Backyard Birding Guide to the San Fernando Valley

What you can see without getting up early or traveling far

Grab a pair of binoculars -- any old pair -- and head out to the back yard or a nearby park. These birds are common in the San Fernando Valley. If you're not yet a birder and want to see why so many people enjoy this pastime, start looking closer at the "easy" birds that are all around. Once you start to notice how different they are from one another and how many special marks, stripes, colors and quirks they display, you'll begin to appreciate that birds are an easy and fun way to connect with wildlife that doesn't involve paying for an African safari.

(Four-letter codes are "Alpha" codes used by birders and ornithologists for brevity's sake). Note that during non-breeding season, many of the most visible characteristics that differentiate birds of similar size/shape can be muted or absent.

House Sparrow (HOSP)

This is probably the bird that non-birders most frequently see from up-close. House Sparrows will take crumbs from your table at Starbucks when you're not finished with your Cranberry Scone. The word "house," when applied to birds, means that this species is comfortable around humans and often takes advantage of the mess we make. The male and female are quite different in the case of House Sparrows. Next time you're having a daytime meal at an outdoor restaurant, look them over. There's more going on than meets the casual glance.

House Finch (HOFI)

Just about the most common backyard bird in SoCal. The sort of bird nobody notices until breeding season, when males get very red in the face -- must be all that testosterone and competition. These little birds have a beautiful song, and they're a perfect beginner's bird: lots of detail that only becomes apparent when in the cross-hairs of a pair of binoculars. 


California Towhee (CALT)

The California Towhee (or "Cal-toe" as birders call them) is a very common bird in SoCal. They spend most of their time on the ground, scratching with both feet at once, looking for the bugs, worms and other bits of food they prefer to eat. They're brave, not easily scared off. They appear at first to be the quintessential "little brown bird"  -- but closer inspection reveals a rusty red patch under their longish tail (the rump) and an unusual pattern of feathers around the eye that can make them look a little tired. 

California Scrub-Jay (CASJ)

This is the brazen squawker most non-birders out west call "Bluejay." (Click here to see a real Blue Jay, denizen of the East Coast, photo by Brian Kushner.) Ours is the bold, scolding bird that bedevils outdoor cats  during nesting season (as well they should) and will even come into your house if there's food to be stolen. Put peanuts in a feeder and California (formerly "Western") Scrub-Jays can be observed stashing them for later consumption. Intelligent and ever-present, scrubjays are also nest-robbers, taking eggs and even hatchlings to feed themselves and their own young. That's nature for you. 


Hummingbirds

Everyone's favorite yard-bird. Hummers are amazing in so many ways -- their acrobatic flight, including the ability to hover and fly backward like a helicopter; their brightly-flashing gorgets (throat patches); all in a package so tiny it's sometimes hard to believe they're actual, warm-blooded animals. The Allen's Hummingbird (ALHU) has become the most common species in the SFV, with Anna's (ANHU) in second place, Rufous (RUHU) in third and Costa's (COHU) a rarer sighting.  If you have hummers humming around your yard or balcony feeder in Spring, you can be fairly certain there's a tiny nest with a couple of jellybean-sized eggs tucked into a bush or small tree nearby.


Goldfinches

Nothing adds bright yellow to the landscape like a goldfinch. The Lesser Goldfinch (LEGO) is only "lesser" because it's slightly smaller than the American Goldfinch (AMGO) -- a bird that gives new meaning to the word "Yellow." Both these spectacular avians are easily attracted to a Nyjer seed-feeder, the easiest feeder to hang, in a backyard or off the balcony of an apartment. 

Note the AMGO's orangish beak, and how the male's black "cap" is forward over the eyes, where the LEGO's cap sits on top of his head. When a LEGO male is in full mating plumage, you could mistake him for an AMGO, but for these details.


Spotted Towhee (SPTO)

A shy but spectacular large sparrow, the SPTO is a common sight in the underbrush, scurrying from one shelter to another. Once you've seen a few, the flight pattern and coloring both become unmistakable. The SPTO's call is harsh and angry-sounding, and its bright red eye adds to the effect, but these are peaceful birds who want to be left alone to double-scratch under bushes and shrubs in search of their varied diet.

Bewick's Wren (BEWR)

Probably the busiest bird-on-the-ground in anyone's garden, this tiny wren is constantly in motion, turning things over in search of bugs. When it sings its melodic song it puts out about as much sound per ounce as any bird. Look for the tail held up, the slightly curved beak and the white "eyebrow."  BEWR is more likely to be seen beetling along the bottom edge of a fence or wall than out in the open. They're big fans of meal worms, if you'd care to supplement their diet. 


Yellow-rumped Warbler (YRWA)

Another bird that never seems to sit still. YRWAs visit during the Winter after spending their Summer and breeding as far away as Alaska. YRWAs come in a variety of plumages, but the tell-tale yellow patch on top of their rump is definitive. So much so that birders affectionately refer to this active warbler as "Butter-Butt."

Black Phoebe (BLPH)

This little flycatcher is ubiquitous in SoCal, favoring gardens with plenty of small flying insects. They set themselves up on a branch or a sprinkler head, darting out in acrobatic flight to catch bugs on the wing, then return to their lookout. (If a BLPH catches something large-ish, you'll see it "subduing" its prey by holding it in his/her beak and banging it on a hard surface. Cruel Nature!)


Northern Mockingbird (NOMO)

Who among us has not been kept awake on a Summer night by a NOMO singing his heart out, establishing his territory and his desire for a mate? This smart, cocky bird is an omnivorous loner who can sometimes be seen in pursuit of a crow or hawk that has invaded his personal space (pictured at right).

If you think you may be seeing a perched NOMO, wait until the bird takes off -- the flashing of those unmissable white wing-patches will confirm. No wing-patches, it's something else.

Song Sparrow (SOSP)

A very common bird in SoCal backyards and parks. The SOSP earns its name by, you guessed it: singing. Its song is a bit repetitious, but also very melodious.  Chest markings are more distinct than House Finch, more comfortable on the ground than on a feeder.


American Robin (AMRO)

Everyone recognizes Robin Red-breast. In Winter, AMROs gather in gaily chattering flocks to seek out food together; in breeding season they split off and travel solo. The rich and varied song of the AMRO is a sure sign of the arrival of Spring.

Mourning Dove (MODO)

If the Mourning Dove were a rare bird, bird-watchers would exclaim endlessly over its elegant beauty. As it happens, MODOs are hardly rare, so they're taken somewhat for granted. Take a closer look, notice the oil-slick sheen on the neck, the gentle dark spots, the pink legs and the "sweet" face. 


Oak Titmouse (OATI)

Experienced birders have been fooled by this little charmer's varied songs. The OATI's silhouette, however, is unmistakable in our area, with a topknot that is always on display. A somewhat furtive bird, the OATI will visit a feeder, grab a seed and take off with it while other visitors stick around gorging themselves. If you put up an appropriate nesting box, there's a pretty fair chance of attracting a breeding pair. 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (RCKI)

These thumb-sized, solitary, high-energy visitors to our area aren't easy to spot or track: they're always on the go. In their search for tiny bugs, they flit from branch to branch, often hanging upside down to get that last aphid out of a flower with a short, needle-like beak. The male has a red topknot that he keeps flat to his head until another bird approaches, at which point he raises it in warning. It's a little comical to think he's really going to scare anyone off, but apparently it works. Look for the RCKI in Winter -- this diminutive dynamo spends the Summer as far away as Northern Alaska.  


Dark-eyed Junco (DEJU)

A year-round SoCal resident that is not seen frequently, thus a "nice catch." The Junco likes staying in or near the bushes and beneath trees where they can scratch around for things to eat. They won't land on your feeder, but will gladly hang out underneath it. The kind of "little brown bird" you really need binoculars to pick out of the crowd -- and you'll be glad you did.

White-crowned Sparrow (WCSP)

This distinctive sparrow is a Winter visitor to SoCal, spending its Summer in far-off Alaska. Common in backyards, especially those with feeders, the White-crown brings its newly-fledged children with it, easily spotted by their prominent but less-flashy head stripes. WCSP always looks well-rested and alert -- hard to tell they just flew in from a couple thousand miles away.


WOODPECKERS

Woodpeckers are plentiful in the San Fernando Valley -- indeed all over Los Angeles County and the Southland. The most common Woodpecker seen in backyards is the Nuttall's (NUWO). This lively little bird can be seen looking for bugs in all kinds of trees, making loud noises on telephone poles and crossing yards with its typical Woodpecker flight pattern of flap-flap-flap-coast-coast-flap-flap-flap-coast-coast.  The giveaway for the NUWO is the white striping across the back. The female lacks the red head, or perhaps shows a little red at the back of the neck.

Less likely to be seen in a backyard, but not impossible, are two very similar Woodpeckers, the Downy (DOWO) and the Hairy (HAWO). The giveaway here is the black back with a white patch -- no striping. The Downy slightly smaller and has a shorter beak and there  are a few other, subtler differences. If either is spotted in a backyard, it can be quite satisfying to say, "That was either a Downy or a Hairy."

Still less likely to be seen in an urban context is the Acorn Woodpecker, though they're plentiful in large parks with lots of oak trees. The "crazy eye," red skullcap and loud, persistent call is a giveaway. Acorns are social birds, not likely to be seen alone. 


HAWKS

Identifying hawks can be a challenge, especially without binoculars. The Cooper's Hawk (COHA) is our most common backyard hawk, seen most frequently where there are bird feeders. Yes, Nature can be cruel and feeders are sometimes called "Cooper's Hawks' Lunch Counters." Well, everyone has to eat. The COHA is a small hawk -- this is most evident when they're perched. COHA wings are so large, when they're flying they don't look small at all. COHAs prey mostly on small birds, but they love lizards, rats and mice. They will hunt on the ground when that's the only option, busting into shrubbery in pursuit of something to eat. Young COHAs have yellow eyes and a white-striped chest. Adults have bright red eyes and a reddish-striped chest. 

The Red-Tailed Hawk (RTHA) is very common in SoCal, but most commonly seen soaring overhead. Not a likely visitor to most backyards, unless you have a particularly tall tree for the RTHA to perch in as he/she scopes for squirrels and other tasty things. The Red-Tail really does have a red tail, which is easily seen from behind or when soaring and the sun shines through the feathers (pictured). The call of the Red Tail is a sharp, solitary note. 

The Red-Shouldered Hawk (RSHA) is slightly more likely to alight in a backyard than the Red-Tail. They really like squirrels and rats. Slightly smaller than the Red-tail, and very clearly identified by its eponymous shoulders and chest. The RSHA's cry is piercing and repeated. 


ORIOLES

Come Springtime, some Southern California back yards get a special treat: Orioles. The Hooded Oriole prefers palm trees as a nesting site; the Bullock’s Oriole will build its hanging nest in a leafy tree. The young and females of both types look very similar, as do the fledglings. A bright orange sugar-water feeder, hung up in early Spring, will often attract a male who is scouting for a good place to set up housekeeping.


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