National Wildlife Refuge System

Spectacular Birds

Pileated Woodpecker on Snag
Pileated Woodpecker on Snag
Credit: Jim Williams

To the uninitiated, birding may seem just too difficult – all that squinting through binoculars, trying to distinguish subtle marks on tiny creatures. There's an easy solution: Begin with the big birds – hard to miss for their size and often dramatic plumage. National wildlife refuges across the country offer great places to find them.

Sandhill cranes – grey-brown birds with wingspans of up to seven feet, thin stick legs and long necks – do an eye-catching mating dance each spring. Famed naturalist Aldo Leopold described sandhill cranes as "nobility in the midst of mediocrity." Each year, an estimated 12,000 lesser sandhill cranes flock to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon in April as they make their way to breeding grounds in Alaska.

Once an important food source, wild turkeys were eliminated from much of their range by the early 1900s owing to unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. A modern conservation success story, flocks have since been reintroduced in many places. Male birds, known as gobblers, measure almost four feet in height and weigh up to 25 pounds; hens can get up to 15 pounds. Kentucky has one of the most abundant wild turkey populations and at Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge turkeys are visible year-round. The best time to see them is in late March and early April.

Some of the other national wildlife refuges where wild turkeys can be seen and hunted include Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, Erie National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania, and Little Pend Oreille in Washington.

The tricolored heron dresses up for breeding season: A tuft of long blue plumes pokes from its head like an elaborate hat. In other parts of the year, it drops the feathers for a lower profile. The two-foot-tall birds nest in colonies, often with other herons, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs.

At Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Alabama coast, tricolored herons can be spotted along with a multitude of other avian species. During winter and spring migration, as many as 400 bird species have been counted on the refuge, a favorite stopover for neotropical birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Other wildlife refuges where tricolored herons can be seen include Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges in Florida.

The inspiration for the classic cartoon character Woody the Woodpecker, pileated woodpeckers are more likely to be heard before they are seen. And they have a distinct call, notes Juancarlos Giese, deputy project leader at Rydell National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota. "It's call is a loud, ringing 'Kuk-Kuk-Kuk' that can be heard up to a mile away." The cackling call is often accompanied by loud and rapid pecking as they search for insects in trees. Rydell National Wildlife Refuge provides seven miles of interpretive trails, five miles of which are paved and wheelchair accessible. The Friends of Rydell National Wildlife Refuge provide tours of those trails on electric golf carts.

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Last updated: August 19, 2009