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Wildlife in Yellowstone: Part Two, Birds

There are close to 300 species of #birds that have been sighted in Yellowstone National Park since the park's creation in 1872. Almost 150 birds nest regularly in Yellowstone, the others being migratory birds who fly through the park on their way to their final destination. The wide range of elevation and terrain allows for an array of varying species-- from raptors to shorebirds to waterfowl.

Keep your binoculars handy, because you never know when something amazing will be flying overhead.

The following list is no means comprehensive, but provides small details about some of the birds that are commonly spotted in Yellowstone National Park. Download the Park Service's Bird Checklist to log your sightings!


#Owls: There are many different species of owls that call Yellowstone home, including Great Horned Owls, Great Grey Owls, Boreal Owls and Northern Pygmy Owls. Most owls are nocturnal and are most active at night, making it a real treat if you spot them.

#GreatHornedOwl-- This is one of the most common owls in North America. It's color can vary from red/brown to gray to black and white, but it's most defining characteristic is it's large, yellow eyes and large, tufted ears that look like horns.

#GreatGreyOwl-- Standing at about two feet tall, the Great Grey Owl can have a wingspan of up to 5 feet, making it the largest owl in North America. Despite it's size, they only weigh about 2-3 pounds, since most of their mass is feathers, and are often called "little owls in big owl clothing".

#BorealOwl-- A truly nocturnal owl, the Boreal Owl does all of it's hunting under the cover of darkness; waiting on a perch for small mammals or birds. True to it's name, it lives in fir and spruce forests.

#NorthernPygmyOwl-- Weighing in at a mere 2 ounces, the Northern Pygmy Owl may be tiny, but it is ferocious. They hunt in the daylight by sitting still and surprising small songbirds. Although they are the size of a common sparrow, they can take on prey that is up to three times their size!


#BaldEagle: The bald eagle has been the National emblem since 1872, the same year that Yellowstone became the world's first National Park. It is known for it's white head contrasting against it's dark brown body. In Yellowstone, bald eagles are often seen near rivers and lakes, where they feed on fish and waterfowl. They typically nest near water for easy access to hunting. Nests can weigh up to one ton (yes, 2,000 pounds!), can be 5 to 6 feet in diameter and 2 to 4 feet tall. If the tree is strong enough, the eagle will return year after year, adding more sticks and materials, so the nest becomes bigger and bigger.


#GoldenEagle: Named for the yellow feathers at the base of their neck, the golden eagle is a vicious hunter. It is one of the largest and fastest raptors in North America, with a sharp and powerful beak and talons. They are exceptional hunters of grouse, ground squirrels, marmots and rabbits. Occasionally, they have been spotted fighting off bears or wolves to protect their young.


#Osprey: Most commonly seen soaring over rivers, the osprey is unique in the way that it's diet consists of live fish, and their ability to dive down and catch one (or sometimes two). They are successful because they have a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp with two toes in front and two in back, and the pads of their feet are barbed, allowing them to hold onto wet, slippery and wriggling fish. Most osprey have a success rate of about one fish out of every four attempts.

Watch for osprey nests on man-made structures such as telephone poles. Nesting platforms near telephone poles are specifically designed for nesting osprey so the weight of their nest doesn't interfere with the live wires.


#PeregrineFalcon: As one of the fastest animals on the planet, the peregrine falcon can reach average gliding speeds of 25-35 mph, and up to 70 mph when diving in hot pursuit of their prey. Peregrine falcons prefer to nest in tall rock faces, and diving from their high perch, they can reach speeds of up to 200 mph! They are one of the most common birds in the world, and have been recorded on every continent besides Antarctica. In Yellowstone, they are most often seen March to October, and then they fly south to spend the winter in Mexico. Peregrine falcons are best identified by their blue-gray backside, and white belly with small gray stripes.


#SandhillCrane: The tallest bird in Yellowstone, standing at 4 feet tall, with a wingspan of 6.5 feet, the sandhill crane is often mistaken as another animal, or even human when seen from afar. Their bodies are gray, and their heads are crimson, and once you see one, you will never mistake it for something else. In Yellowstone, they are typically seen in prairies, wetlands or marshes. The sandhill crane's call is loud and rolling, and sounds robotic, because their windpipes coil all the way down to their sternum. During mating season, when trying to attract a mate, they perform a graceful and spirited dance.


#TrumpeterSwan: As the biggest native waterfowl, the Trumpeter Swan can be up to 6 feet in length and weigh 25 pounds. Although they are as graceful as any other swan, their massive weight requires much more effort to get airborne. Typically, they need to run across the water for about 100 yards to gain enough speed to get aloft. After increasing their population enough to get off the endangered species list, they now have habitats stretching from the Midwest to the Rockies. Yellowstone is one of the few places that trumpeter swans live year-round.


#Cormorant: Identified by a black body and orange face, cormorants are experts at diving to catch fish underwater. They can dive up to 24 feet underwater and hold their breath for up to 70 seconds! After emerging from the water, they are commonly seen along the shoreline, with their wings spread wide in the sun, trying to get their feathers to dry. Their feathers have less preen oil to repel the water than a duck, making them absorb more water as they go under. And though this sounds like an engineering flaw, it actually helps them become aerodynamic and move swiftly and gracefully while hunting.


#Pelican: One of the most prehistoric looking birds, the pelican flies with grace, with it's large bill held high. They can easily dip down into the water, using their pouched bill to scoop up fish. Sometimes, large groups of pelicans work together to herd schools of fish into shallow water for an easy meal. In Yellowstone, pelicans can be seen on Lake Yellowstone and nearby rivers.

When in the park, make sure you stop at the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center and check out the display of historic lake bird specimens.


#Goldeneyes: Like their name suggests, goldeneyes can be identified by their strikingly golden eyes. They are also striking in appearance with black and white bodies, a purplish head, and a long white crescent by their bill. During flight their wings make a distinct whistling noise because they are flapping so rapidly.


#Magpie: As part of the crow family, a magpie is a very social and entertaining bird. They are commonly seen in the western United States, and are characterized by flashing their white wing patches and waving their long black tail feather. In Yellowstone they are often seen hitching a ride on the back of a bison, elk or deer, as it eats ticks from the mammals back.

In addition to the birds listed above, there are so many others that call Yellowstone home, or simply migrate through the park. We believe this is one of the best places on the planet to spot birds, but we invite you to check it out for yourself!


Join Nomadic By Nature for a guided backpacking trip or day hike, and see the best that Yellowstone has to offer!

Guides for Nomadic By Nature love people, love the outdoors and want to share that with their guests. Our goal is to keep you safe, slow it down, get you out of the car, and to show you why we need these wide-open spaces in our ever-changing world-- join us for a world-class tour!

This guided trip offers backpackers a little bit of everything Yellowstone has to showcase— thermal hot springs, pristine lakes, big rivers, remote valleys, and mountain summit views.

We camp on the shores of Heart Lake, one of the largest backcountry lakes in Yellowstone. Weather permitting, you'll have a chance to summit Mount Sheridan, with views all the way to Grand Teton National Park. Once leaving Heart Lake, we traverse Snake River and travel far into the southern boundaries of Yellowstone.

On this trip you'll have excellent opportunities to spot wildlife, soak in hot springs, and experience remote parts of Yellowstone National Park.

Book your adventure today!

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