schulz via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Butorides virescens

Green herons are smaller, shorter-necked member of the heron family that you can find in freshwater habitats such as marshes, ponds and along rivers. 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 rivers. 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. Spotted Sandpiper

spotted sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper | image by Mike Budd/USFWS via Flickr

Scientific name: Actitis macularius

While many people think of sandpipers are beach birds, the Spotted sandpiper can be found along the shore of not only the ocean, but rivers, lakes and streams. They breed across Canada and most of the United States, and in fact are the most widespread breeding sandpiper species in North America.

They are active foragers, always walking the shore near the waterline looking for food. Mayflies, midges, aquatic fly larvae, beetles, worms, snails and other small crustaceans make up most of their diet. They probe sand and mud with their longer beak, and also lunge out at prey to grab insects off plants.