Brown birds or LBJ (little brown jobs) can be hard to identify as they do not always have as many distinguishing features as their brighter-colored cousins.
But fear not, as this guide will help you identify a sparrow, a wren, or any other brown bird you are likely to spot. Also, find out which brown birds are in California at different times of the year.
This guide will help you identify those brown birds visiting your backyard or out in the woods and fields and are listed from most to least common according to checklists submitted by bird watchers on ebird for California.
Brown Birds In California By Season
Brown Birds in California all year: House Finch, California Towhee, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, American Robin, Bewick’s Wren, House Sparrow, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Common Yellowthroat, American Goldfinch, Marsh Wren, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Brown Creeper, Chipping Sparrow, Abert’s Towhee, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher
Brown Birds in California in summer: Mourning Dove, House Wren, Brown-headed Cowbird, Swainson’s Thrush
Brown Birds in California in winter: White-crowned Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, White-throated Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow
Brown Birds during migration in California: Swamp Sparrow, Northern Waterthrush, Eastern Phoebe
Rare or accidental species in California: Great Crested Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Field Sparrow, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush
39 Brown Birds In California
1. House Finch – Female
House Finches are residents of California all year. They do not migrate and appear in 48% of summer checklists and 41% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
Females House Finches are brown-streaked all over, but Male House Finches have a red head and breast, and the rest of their bodies are mainly brown-streaked.
- Haemorhous mexicanus
- Length: 5.1-5.5 in (13-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.9 oz (16-27 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-9.8 in (20-25 cm)
Originally only in western US states, House Finches were introduced to eastern US states and have done very well, even pushing out the Purple Finch.
They can be found in parks, farms, forest edges, and backyard feeders in noisy groups that are hard to miss.
Attract House Finches to backyard feeders with black oil sunflower seeds or nyjer seeds in tube feeders or platform feeders.
Not all finches in California are brown, some may be more brightly colored.
2. Mourning Dove
Mourning Doves are spotted all year in California, but they are more common during the breeding season. They are recorded in 42% of summer checklists and 28% of winter checklists for the state.
Mourning Doves are graceful small-headed birds with plump bodies and long tails. They are a soft brown color with black spots on the wings. Males are slightly heavier than females.
- Zenaida macroura
- Length: 9.1-13.4 in (23-34 cm)
- Weight: 3.0 -6.0 oz (96-170 g)
- Wingspan: 17.7 in (45 cm)
Mourning Doves are common over all of the lower 48 all year but may migrate after breeding from the north of the Midwest and southern Canada.
Mourning Doves can be seen perching on telephone wires and foraging for seeds on the ground in grasslands, fields, and backyards. They can also be found in open areas or woodland edges.
Attract Mourning Doves to your backyard by scattering millet on the ground or platform feeders. They will also eat black sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, and peanut hearts.
3. White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrows are frequently spotted in California during winter and appear in 44% of checklists at this time. They are more common from September to April, but some hang around all year and appear in 6% of summer checklists.
White-crowned Sparrows are large grayish sparrows with long tails, small bills, and bold black and white stripes on their heads.
- Zonotrichia leucophrys
- Length: 5.9-6.3 in (15-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.0 oz (25-28 g)
- Wingspan: 8.3-9.4 in (21-24 cm)
White-crowned Sparrows breed in Alaska and arctic Canada before heading south to the lower 48 and Mexico for winter. However, some may remain along the Pacific Coast and the mountainous west all year.
You can find White-crowned Sparrows in weedy fields, along roadsides, forest edges, and in yards foraging for seeds of weeds and grasses or fruit such as elderberries and blackberries.
Nests of White-crowned Sparrows are made from twigs, grass, moss, and pine needles, often low to the ground in shrubs or on the ground in the tundra. They lay up to seven eggs, which take up to two weeks to hatch and around nine days for the chicks to fledge.
Attract White-crowned Sparrows to your backyard with sunflower seeds, and they will also eat seeds dropped by other birds at the feeders.
4. California Towhee
California Towhees are residents of California all year. They do not migrate, and they appear in 31% of summer checklists and 27% of winter checklists for the state.
California Towhees are large, brown, plump sparrows with long tails, short wings, and a rusty patch under their tails.
- Melozone crissalis
- Length: 8.3-9.8 in (21-25 cm)
- Weight: 1.3-2.4 oz (37-67 g)
- Wingspan: 11.4 in (29 cm)
California Towhees are only found in the coastal chaparral scrub areas of California, Oregon, and Baja California. They will also visit backyards, sit on fenceposts, and chase their reflections in car mirrors or windows.
California Towhees’ diets are mostly seeds from grasses and herbs, but they also eat berries such as elderberry, coffeeberry, and acorns.
Nests of California Towhees are pretty low down in shrubs or small trees and are made from twigs and grass woven together. The inside of the nest is lined with softer material, such as animal hair and soft fluffy seeds.
Attract Califonia Towhees to your yard with millet on-ground feeders and plant native berry plants.
5. Song Sparrow
Song Sparrows can be spotted all year in California. They are recorded in 29% of summer checklists and 24% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
Song sparrows are not as remarkable looking as other backyard birds, but these predominantly brown-streaked birds use their almost constant song to attract mates in spring and summer.
- Melospiza melodia
- Length: 4.7-6.7 in (12-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-1.9 oz (12-53 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-9.4 in (18-24 cm)
Song Sparrows live all year in the northern US states. Those that breed in Canada migrate to southern US states for winter.
They can be found in open, shrubby, and wet areas, often perched on a low shrub singing, and are often found at backyard feeders.
Song Sparrows eat a wide variety of insects and plants, including beetles, caterpillars, midges, spiders, and earthworms. They will also eat buckwheat, sunflower, raspberries, wild cherries, blackberries, wheat, and rice.
Attract Song Sparrows to your backyard feeders by putting black oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and nyjer on platform feeders.
A surprising number of sparrows in California can be spotted, and you can learn their songs and find out fun facts to help you identify them more easily.
6. Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhees are residents of California all year, and they are recorded in 26% of summer checklists and 18% of winter checklists.
Spotted Towhees are large sparrows that are black on the head, throat, and back in the males and brown in the females. Both males and females have reddish-brown sides and white bellies, with white spots on their wings and back and long tails.
- Pipilo maculatus
- Length: 6.7-8.3 in (17-21 cm)
- Weight: 1.2-1.7 oz (33-49 g)
- Wingspan: 11.0 in (28 cm)
Spotted Towhees live in western US states, but those inland in the north migrate south to Texas after breeding.
Spotted Towhees can be found on the ground in dense tangles of shrubs scratching around for insects, including beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, wasps, and bees. They also eat acorns, berries, and seeds.
Nests of Spotted Towhees are usually on or near the ground and made from leaves, stems, and bark lined with softer material. They lay up to six eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch and a further ten days for the young to fledge.
Attract Spotted Towhees to your yard if you leave overgrown borders, and they will visit platform feeders or ground feeders for Black Oil Sunflower seeds, Hulled Sunflower seeds, Cracked Corn, Millet, and Milo.
7. American Robin
American Robins live in California all year and appear in 23% of summer checklists and 19% of winter checklists.
American Robins are a common sight on lawns eating earthworms. They have black heads and backs with red or orange breasts. They tend to roost in trees in winter, so you are more likely to see them in your backyard from spring.
- Turdus migratorius
- Length: 7.9-11.0 in (20-28 cm)
- Weight: 2.7-3.0 oz (77-85 g)
- Wingspan: 12.2-15.8 in (31-40 cm)
American Robins are residents in the lower 48 and the coast of western Canada and Alaska. Those that breed in Canada and inland Alaska move south for the winter.
American Robins can be found in many habitats, from woodlands, forests, and mountains to fields, parks, and lawns. They eat earthworms, insects, snails, and fruit.
Attract American Robins to your backyard with sunflower seeds, suet and peanut hearts, fruit, and mealworms. Platform feeders are best or food scattered on the ground. Also, try planting some native plants that produce berries, such as juniper, sumac, hawthorn, and dogwood.
8. Bewick’s Wren
Bewick’s Wrens are frequently spotted in California, and they do not migrate. They are recorded in 18% of summer checklists and 16% of winter checklists.
Bewick’s Wrens are brown-backed birds with long gray upright tails with darker barring. They have gray bellies and a white stripe over the eye.
- Thryomanes bewickii
- Length: 5.1 in (13 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz (8-12 g)
Bewick’s Wrens live in southern and western states all year with some small movements in winter.
You can find Bewick’s Wrens in scrub, thickets, and open woodland, hopping from branch to branch, flicking their long tails. They feed on insects and larvae, including bees, bugs, caterpillars, and beetles.
Nests are on rock ledges, old woodpecker nests, nest boxes, or crevices in buildings. They are cup-shaped and made from sticks and grasses with a softer lining. Thye lay 3 – 8 eggs, and hatching takes around two weeks and fledging a further two weeks.
Attract Bewick Wrens to your backyard with suet, mealworms, and hulled sunflower seeds.
9. Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers are spotted all year in northern California but are more common during winter in the south of the state. They are recorded in 11% of summer checklists and 22% of winter checklists.
Northern Flickers are large brown woodpeckers with black spots and a white patch on their rump in flight, plus a red nape of the neck in the males.
Northern Flickers have red or yellow flashes in the wings and tail depending on where they originate. Red-shafted birds live in the west, and yellow-shafted birds live in the east.
- Colaptes auratus
- Length: 11.0-12.2 in (28-31 cm)
- Weight: 3.9-5.6 oz (110-160 g)
- Wingspan: 16.5-20.1 in (42-51 cm)
Northern Flickers can be spotted across the US all year and in Canada during summer. Those that breed in Canada migrate south for the winter.
Northern Flickers mainly eat ants, beetles, fruits, and seeds, and they can often be seen on the ground digging with their curved bill.
Attract Northern Flickers to your backyard with suet. You can also find other species of woodpeckers in California that will visit your feeders.
10. House Sparrow
House Sparrows are an introduced species in California that can be spotted here all year. They do not migrate and occur in 17% of summer checklists and 13% of winter checklists for the state.
House Sparrows are another introduced species that have done very well and are now one of the most common birds. They have gray and brown heads and white cheeks. Their backs are black and brown, and their bellies are gray.
- Passer domesticus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in (15-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.1 oz (27-30 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-9.8 in (19-25 cm)
House Sparrows live in the US and southern Canada all year. You can find them near houses and buildings, and they can be pretty tame, and they may even eat out of your hand.
House Sparrows eat mostly grain and seed as well as discarded food. They can be considered a pest because they are non-native, but they are found in backyards even if you do not feed them.
Attract House Sparrows to your backyard feeders with most kinds of birdseed, including millet, corn, and sunflower seeds.
11. Golden-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrows are mainly seen in California from September to May and are recorded in 22% of winter checklists.
Golden-crowned Sparrows are grayish-brown underneath and streaked brown on the back. Their heads have a black crown and a bright-yellow forehead.
Their colors are duller and brown on the crown in winter, and the yellow forehead is also duller.
- Zonotrichia atricapilla
- Length: 5.9-7.1 in (15-18 cm)
- Weight: 1.1-1.2 oz (30-33 g)
Golden-crowned Sparrows breed in Alaska and western Canada before migrating to the West Coast for winter.
You can find Golden-crowned Sparrow in weedy fields scratching for seeds such as dock, sumac, and geranium. They also eat fruit such as apples, grapes, elderberry, and olives. Insects, such as ants, beetles, butterflies, and termites also make up some of their diets.
Nests of Golden-crowned Sparrows are usually on the ground and made from twigs, moss, and leaves. They are lined with softer materials, such as animal hair, grass, and feathers.
Attract Golden-crowned Sparrows to your backyard with seeds on ground feeders or plant native plants that fruit.
12. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadees are residents of California all year and are mainly spotted along the coast. They do not migrate and appear in 14% of summer checklists and 11% of winter checklists.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees are tiny birds with black caps and throats and white cheeks. They are a rich chestnut on their backs and sides and have gray wings and bellies. In California, their sides are gray instead of brown.
- Poecile rufescens
- Length: 3.9-4.7 in (10-12 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz (7-12 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5 in (19 cm)
Chestnut-backed Chickadees live flocks in wet evergreen forests along the Pacific Coast and are regular visitors to backyard feeders.
You can usually find Chestnut-backed Chickadees in conifer forests. They eat mostly insects, including caterpillars, spiders, wasps, and aphids, with seeds, berries, and fruit making up the rest.
Nests of Chestnut-backed Chickadees are usually holes in rotten wood made either by the birds themselves or they use old woodpecker nests.
Attract Chestnut-backed Chickadees to your yard with black-oil sunflower seeds, suet, nyjer, peanuts, or mealworms in tube feeders, platform feeders, or suet cages. They will also use nest boxes.
13. Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroats can be spotted all year in California, but they are more common during migration from April to June and again from September to December. They appear in 11% of summer checklists and 8% of winter checklists for the state.
Common Yellowthroats are small songbirds that are brownish on the back and bright yellow underneath, with long tails. The males have black masks across their faces. The brightness of the yellow can vary geographically, and they may be more olive in parts underneath.
- Geothlypis trichas
- Length: 4.3-5.1 in (11-13 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.3 oz (9-10 g)
- Wingspan: 5.9-7.5 in (15-19 cm)
Common Yellowthroats spend the summer breeding over most of North America, except Alaska and northern Canada. Some remain all year along the Gulf Coast and Pacific Southwest. Then, they migrate south for winter.
You can find Common Yellowthroats often in marshy or wetland areas and brushy fields living in thick, tangled vegetation.
Attract Common Yellowthroats to large backyards with dense vegetation and native plants to attract insects.
Common Yellowthroats are a type of warbler that can be spotted in California, but there are so many more. They have mesmerizing songs that you can listen to and learn.
14. House Wren
Although some can be seen all year, House Wrens are more frequently spotted during summer in California. They appear in 11% of summer checklists and 4% of winter checklists.
House Wrens are small nondescript brown birds with darker barred wings and tails and a paler throat. They often have their tails standing up.
- Troglodytes aedon
- Length: 4.3-5.1 in (11-13 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz (10-12 g)
- Wingspan: 5.9 in (15 cm)
House Wrens spend their summer breeding in the US and southern Canada before migrating to southern US states and Mexico for winter.
You can find House Wrens in backyards, parks and open woods foraging for insects and spiders. They can often be found energetically hopping through tangles and low branches with their tails up, stopping to sing their cheerful song.
House Wrens are fierce for their size when it comes to getting the best nest holes. They will often harass larger birds, sometimes dragging eggs or nestlings out of a nest site they want.
Attract House Wrens to your backyard by leaving piles of brush or putting up a nest box.
15. American Goldfinch – Female
American Goldfinches can be spotted in California all year, but their numbers increase during migration in April and November. They appear in around 8% of summer and winter checklists and up to 11% of checklists during migration.
American Goldfinches are popular birds with the males’ bright yellow and black coloring in spring. The females are duller brown, as are males in winter.
- Spinus tristis
- Length: 4.3-5.1 in (11-13 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.7 oz (11-20 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-8.7 in (19-22 cm)
American Goldfinches can be found in most of North America and are usually resident all year. However, those that breed in Canada and the Midwest migrate to southern US States for winter.
They can be found in weedy fields and overgrown areas foraging for sunflower, thistle, and aster plants. They are also common in suburbs, parks, and backyards.
Attract American Goldfinches to your backyard by planting thistles and milkweed. They will visit most bird feeders and prefer sunflower seed and nyjer seed.
16. Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrows spend the winter in California and are most commonly spotted from mid-September until January. However, some can be spotted all year. They appear in 3% of summer checklists and 9% of winter checklists.
17. Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrushes are spotted all year in California but their numbers increase from October to March. They are recorded in 2% of summer checklists and 12% of winter checklists.
Hermit Thrushes are birds that stand to attention, with an upright manner, chunky bodies, and long tails. They are brown on the back and white underneath, with spots on the throat and breast.
- Catharus guttatus
- Length: 5.5-7.1 in (14-18 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.3 oz (23-37 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8-11.4 in (25-29 cm)
Hermit Thrushes breed in Canada, northeast US states, and the western US. They can be seen during migration in central states before spending winter along the Pacific Coast, southeast states, and Mexico.
Hermit Thrushes forage on the ground in forest clearings in the leaf litter, looking for insects. In winter, they also eat berries.
They rarely visit backyards, but their somewhat forlorn song can be heard in spring and summer.
18. Brown-headed Cowbird – Female
Brown-headed Cowbirds are mainly spotted in California from April to July but some stay all year. They appear in 14% of summer checklists and 1% of winter checklists.
Female Brown-headed Cowbirds are brown all over with slight streaking. Male Brown-headed Cowbirds are larger than females, with black bodies, brown heads, and short tails.
- Molothrus ater
- Length: 76.3-8.7 in (19-22 cm)
- Weight: 1.3-1.8 oz (42-50 g)
- Wingspan: 14.2 in (36 cm)
Brown-headed Cowbirds remain all year in eastern US states, southern US states, and along the Pacific Coast. However, those that breed in northern and western US states and Canada migrate south for winter.
They are often considered a nuisance because they are parasite birds that destroy the eggs of smaller songbirds so they can lay their eggs in the nest and have the bird foster their chicks.
19. Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwings are mainly seen in California during winter and occur in 7% of checklists at this time. However, some can be spotted all year.
Cedar Waxwings are elegant social birds that are pale brown on the head, chest, and crest, which fades to gray on the back, wings, and tail.
Their belly is pale yellow and bright yellow towards the tail. They have a narrow black mask over their eyes and bright red on the wingtips.
- Bombycilla cedrorum
- Length: 5.5-6.7 in (14-17 cm)
- Weight: 1.1 oz (32 g)
- Wingspan: 8.7-11.8 in (22-30 cm)
Cedar Waxwings remain all year in the northern half of the US. Those that breed in Canada migrate to the southern half of the US for winter.
They make a high-pitched call and can be found in berry bushes, woodlands, and streams.
Attract Cedar Waxwings to your backyard by planting native trees and shrubs with small fruit such as serviceberry, dogwood, juniper, winterberry, and hawthorn. You can also try fruit on platform feeders.
20. Marsh Wren
Marsh Wrens are spotted more in California in winter from September to May, but they are here all year. They are recorded in 4% of summer checklists and 6% of winter checklists.
Marsh Wrens are brown with black and white streaks on their back. Their underside is grayish brown, and they have the distinctive upright tail of the wren. Males and females look the same.
They look similar but lack stripes on their shoulders and have longer bills than Sedge Wrens.
- Cistothorus palustris
- Length: 3.9-5.5 in (10-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.5 oz (9-14 g)
- Wingspan: 5.9 in (15 cm)
Marsh Wrens breed in northern US states and Central Canada before migrating to southern states and Mexico. Some birds in the west and along the Atlantic Coast may remain resident all year. They can be spotted during migration in the eastern US.
You can find Marsh Wrens in wetlands clinging to reeds, with each foot grabbing a different stalk. They can be hard to spot but listen out for singing amongst the reeds, especially at dawn and dusk. They eat insects and spiders, which they pick off leaves close to the water.
Nests of Marsh Wrens are fully enclosed, except for a small opening in the top. They are made from reeds and grasses woven together.
21. Purple Finch – Female
Purple Finches can be spotted in California all year but are more common from March to mid-July. They are recorded in 7% of summer checklists and 3% of winter checklists for the state.
Female Purple Finches are brown-streaked all over, but males have reddish-purple heads and breasts with more brown on the back and wings and have a paler belly. They look very similar to House Finch but are redder, especially at the top of their back.
- Haemorhous purpureus
- Length: 4.7-6.3 in (12-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-1.1 oz (18-32 g)
- Wingspan: 8.7-10.2 in (22-26 cm)
Purple Finches breed in Canada and overwinter in eastern US states but can be found all year in the north-east and Pacific coast.
You can find Purple Finch in evergreen forests feeding on seeds but also buds, nectar, and berries.
Nests of Purple Finches are located high up in trees. They are made of twigs, barks, weeds, and moss. They usually hold three to five eggs that are incubated for thirteen days by the female.
Attract Purple Finches to your backyard with black oil sunflower seeds.
22. Pine Siskin
Pine Siskins are more common in California in winter, but they can be spotted in the state all year. They appear in 2% of summer checklists and 5% of checklists during winter and migration.
Pine Siskins are small brown finches with yellow streaks on the wing and tail. They have a forked tail and pointed wings, with a short pointed bill.
- Spinus Pinus
- Length: 4.3-5.5 in (11-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.6 oz (12-18 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-8.7 in (18-22 cm)
Pine Siskins remain all year in the pine forests in the western states and along the Canadian Border. Some also breed in Canada before heading south for winter.
Depending on pine cone crops, they can be found over much of North America. As their name suggests, Pine Siskins predominantly eat seeds from conifers, but they also eat young buds and seeds from grasses and weeds.
Attract Pine Siskins to your backyards with thistle and nyjer feeders and will also come for black oil sunflower seeds and suet.
23. Brown Creeper
Brown Creepers are spotted all year in California, especially from June to August. They are recorded in 5% of summer checklists and 2% of winter checklists.
Brown Creepers are tiny songbirds that are hard to spot against tree trunks, with their streaked brown backs and white undersides.
- Certhia americana
- Length: 4.7-5.5 in (12-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.2-0.3 oz (5-10 g)
- Wingspan: 6.7-7.9 in (17-20 cm)
Brown Creepers do not migrate, but they can move south and from higher elevations in winter. They can be found in Alaska, southern Canada, northeastern and eastern US states, and down to Mexico and Central America. They also move into central and southeastern states in some winters.
To spot one of these tiny birds, look closely at tree trunks of mature woodland with large trees where you may find them hunting for insects and larvae hidden in the bark.
Brown Creepers are usually found working their way up the tree and so face upwards, unlike nuthatches which face down the tree trunk.
Rather than singing, these songbirds make a high piercing call that helps locate them.
24. Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrows can be seen in California all year. They spend the breeding season mostly in the north of the state, and they are recorded in 3% of summer checklists. However, some stay all year and occur in 1% of winter checklists.
Chipping Sparrows are slender, long-tailed birds with a grayish belly and brown and black-streaked back. They have a rusty crown and black eye line. In winter, their colors are more subdued.
- Spizella passerina
- Length: 4.7-5.9 in (12-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.6 oz (11-16 g)
- Wingspan: 8.3 in (21 cm)
Chipping Sparrows spend their summer breeding in the US and Canada before flying to Mexico and Florida for winter. Some remain all year in southern states.
You can find Chipping Sparrows in small flocks on open ground and will come to backyards for many kinds of birdseed.
Attract Chipping Sparrows to your backyard with seeds or cracked corn on open feeders such as hoppers or platforms.
25. Swainson’s Thrush
Swainson’s Thrushes are mainly spotted in California from mid-April to October and occur in 6% of summer checklists.
Swainson’s Thrushes are medium-sized thrushes that are pale underneath with spotted chests and brown on the back.
- Catharus ustulatus
- Length: 6.3-7.5 in (16-19 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.6 oz (23-45 g)
- Wingspan: 11.4-12.2 in (29-31 cm)
Swainson’s Thrushes can be found in forests foraging along the floor in leaf litter for insects in the breeding season and red fruits such as blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, and sumac. Ants also make up part of their diet, and other insects will be fed to nestlings.
Usually only seen during migration in spring and fall in the lower 48, but Swainson’s Thrushes breed in Canada and Alaska before heading into Central and South America for winter.
Attract Swainson’s Thrushes to your backyard with ground-level birdbaths and by providing tree and shrub cover.
26. White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrows are winter birds in California and occur in 1% of checklists at this time. They are mainly spotted from October until April.
White-throated Sparrows have a distinctive black and white striped head, bright white throat, and yellow between the eye and bill. Their backs are brown, and underneath is gray.
- Zonotrichia albicollis
- Length: 6.3-7.1 in (16-18 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.1 oz (22-32 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-9.1 in (20-23 cm)
White-throated Sparrows are migratory birds, breeding mainly in Canada before heading south in winter to eastern and southern US states and the Pacific Coast.
You can find White-throated Sparrows on the ground in forests and woods and along the edges of wooded areas, often in large flocks.
White-throated Sparrows’ diet is mainly seeds of grasses and weeds and fruits such as grape, sumac, mountain ash, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. They will also eat many insects from the forest floor, especially in summer.
Attract White-throated Sparrows to your backyard with millet and black oil sunflower seeds on platform feeders.
27. Abert’s Towhee
Abert’s Towhees are spotted all year in California but only in the south of the state.
Abert’s Towhees are large grayish-brown sparrows, about the size of a robin, with rusty colors under their tail.
- Melozone aberti
- Length: 8.3-9.1 in (21.2-23.1 cm)
- Weight: 1.5-1.9 oz (42.5-54.9 g)
- Wingspan: 10.4-11.6 in (26.5-29.5 cm)
They are found on the ground in dry habitats in dense undergrowth by desert streams and riverbeds in a very small area, predominantly in southwestern Arizona.
Abert’s Towhees forage for insects such as beetles, ants, caterpillars, cicadas, and grasshoppers. They will also eat some seeds, especially grasses, in winter.
Nests of Abert’s Towhees are built in dense vegetation about five feet above the ground. The nest is made from leaves and bark, and grass.
Attract Abert’s Towhees to your yard by adding a water feature such as a birdbath and adding native plants. They will also visit ground feeders for seeds.
28. Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrows are not often spotted in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring here and are most likely to be seen during fall migration.
Swamp Sparrows are dark brown on the back with rusty crowns and wings. They have gray breasts and white throats. Their heads are gray, with brown faces with a dark eye line and a yellow end to their beak.
- Melospiza georgiana
- Length: 4.7-5.9 in (12-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-0.8 oz (15-23 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-7.5 in (18-19 cm)
Swamp Sparrows are located more in the east. They breed in Canada, northeastern US states, and North Central US states before migrating to eastern and southern US states and Mexico.
As the name would suggest, Swamp Sparrows are found in wetlands, swamps, bogs, and coastal marshes. They feed on seeds and fruit, especially in winter, and more insects in spring.
Nests of Swamp Sparrows are usually hidden in vegetation on or close to the ground and made from twigs, leaves, and cattails. The nest is lined with grass and other plant material.
Swamp Sparrows do not visit backyards except in migration to yards with lots of vegetation and water.
29. Northern Waterthrush
Northern Waterthrushes are usually spotted along the coast of California during fall migration in September but they are not very common here.
Northern Waterthrushes are large, thrush-like birds. Males and females both bear similar traits. They both have brown heads with thick, white eyebrows, dark brown backs, and white bellies with dark, heavy streaking from their throats all the way to their rumps.
- Parkesia noveboracensis
- Length: 5.75 inches (15 cm)
- Weight: 0.8 oz (23 g)
- Wingspan: 8.75 inches (22 cm)
Northern Waterthrushes breed in Canada, Alaska, and northeastern US states before migrating to Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Some may remain all year in Central and South America.
You can find Northern Waterthrushes in dark, woody swamps, thickets, and bogs. If there is any still or sluggish water in the forests, you’ll probably find a Northern Waterthrush around it. In winter, in the tropics, you will usually find them among mangroves.
The Northern Waterthrushes are aquatic and terrestrial foragers. With their long legs, they can walk on shallow water in search of water beetles, mosquitoes, slugs, crustaceans, snails, and sometimes, small fish. They also eat caterpillars, moths, and ants, which they find under leaves.
30. Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebes are not very common in California but they are most likely to be spotted here during migration.
Eastern Phoebes are plump songbirds that are grayish-brown on the back, whitish underneath, and with a darker head.
- Sayornis phoebe
- Length: 5.5-6.7 in (14-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.7 oz (16-21 g)
- Wingspan: 10.2-11.0 in (26-28 cm)
Eastern Phoebes are migratory birds, breeding across northeastern and central US states and into Canada before migrating to southeastern US states and Mexico for winter. Some birds may remain all year towards the south of their range.
Eastern Phoebes tend to be found alone in quiet woodland, wagging their tails from low perches rather than in pairs or flocks.
As they are flycatchers, flying insects make up most of their diet, but they will also eat spiders and other insects, small fruit, and seeds. They often nest on bridges, barns, or houses, making a nest out of mud and grass.
Attract Eastern Phoebes to your backyard by putting up a nest box or native plants that produce berries.
31. Rose-breasted Grosbeak – Female
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are mainly spotted along the coast of California and although they are not very common here, there have been sightings all year.
Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and immature males are brown with lots of streaking and a flash of yellow under the wings.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks males are black-and-white birds with black heads and backs, white bellies, and red breasts. They also have a flash of red under their wings.
- Pheucticus ludovicianus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 in (18-21 cm)
- Weight: 1.4-1.7 oz (39-49 g)
- Wingspan: 11.4-13.0 in (29-33 cm)
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks breed in northeastern US states, the Midwest, and southern and central Canada. They can be seen during migration in southeastern US states. Winter is spent in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
You can find Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in forests, parks, and backyards foraging for insects, berries, and seeds.
Nests of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are placed in the branches of a low tree. They are made of loosely-formed twigs, grass, and plants. There are about five eggs that take two weeks to hatch. After that, both parents take turns incubating the eggs.
Attract Rose-breasted Grosbeaks to your backyard with sunflower seeds and peanuts.
32. Northern Cardinal – Female
Northern Cardinals are not very common in California but they can be spotted in the south of the state all year.
Females Northern Cardinals are a little showy with their brown coloring, sharp brown crest, red highlights, and red beaks.
However, the bright red male Northern Cardinal with black around their faces is an incredible sight, especially against a white winter background. They also have red crests and beaks.
- Cardinalis cardinalis
- Length: 8.3-9.1 in (21-23 cm)
- Weight: 1.5-1.7 oz (42-48 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8-12.2 in (25-31 cm)
Northern Cardinals live in the eastern half of the US, and some states in the south as far west as Arizona.
You can find Northern Cardinals in dense vegetation foraging for seeds, fruit, and insects. Northern Cardinals sometimes attack their own reflection during the breeding season as they obsessively defend their territories.
Attract Northern Cardinals to your backyard with feeders full of sunflower seeds, peanut hearts, millet, and milo. They will feed from large tube feeders, hoppers, platform feeders, or food scattered on the ground.
33. Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrashers are not spotted very often in California but there have been occasional sightings here all year.
Brown Thrashers are large songbirds with long proportions. They are about the same size as a robin. They are brown on the back and with white-streaked chests and bellies. Their faces are gray with bright yellow eyes.
- Toxostoma rufum
- Length: 9.1-11.8 in (23-30 cm)
- Weight: 2.1-3.1 oz (61-89 g)
- Wingspan: 11.4-12.6 in (29-32 cm)
Brown Thrashers live in central and eastern North America. Those birds in the southeast of their range remain all year, but birds further north migrate south for the winter.
Brown Thrashers are hard to spot for their size as they spend most of their time in thickets and shrubbery. However, they can be heard rummaging along the ground in the leaf litter and soil, looking for insects, but they also eat berries, beetles, and flying insects from the air.
Over 1000 different song types are sung by these most accomplished songbirds, which is one of the largest of any North American songbird.
Attract Brown Thrashers to your backyard with dense cover and berry shrubs, and they will collect fallen seeds from under feeders.
34. American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrows are not often spotted in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring here and were seen around Arcata in 2022.
American Tree sparrows are long-tailed brown-streaked plump birds with rusty caps, gray faces, and a rusty eye line.
- Spizelloides arborea
- Length: 5.5 in (14 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-1.0 oz (13-28 g)
- Wingspan: 9.4 in (24 cm)
American Tree Sparrows are a bird of winter in the US and a bird of summer in Canada. They breed in the far north of Canada and in Alaska and migrate to most US states for the winter, except along the Pacific and Gulf Coasts.
You can find American Tree Sparrows foraging in small flocks in weedy fields and under bird feeders.
Nests of American Tree Sparrows’ are usually on or near to the ground and are made of twigs, grass, and moss. They lay around five eggs, and these take just under two weeks to hatch and just over a week for the young to fledge.
Attract American Tree Sparrows to your backyard platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, and millet. They also feed on seeds dropped on the ground from tube feeders.
35. Great-crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatchers are considered rare species in California but some have been spotted along the coast of the state during fall migration from September to November.
Great Crested Flycatchers are brown on the back with a yellow belly and gray throat. They have reddish flashes in the wing and tail feathers. The crest is not very obvious.
- Myiarchus crinitus
- Length: 6.7-8.3 in (17-21 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.4 oz (27-40 g)
- Wingspan: 13.4 in (34 cm)
Great Crested Flycatchers breed over much of eastern North America and spend the winter in southern Florida, southern Mexico, and Central America.
They sit perched up high in woodland, waiting for large insects flying, such as butterflies, grasshoppers, moths, wasps, and spiders. They can be found in mixed woodlands and at the edges of clearings, parks, and tree-lined neighborhoods or perched on fenceposts or other artificial structures. They will also eat berries and small fruit.
Attract Great Crested Flycatchers to your backyard by planting native species of plants and leaving brush piles to attract insects. Also, plant berry-producing plants and put up a nest box as they readily take up residence in them.
36. Winter Wren
Winter Wrens are considered rare or accidental species in California, but there were a few recent sightings in the state in 2021.
Winter Wrens are small, plump brown birds with darker barring on the wings, tail, and belly. They have a paler eyebrow stripe and short tails, which they keep upright. Males and females look the same.
Winter Wrens look very similar to Pacific Wrens, and there were once thought to be the same species, but now they are classed as different, and they sing different songs.
- Troglodytes hiemalis
- Length: 3.1-4.7 in (8-12 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz (8-12 g)
- Wingspan: 4.7-6.3 in (12-16 cm)
Winter Wrens are found in eastern US states in winter and northeastern US states, and Canada in summer.
Look for Winter Wrens hidden in tangled undergrowth in forests and backyards. They eat insects and spiders by rummaging through fallen leaves and decaying bark.
Nests of Winter Wrens are made of twigs, moss, and grass woven together into a round shape with a small opening. They lay 1 – 9 eggs, and hatching takes around two or two and a half weeks and fledging the same.
Attract Winter Wrens to your backyard with native plants and dense vegetation.
37. Field Sparrow
Field Sparrows are considered rare species in California but some can be spotted here during winter.
Field Sparrows are small, slender brown-backed birds streaked with black. Their undersides are gray, as are their heads, and they have a reddish crown and pink bill.
- Spizella pusilla
- Length: 4.7-5.9 in (12-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.5 oz (11-15 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9 in (20 cm)
Field Sparrows remain all year in eastern US states, but those that breed in the Midwest head south for winter.
You can easily find Field Sparrows in the breeding season as the males will sing from a perch in the early mornings, so they are easier to spot. Otherwise, they quietly feed on weeds and seeds and can be easily missed as they prefer abandoned fields and are shy.
Nests of Field Sparrows are built on the ground for the first brood and then higher and higher as the breeding season goes on. Their nests are made from grass, and they lay up to five eggs which take around two weeks to hatch. After that, the young only take around a week to fledge.
Attract Field Sparrows to your backyard with cracked corn, hulled sunflower seeds, and millet.
38. Wood Thrush
Wood Thrushes are considered rare or accidental species in California but you might spot some during migration.
Wood Thrushes’ plump white and black-spotted bellies give them a slightly comical appearance. They are brown on the back and have reddish colors on the crown and upper back.
- Hylocichla mustelina
- Length: 7.5-8.3 in (19-21 cm)
- Weight: 1.4-1.8 oz (40-50 g)
- Wingspan: 11.8-13.4 in (30-34 cm)
Wood Thrushes migrate from eastern US states across the Gulf of Mexico into Central America in one night.
These birds stay hidden, foraging in leaf litter for insects, such as beetles and flies, in mature forests. In spring, they can be heard making a ‘flute-like’ song.
39. Louisiana Waterthrush
Credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Louisiana Waterthrushes are rare species in California and they were last spotted around Santa Cruz in 2021.
Louisiana Waterthrushes are drab in comparison to other warblers. They are brown on top and pale below. They have a white eyebrow stripe and long pink legs.
- Parkesia motacilla
- Length: 5.9-6.1 in (15-15.5 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.8 oz (18.2-22.9 g)
- Wingspan: 9.4-10.6 in (24-27 cm)
Louisiana Waterthrush breed in eastern US states and can be seen in the southeast during migration. They spend the winter in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, arriving back in spring early in the year.
You can find Louisiana Waterthrush along streams and moving water in woodlands hunting for insects, vertebrates, and larvae.
Nests of Louisiana Waterthrush are along the bank of a stream and hidden in roots or under logs. The nest is made from leaves, pine needles, and other plant material and is held together with mud.
How Frequently Brown Birds Are Spotted In California In Summer And Winter
Checklists are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted in your state. These lists show which brown birds are most frequently recorded on checklists on ebird in summer and winter in California.
Brown Birds in California in summer:
House Finch 48.3%
Mourning Dove 42.1%
California Towhee 31.5%
Song Sparrow 29.0%
Spotted Towhee 26.7%
American Robin 23.8%
Bewick’s Wren 18.8%
House Sparrow 17.3%
Brown-headed Cowbird 14.6%
Chestnut-backed Chickadee 14.0%
House Wren 11.8%
Common Yellowthroat 11.5%
Northern Flicker 11.5%
American Goldfinch 8.8%
Purple Finch 7.2%
Swainson’s Thrush 6.9%
White-crowned Sparrow 6.5%
Brown Creeper 5.5%
Marsh Wren 4.7%
Savannah Sparrow 3.9%
Cedar Waxwing 3.7%
Chipping Sparrow 3.0%
Pine Siskin 2.5%
Hermit Thrush 2.0%
Golden-crowned Sparrow 0.4%
Abert’s Towhee 0.4%
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 0.2%
Northern Cardinal 0.1%
White-throated Sparrow <0.1%
Northern Waterthrush <0.1%
Brown Thrasher <0.1%
Wood Thrush <0.1%
Eastern Phoebe <0.1%
Swamp Sparrow <0.1%
Field Sparrow <0.1%
Great Crested Flycatcher <0.1%
Louisiana Waterthrush <0.1%
American Tree Sparrow <0.1%
Brown Birds in California in winter:
White-crowned Sparrow 44.8%
House Finch 41.5%
Mourning Dove 28.5%
California Towhee 27.1%
Song Sparrow 24.7%
Northern Flicker 22.0%
Golden-crowned Sparrow 22.0%
American Robin 19.7%
Spotted Towhee 18.2%
Bewick’s Wren 16.2%
House Sparrow 13.0%
Hermit Thrush 12.4%
Chestnut-backed Chickadee 11.0%
Savannah Sparrow 9.9%
American Goldfinch 8.9%
Common Yellowthroat 8.7%
Cedar Waxwing 7.8%
Marsh Wren 6.3%
Pine Siskin 5.3%
House Wren 4.0%
Purple Finch 3.8%
Brown Creeper 2.5%
Brown-headed Cowbird 1.8%
White-throated Sparrow 1.6%
Chipping Sparrow 1.3%
Abert’s Towhee 0.6%
Swamp Sparrow 0.3%
Eastern Phoebe 0.2%
Northern Waterthrush 0.1%
Brown Thrasher <0.1%
American Tree Sparrow <0.1%
Rose-breasted Grosbeak <0.1%
Winter Wren <0.1%
Great Crested Flycatcher <0.1%
Northern Cardinal <0.1%
Field Sparrow <0.1%
Louisiana Waterthrush <0.1%
Swainson’s Thrush <0.1%
Wood Thrush <0.1%