From egrets to Snowy Owls, there is something mesmerizing about white birds that means you can’t quite take your eyes off of them and want to know more.
But there are so many similar-looking white birds, especially egrets, herons, and ibis. So how do you know which is which?
Well, you have come to the right place as this guide will help you identify white birds by sight and sound and know which times of the year they are in South Dakota to help you narrow down the options and find out more about birds near you.
White Birds In South Dakota By Season
White Birds in South Dakota all year: Rock Pigeon, Trumpeter Swan
White Birds in South Dakota in summer: Ring-billed Gull, Great Blue Heron, American White Pelican, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Snowy Egret, Common Tern
White Birds in South Dakota in winter: Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Snow Bunting, Snowy Owl, Gyrfalcon
White Birds during migration in South Dakota: Tundra Swan, Whooping Crane
This guide will help you identify those white birds out on the water or in the woods or fields and are listed from most to least common according to checklists submitted by bird watchers on ebird for South Dakota.
16 White Birds In South Dakota
1. Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gulls spend the breeding season in South Dakota but some also hang around here all year. They are recorded in 6% of summer checklists and 3% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
Ring-billed Gulls are medium-sized gulls that are easily identified because of their short, yellow bills with a black ring around them near the tip.
Breeding adults are generally white all-over except for their pale gray backs and wings with black tips and white spots. Their eyes are yellow, outlined with orange. They have yellow legs and feet. Males and females are similar.
The major differences between breeding and non-breeding adults are the light brown streaks on the heads and necks of non-breeding adults.
Juvenile Ring-billed Gulls are covered in brown streaks all over.
- Larus delawarensis
- Length: 18 – 19 in (46 – 48 cm)
- Weight: 20.81 oz (590 g)
- Wingspan: 47 – 48 in (119 – 122 cm)
Ring-billed Gulls breed in Canada and northern and northwestern US states. They migrate for winter to southern US states, the Pacific Coast, and Mexico.
You can find Ring-billed Gulls in urban, suburban and agricultural areas. They also inhabit coastal waters, beaches, lakes, ponds, streams, estuaries, and mudflats. They are frequent visitors to parking lots, landfills, shopping malls, and reservoirs where they tend to group in large numbers.
Ring-billed Gulls calls:
Fun Fact: Ring-billed Gulls are sometimes called “fast food gulls” because they often hang out near fast food restaurants and scavenge for food there.
2. Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Herons are mainly spotted in South Dakota during the breeding season and most migrate but some stay in winter. They appear in 10% of summer checklists and 1% of winter checklists.
Great Blue Herons are very large, majestic birds that are the largest heron native to North America. Their pale gray bodies can look white in flight.
They have a white face with a black crest or plume that extends from the front of their eyes to the back of their heads. Their bills are yellow-orangish.
They have long gray necks with black and white streaking in the front, pale grayish-blue bodies with dark wingtips, and long gray legs.
The Great Blue Heron has a white morph subspecies called the Great White Heron in Florida.
- Ardea herodias
- Length: 46 – 52 in (117 – 132 cm)
- Weight: 128 oz (3628 g)
- Wingspan: 77 – 82 in (196 – 208 cm)
Great Blue Herons remain in most US states all year, but those that breed in the Mid-West and Canada migrate south.
You can find Great Blue Herons in many wetland environments. They can be present in fresh and saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, flooded marshes, lake edges, or shorelines.
Great Blue Heron Call:
Fun Fact: Great Blue Herons defend their feeding territory with dramatic wing outstretched displays, with their heads thrown back.
3. Rock Pigeon
Rock Pigeons are an introduced species in South Dakota and they are residents of the state all year. They occur in 7% of summer checklists and 11% of winter checklists.
Rock Pigeons are well recognized around towns and parks and are usually blueish gray with two black bands on the wing and black on the tail tip. They have iridescent throat feathers and orange eyes.
However, they can also be white, spotted, or red.
- Columba livia
- Length: 11.8-14.2 in (30-36 cm)
- Weight: 9.3-13.4 oz (265-380 g)
- Wingspan: 19.7-26.4 in (50-67 cm)
Rock Pigeons do not migrate and can be found in all US states, southern Canada, and the Pacific Coast to Alaska.
You can find Rock Pigeons in cities, parks, and backyards, especially if there is birdseed on the ground. Some cities have ordinances against feeding pigeons as they are considered pests.
Rock Pigeon Call:
Fun Fact: Rock Pigeons have an amazing ability to find their way home using the earth’s magnetic field.
4. American White Pelican
American White Pelicans spend the breeding season in South Dakota and are mainly spotted from April to November. They are recorded in 6% of summer checklists. However, some do hang around all year.
American White Pelicans are large soaring birds that have the second-largest average wingspan of any North American bird.
Non-breeding adult American White Pelicans are white all over, except for black flight feathers that are only visible when in flight or when the wings are spread. Juveniles have light gray feathers with darker brown napes.
Breeding adult American White Pelicans are still white but they grow a yellow plate on their upper bills, like a horn, and around their eyes, bills and legs become brighter orange.
- Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
- Length: 60 – 63 in (152 – 160 cm)
- Weight: 246.4 oz (6983 g)
- Wingspan: 96 – 110 in (244 – 279 cm)
American White Pelicans breed in remote lakes inland in North America before spending the winter on the southern Pacific Coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and Central America. They can be spotted during migration in western and central US states.
You can find American White Pelicans in shallow freshwater lakes, wetlands, and edges of lakes and rivers. In the winter, you can find them in coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries where they forage in shallow water and rest on sandbars.
American White Pelican calls: These birds are usually silent or only make a few grunts. However, the young can be noisy in the large colonies begging for food.
Fun Facts: The long and huge bill of the American White Pelican is capable of holding three gallons of water. When it scoops up fish from the sea, it tilts its bill down to drain the water so it can then swallow the fish that’s left inside its throat sac.
5. Snow Goose
Snow Geese are spotted all year in South Dakota, but their numbers increase in winter from November to April. They appear in 3% of winter checklists.
The Snow Goose is aptly named because this goose is totally white except for its black wingtips, pink bill with a black grin patch, and pink legs and feet.
Interestingly, it has another variant, called the Blue Goose, which has a white head but a dark blue-gray body. Both variants of the Snow Geese may occasionally have a “stained” head due to their feeding.
The sexes of both variants are similar though they may vary in size. Males tend to be larger than females.
Juvenile white morphs have a dusky gray-brown coloring, and juvenile blue morphs are dark gray. However, they both still have the recognizable pink bill and black grin patch.
- Anser caerulescens
- Length: 25 – 31 in (64 – 79 cm)
- Weight: 81.13 oz (2299 g)
- Wingspan: 54.3 in (138 cm)
Snow Geese breed mainly in Canada and spend winter in the United States.
You can find Snow Geese and Blue Geese together in freshwater marshes and agricultural grain fields. In winter, they favor salt marshes and coastal bays, but they still visit plowed cornfields or wetlands.
Snow Goose Call:
Fun Fact: Snow Geese choose the same color morph as themselves when breeding and will mate for life.
6. Great Egret
Great Egrets breed mainly in eastern South Dakota and are spotted from April to October. They occur in 3% of summer checklists.
Great Egrets are at their best during the breeding season when males have neon green facial skin and long, wispy feathers (aigrettes) extending from their backs to their tails, which they show off during courtship, like how a peacock flares out its tail.
They are large, all-white herons, which is why they’re often called Great White Herons. They are also called common egrets. These large birds are white, with dagger-like, long, bright yellow bills and long, black legs and feet.
Non-breeding males, females, and juveniles look alike.
- Ardea alba
- Length: 37 – 41 in (94 – 104cm)
- Weight: 59.96 oz (1699 g)
- Wingspan: 54 – 55 in (137 – 140 cm)
Great Egrets have a vast range around the world. Those in the southern and coastal US states remain all year, but those more inland and in Canada migrate south.
You can find Great Egrets in freshwater and saltwater marshes and tidal flats, but also fish ponds.
Great Egret Calls:
Fun Fact: The Great Egret was almost hunted to extinction because of their long white feathers (aigrettes) that were mainly used to decorate ladies’ hats.
7. Ross’s Goose
Ross’s Geese are spotted in South Dakota during winter from November to May, mainly in the east of the state.
Ross’s Geese are pretty similar to Snow Geese, whom they often flock with. They are white all over except for their short, gray-based red-orange bills, short and stubby, pink-red legs and feet, and black wingtips. Both sexes are similar, but the female is slightly smaller.
There is a dark phase variant of Ross’s Goose, but it’s extremely rare. It has a white head, a brownish bill with a red patch, dark gray throats, underparts, and back.
- Anser rossii
- Length: 21 – 26 in (53 – 66 cm)
- Weight: 59.2 oz (1678 g)
- Wingspan: 47 – 54 in (119 – 137 cm)
Ross’s Geese breed in northern Canada and spend the winter in the United States.
You can find Ross’s Geese in salt and freshwater marshes during winter. During the breeding season, they will nest on the arctic tundra.
Ross’s Goose Call:
Fun Fact: Ross’s Geese are the smallest geese in North America.
8. Cattle Egret
Cattle Egrets appear in 1% of summer checklists and are spotted in eastern South Dakota. They are spotted here from April to October.
Cattle Egrets have a smart way of catching their food…they stand on the backs of cattle, so when the cattle move and disturb the ground, they catch the disturbed prey.
Cattle Egrets are small, short-necked egrets with white bodies and pale orange-brown patches on their heads, necks, and backs.
- Bubulcus ibis
- Length: 19 – 21 in (48 – 53 cm)
- Weight: 17.98 oz (510 g)
- Wingspan: 36 – 38 in (91 – 97 cm)
Cattle Egrets have a vast range around the world, but within North America, those in the south in Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and southwestern US states remain all year.
However, those that breed further north, mainly in eastern US states, migrate south after breeding.
You can find Cattle Egrets in native grasslands, pastures, crop fields, and rice fields, especially where there is hoofed livestock.
Cattle Egret Calls:
Fun Fact: The Cattle Egret’s eyes have adapted to foraging on land by having binocular vision for judging distance to catch prey on land rather than correcting for light refraction when feeding in the water.
9. Snowy Egret
Snowy Egrets are spotted in eastern South Dakota during the breeding season, from April to October.
Snowy Egrets, as their name suggests, are small, all-white herons. They have yellow irises and skin around their eye, long, black bills, long, black legs, and bright yellow feet.
During the breeding season, long, lacy feathers appear on their heads, necks, and backs. Their lores or facial skin turn reddish-pink, and their toes turn orange-red during courtship.
Interestingly, these areas of their bodies also become bright red during aggressive encounters.
Juveniles are similar to adults but without head plumes. The colors on their bills and legs are also lighter, with lores and legs more greenish-yellow.
- Egretta thula
- Length: 22 – 27 in (56 -69 cm)
- Weight: 16.75 oz (475 g)
- Wingspan: 39.4 in (100 cm)
Snowy Egrets migrate from most US states, except along the Gulf Coast and southwest coast. They remain all year in Mexico, Central, and South America.
You can find Snowy Egrets in shallow, wetland habitats such as marshes, riverbanks, lakesides, pools, salt marshes, and estuaries. For nesting, they prefer swamp forests with protective trees and bushes.
Snowy Egret Call:
Fun Fact: Snowy Egrets were almost hunted down to extinction because of their beautiful white head feathers that were the perfect decoration or accessory to women’s hats.
10. Snow Bunting
Snow Buntings spend winter in South Dakota and are spotted from October to April. They occur in 2% of checklists at this time.
Snow Buntings are medium-sized, gregarious songbirds that inhabit the high Arctic.
Breeding adult males are all white except for black on their backs and wings. Breeding adult females are streaked brown on the back and pale underneath.
Non-breeding male and female Snow Buntings are quite similar with streaked backs, white undersides, and brown patches on their heads. However, non-breeding female Snow Buntings have a stronger reddish coloring than males.
Juvenile Snow Buntings are mostly gray everywhere with dark wings and lighter gray bellies.
- Plectrophenax nivalis
- Length: 6 – 7 in (15 – 17 cm)
- Weight: 1 – 2 oz (28 – 50 g)
- Wingspan: 12 – 14 in (32 – 38 cm)
Snow Buntings breed in Alaska and northern Canada before migrating to southern Canada and the United States for winter. They are also found in western Europe and eastern Russia.
You can find Snow Buntings in rocky habitats in the Arctic during summer. They will also be around areas rich in vegetation like meadows and those places with lichens. In the winter, they may be hard to find because they blend so well in their surroundings, particularly in barren fields.
Snow Buntings usually forage for weeds and seeds on the ground or collect them from flowering plants. They also occasionally eat insects and small crustaceans when near the coast.
Snow Bunting Calls:
Nests of Snow Buntings are hidden in rocky crevices in boulder fields. Females line the nest with moss, grass, feathers, and fur to keep the eggs warm.
She will lay up to seven eggs and will stay on the nest for the whole incubation period of ten to fifteen days. The male’s job is to feed his partner as she cannot leave the nest.
Fun Fact: Unlike other songbirds, Snow Buntings’ feathers do not molt and change color by rubbing the brown tips of the feathers to reveal the white feathers below.
11. Snowy Owl
Snowy Owls are vulnerable species in South Dakota but they spend winter in the east of the state from November to April. They are recorded in 2% of winter checklists.
12. Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swans are not very common in South Dakota but they can be spotted in the state all year.
The Trumpeter Swan has the distinction of being the longest and heaviest living bird native to North America. It is also recognized as the heaviest flying bird in the world.
Trumpeter Swans are entirely white except for their black bills, legs, and feet. There is a black patch on their face, seemingly connecting their eyes to their bills. Their heads and neck may occasionally show some rust-brown coloring because of their contact with iron elements in wetland soils.
Juvenile Trumpeter Swans are mostly dusky-gray, with a pink center on their black bills.
- Cygnus buccinator
- Length: 58 – 72 in (147 – 183 cm)
- Weight: 401.6 oz (11381 g)
- Wingspan: 72 – 102 in (183 – 259 cm)
Trumpeter swans breed in Alaska and western and southern Canada before migrating to ice-free coastal regions. Those in northwestern and northern US states often stay all year but may move around depending on the weather.
You can find Trumpeter Swans in marshes, lakes, and rivers with dense vegetation. They breed in open areas near shallow waters. They are sometimes seen on agricultural fields, too.
Trumpeter Swans Call:
Fun Fact: Trumpeter Swans generally mate for life. When nesting, there is always one adult that stays with the nest. They are both territorial and aggressive when it comes to protecting their nesting area.
13. Tundra Swan
Tundra Swans are usually spotted in South Dakota during migration from March to April and October to December but few stay until winter. They appear in up to 2% of checklists during migration.
Tundra Swans are identifiable because of the yellow patches at the base of their bills, but sometimes these do not appear. They have entirely white bodies with long necks and black bills, legs, and feet.
Juvenile Whistling Tundra Swans are pale brown with white highlights and a mostly pink bill with a black tip and base.
- Cygnus columbianus
- Length: 487 – 58 in (119 – 147 cm)
- Weight: 370.37 oz (10496 g)
- Wingspan: 72 – 84 in (183 – 213 cm)
Tundra Swans breed predominantly in Alaska and Canada before migrating to the United States for winter.
You can find Tundra Swans, as their name suggests, in Arctic tundra. They mostly form flocks in wetlands, marshy lakes, ponds, estuaries, and bays. They also flock together in agricultural fields.
Tundra Swans Call:
Fun Fact: The Tundra Swan used to be called “Whistling Swan” because of the sound their wings make in flight.
14. Common Tern
Common Terns are not very common in South Dakota but they breed here from April to September.
Common Terns are small to medium-sized seabirds considered one of the most widespread terns in North America.
Breeding Common Terns have distinct black caps and napes, white necks and chests, orange bills with a black tip, soft gray bodies which are lighter underneath, and orange legs. Their wings are dark-tipped and form a dark wedge on the upperside of the wingtips. Their tails are white and deeply forked.
Non-breeding adult Common Terns lose the front portion of their black caps and are left with white foreheads. Their bills and legs turn black.
Juveniles are a pale version of non-breeding adults.
- Sterna hirundo
- Length: 13 – 16 in (33 – 41 cm)
- Weight: 5.15 oz (146 g)
- Wingspan: 30 – 31 in (76 – 79 cm)
You can find Common Terns close to the water (whether freshwater or saltwater) as long as it’s in any open flat habitat like sand or shell beaches, firm dune areas, salt marshes, or islands during their breeding season.
In winter, Common Terns occur anywhere that has access to fish. They may be on natural sand and shell beaches, marine habitats, estuaries, and large inland lakes. They are also known to rest on boats, buoys, and piers.
Common Tern calls:
Fun Facts: In the 19th century, there was a huge decrease in the population of Common Terns due to fashion. Entire stuffed Common Terns were used to make hats in Europe and North America.
15. Whooping Crane
Whooping Cranes are endangered species in South Dakota but some have been spotted here during migration.
Whooping Cranes are majestic birds with graceful courtship dances and trumpeting calls. They were so endangered that only around 20 survived in the 1940s but efforts to save them have increased their number to 600.
They have all-white bodies, a red crown, a black facial mask, and black feathers that are only visible in flight on their 7-foot wingspan. Their long legs are also black.
Juveniles also have white bodies but they have several splotches of rust. Their heads and upper necks are rust-brown.
- Grus americana
- Length: 52 in (132 cm)
- Weight: 204.8 oz (5804 g)
- Wingspan: 87 in (221 cm)
Whooping Cranes breed in a small area in Canada and migrate to Texas and a reintroduced population that breeds in Wisconsin migrates to Florida.
You can find Whooping Cranes in shallow wetlands and plenty of bulrushes and aquatic plants during the breeding season. Their wintering grounds are shallow bays, tidal flats, and estuarine marshes and sometimes on nearby farmlands and rolling grasslands.
Whooping Crane Calls:
Fun Fact: The Whooping Crane has the distinction of being the tallest bird native to North America at nearly five feet tall, nearly as tall as a human and they have been taught their migration routes to reintroduced areas by following ultralight aircraft.
Gyrfalcons spend winter in South Dakota and are spotted from November to March but they are not very common here.
Gyrfalcons are the largest Falcons and are apex predators of the Arctic, where they snatch birds from the sky or dive at great speed to catch unsuspecting prey from the ground.
Their coloring varies greatly but generally have three morphs – white, silver/gray, and dark. Silver/gray is most common in North America
The silver/gray morphs are heavily banded gray and white on their upperparts but some are mostly gray without obvious banding. Their underparts are evenly spotted and white at the throat. Juveniles have solid dark heads and are browner overall.
The White morphs of Gyrfalcons are white with brown/black barring on their upperparts with dark wingtips and a white tail. Some birds have barring on their tails and spots on their breasts. Juveniles are similar but have more barring on their upperparts but have faint streaks on their underparts.
- Falco rusticolus
- Length: 20 – 25 in (51 – 64 cm)
- Weight: 41.6 oz (1179 g)
- Wingspan: 48 – 64 in (122 – 163 cm)
Gyrfalcons are found predominantly in the arctic and sub-arctic around the world. Those that breed in the high arctic of Canada migrate to the rest of Canada and into the United States for winter.
You can find Gyrfalcons in one of the harshest places on earth, the arctic tundra (treeless shrublands and plains). They usually stay on cliffs near shorelines or rivers and with a vast open space where they can easily hunt prey. When they migrate during the winter, they stay in areas with plenty of birds for them to hunt, like coasts, reservoirs, grasslands, farmlands, and river valleys.
Fun Fact: When the chicks aren’t able to finish off their meal, the female Gyrfalcon will keep or store their leftovers behind some vegetation to retrieve later.
How Frequently White Birds Are Spotted In South Dakota In Summer And Winter
Checklists are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted in your state. These lists show which white birds are most frequently recorded on checklists on ebird in summer and winter in South Dakota.
White Birds in South Dakota in summer:
Great Blue Heron 10.8%
American White Pelican 8.3%
Rock Pigeon 7.7%
Ring-billed Gull 6.7%
Great Egret 3.0%
Cattle Egret 1.0%
Snowy Egret 0.8%
Snow Goose 0.8%
Common Tern 0.4%
Trumpeter Swan 0.3%
Ross’s Goose <0.1%
Whooping Crane <0.1%
Tundra Swan <0.1%
White Ibis <0.1%
White Birds in South Dakota in winter:
Rock Pigeon 11.4%
Ring-billed Gull 3.0%
Snow Goose 2.9%
Snow Bunting 2.0%
Snowy Owl 2.0%
Great Blue Heron 1.4%
Ross’s Goose 0.7%
American White Pelican 0.4%
Trumpeter Swan 0.3%
Tundra Swan 0.2%
Whooping Crane <0.1%