This interactive guide to the more than 400 species of Nebraska birds features photographs, sounds and descriptions of each species' appearance, habitat, range, call and more. Use this guide to identify a backyard visitor or to learn more about your favorite avian species. Choose an option at left to begin your search or browse through the guide using the links below.
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Bird Orders (groups):
Anseriformes — ducks, geese, swans
An order of 2 families worldwide — a South American family (Anhimidae) and a North American family made up of 148 species (Anatidae - ducks, geese and swans). All ducks, geese and swans are swimmers with thick, waterproof plumage. They are also web-footed and have somewhat flattened lamellate bills (a series of toothlike ridges or teeth along inside edge of bill).
Apodiformes — swifts, hummingbirds
Apodos from the latin term apous means without feet. Despite the name, the birds in the order do have feet, although small and inconspicuous. The two families of this order represented in North America are the Swift Family, very fast-flying insect eaters and the most aerial of all land birds, and the Hummingbird Family. The hummingbirds are among the smallest of all birds, fast-flying, and eat insects and nectar. They are also known for hovering in flight and usually have iridescent plumage. The small fragile birds in this order are not well represented in fossil records. However, a few remains of a swift from the lower Miocene age revealed that swifts were well separated from hummingbirds at least 40 million years ago.
Caprimulgiformes — nightjars
From a legend, members of this order sucked the milk of goats in the night. Seven species occur in North America. Birds in this order are crepuscular to nocturnal, medium sized, not songbirds, but somewhat owl-like. Most are insect eaters, have long pointed wings, and often perch lengthwise on branches unlike most birds that perch crosswise. This group is known for their flat heads, and a small but wide gapping mouth with long rectal bristles around it. One species of North American goatsuckers- the Poor-will - often reaches a state of deep torpor under natural conditions as a response to stress and hunger.
Charadriiformes — shorebirds, gulls, terns
The order of Charadriformes includes 16 families and 314 species worldwide. Of the 16 families, 11 are represented in North America including 5 families found in Nebraska. Members of this order spend much time in, on or near the water. The fossil record of the order goes back to the Cretaceous Period, about 75 million years ago. The order is broken down into three suborders: the Charadrii, the shorebirds; Lari, the gulls; and Alcae, the auks.
Ciconiiformes — herons, ibises, vultures
An order of birds made up of 112 species and includes 7 families worldwide. Four families are represented in North America and in Nebraska. Most of these birds are categorized as waders and have adapted to living in marshes or shallow waters (except the Vultures).
Scientists were led to question the relationships between new world vultures and the rest of the raptors due to a few points. New world vultures have different feet than all other raptors. Birds like eagles and hawks, have powerful talons. The hallux, or opposable rear toe, is extremely well developed. This construction makes possible the raptor's "feet first" hunting style. In opposition, the foot of the New World vulture is flattened. It lacks gripping capabilities. The hallux on a new world vulture (opposable rear toe) is small and actually raised from the base of the foot. It bears some resemblance to a dew claw of sorts. Some New World vultures are incapable of completely closing the foot.
Vultures resemble storks on the basis that their thigh muscles are distinct, and their intestinal tracts are both coiled in intricate patterns that are not found in hawks. In the 1960's it was suggested that the New World Vultures were related to storks and then later supported by DNA analysis (Wink 1995) that new world vultures are related to the order Ciconiiformes rather than Falconiformes as was originally assumed.
Columbiformes — pigeons, doves
An order or group of bird represented by 311 species worldwide, made up of two living families (the Sandgrouse family of Europe and the Pigeon family) and one extinct family, Raphidae, which includes the Dodo and two species of Solitares. All members of the order are land birds and share similar traits like, compact dense plumage in special feather tracts, a well-developed crop, and they all feed their young by regurgitation.
The Dodo, discovered on Mauritius Island, was a large flightless, land-dwelling pigeon as big as a turkey. It was discovered in 1598 was extinct by 1681- it was edible and easily killed for food by visiting seamen and explorers.
The Passenger Pigeon, also extinct, was believed to have numbered in the 3-5 billion range and that the population formed 25-40% of the total bird population of what is now the U.S. The habitat in which they roamed was approximately a billion acres of forest that produced large quantities of beechnuts, acorns and other favored foods. As late as 1871 as many as 136 million pigeons concentrated in one nesting colony that was approximately 850 square miles in area. About 700,000 birds were killed per month for market. The last nest of the wild passenger pigeon was reported in 1894. The species existence seemed to depend on close association in large numbers with others of its kind. The small remnant populations were scattered and separated and were unable to reproduce in sufficient numbers to survive.
Coraciiformes — kingfishers
All birds in the order have syndactylous toes, two toes and sometimes all three of the forward directed toes are joined along part of their length. Most of the birds here are brightly colored, somewhat noisy, have large bills, and eat fish, small mammals, and insects along with some fruits and berries. All nest in cavities or crevices that they excavate using their bill and feet.
Cuculiformes — cuckoos
Includes two families; the Turaco of Africa and the Cuckoo family of 127 species worldwide. Birds in the Cuckoo family (Cuckoo’s and Ani’s) generally live in forested or brushy regions. Birds in this order have zygodactylous feet (two toes forward and two backward). Ani is a Spanish and Portuguese name from the Tupian Indians. Cuckoo’s in general are very shy birds and usually remain concealed in foliage of trees and shrubs. Sometimes called "rain crows" because their calls are thought to predict rain; also known as "kow kow’s" from their calls.
Falconiformes — eagles, hawks, kites, falcons
A group of diurnal birds made up of 271 species worldwide - condors, kites, eagles, hawks, falcons and the osprey. Four families are represented in North America. The Falconiformes order contains the two largest living flying birds – the Andean and California Condors. Birds in the order generally have a hooked bill, a cere [a dense membrane saddled on the upper mandible and "so different from the rest of the bill that it might be questioned whether it belongs to the head than to the bill" (Coues, 1884)] with a centrally located nostril, a grasping raptorial foot, and toes armed with a long, curving claw. All birds in the order are single brooded.
Galliformes — partridges, grouse, turkeys, quail
The Galliformes is an order of chicken-like or fowl-like birds. It is made up of 256 species in 7 families worldwide. Four families occur in North America. Two families are represented in Nebraska. Birds in this order are generally called “game’ birds. They are ground living birds that cannot swim but are good runners. They have a short bill, short, rounded wings, with 10 bowed, stiff primaries, strong legs - often armed with spurs, and all four toes (two forward and two back) have hard nails well adapted to scratching the ground for food.
Gaviiformes — loons
An order of primitive birds that resemble each other in structure and includes 4 species of loons. Loons are thought to have evolved to the present form 60-100 million years ago. Loons are large, foot-propelled, water birds that catch fish with their straight, sharply pointed bills. They are very well adapted to life in the water with long, torpedo shaped bodies and legs that grow far back on the body, in addition to having fully webbed toes.
Gruiformes — rails, cranes
A very ancient order of birds dating back to the Eocene Period. Sometimes referred to as the "group of misfits" because the order contains a mixed bag of species that do not seem to fit anywhere else. The birds in the Gruiformes order are known for their polyandry (where a female is mated to more than one male), with the larger females taking the lead in courtship.
Passeriformes — passerine birds
The Latin name means sparrow-shaped. The Passerines or "perching" birds make up the largest order of birds in the world. There are 59 families represented by 5,100 species of birds. In North America, there are 28 families represented. This order of birds are known to be the highest, or evolutionarily most advanced, order of all because they are the most adaptive and intelligent. The feet of all birds in this order have three toes directed forward and one backward, and adapted to gripping a perch. In addition, the muscles and tendons in the legs are arranged so that if the bird begins to fall backward, the muscles tighten and the grip strengthens on the branch, twig or stem.
Pelicaniformes — pelicans, cormorants
An order of 55 species of water birds represented by six families that can be found in North America. Three families are represented in Nebraska. The Pelicaniformes are an ancient group of birds dating from remains of a cormorant like bird that was at least 100 million years old. All of these birds have short legs, big wings and most swim well but walk poorly. Most members of this order have a gular pouch, which reaches its greatest development in the pelicans. "A wonderful bird is a pelican, his bill will hold more than his belican" (Austin 1961). All birds in this order have a "totipalmate foot," which means that all four toes on each foot, including the hind one, are united by a web of skin.
Piciformes — woodpeckers
The Latin name means woodpecker-like. There are 375 species of birds in the order. The outer of the three front toes in most Picoformes is reversed, which gives the birds two toes forward and two toes behind. Only one family (the woodpecker family) in the Piciformes is represented in North America. All the Piciformes are predominately tree dwellers and excavate tree cavities for nest sites.
Podicipediformes — grebes
Austin (1961) states that Podicipediformes means "the rump-foots," referring to the feet being so far back on the body. There are about 20 species of grebes worldwide. Like loons, the grebes are foot-propelled, diving birds with short wings. The toes of grebes are lobed.
Psittaciformes — parrots
The order includes one family - the parrot family. Two species occurred in the United States; the Thick-billed Parrot and the Carolina parakeet. All birds in the order have large heads, a short neck, and a down-curved, hooked bill, with a bulging cere that is feathered at the base. They also have short legs and long, grasping feet with toes that are zygodactylous (two in front and two in back). Before European settlement of North America the Carolina Parakeet was found in deciduous forests from southern Virginia, south through Florida and west to the edge of the river valley forests of eastern Texas, Okalahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. The Carolina Parakeet was the only parakeet native to the U.S. and was the most northern in its range of any parrot in the world. Now extinct. The species was in high demand as a cage bird and therefore trapped by professionals. They were also shot in great numbers because the brilliant plumage was in high demand for the millinery trade. The greatest numbers were shot by landowners because of the parakeet's habit of eating apples and grain crops.
Strigiformes — owls
Includes two families; the Barn Owl family and the typical Owl family. There are about 134 species of owls worldwide. All owls in the order have large heads, soft plumage, and large eyes that look forward and are surrounded by a facial disk of feathers. They have strong feet with four toes. The outer toe of each foot is reversible so that the owl may perch with two toes forward and two back (usual) or with three forward and one back (as in perching birds). The owls usually hunt at night but not all species hunt only at night. An owl can rotate its head on its neck for about 270 degrees, but the story that owls can turn their heads completely around is not true. Most owls have a soft, saw-toothed leading edge on their first primary feathers. This reduces the noise of the air passing over the wings and allows owls to fly silently through the night.