Both the National Audubon Society, named after naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, agree that North America is home to over 2,059 diverse bird species.
Narrowing that down to eleven of the smallest birds in North America was no easy task. In this article, we look at their size, characteristics, behavior, size, wingspan, and habitats.
With so many hummingbird species in North America, this list could almost be filled up by them. However, there are also some other small birds that I have included on this list.
11. Downy Woodpecker
The Downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker species in North America. Both males and females reach 5.5-6.7 inches long and weigh just 0.7-1.0 ounces with a 9.8-11.8-inch wingspan.
Downy woodpeckers inhabit woodlands with deciduous trees, bushes, and weeds. Many species can also be found in orchards and urban settings like parks or backyards.
The downy Woodpecker is a common black-and-white spotted woodpecker. As with other Woodpecker species, they peck into the outer layers and bark on trees for insects to eat.
Like other woodpecker species, Downy Woodpeckers communicate through drumming. They use their bills to create rapid and distinctive drumming sounds on trees. This drumming serves various purposes, including marking territory and attracting mates.
- Habitat: Downy Woodpeckers are adaptable and can be found in a wide range of habitats, including forests, woodlands, suburban areas, parks, and gardens. They often inhabit areas with trees and shrubs, as they rely on trees for feeding and nesting.
- Feeding Habits: These woodpeckers primarily feed on insects and larvae found in trees and shrubs. They use their strong bills to peck and drill into bark, searching for hidden insects. They also eat seeds and berries, especially during the colder months when insects are less abundant.
- Nesting and Reproduction: Downy Woodpeckers nest in cavities they excavate in dead trees or limbs. They use their bills to create these cavities, often selecting areas with softer wood. The female typically lays 3-8 white eggs, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the young.
10. Dark-eyed Junco
The second-largest small bird on this top ten list is the Dark-eyed junco. The Dark-eyed Junco is a small, migratory bird species that belongs to the sparrow family. Both sexes reach a length of between 5.5 and 6.3 inches, with a weight of 0.6-1.1 ounces and a wingspan of 7.1-9.8 inches.
In the western United States and the Appalachians, Dark-eyed juncos reside in coniferous forests and have blackheads on tiny, brown bodies, while other species are gray.
The dark-eyed junco is one of the most abundant forest bird species. As with most bird species in North America, they face population issues due to habitat loss caused by urban development. The dark-eyed juncos can also be found in open fields, woodlands, parks, and backyards.
One of the notable features of Dark-eyed Juncos is the significant variation in their plumage. They have various color morphs, often corresponding to their geographic location and the time of year. The most common plumage forms include:
- Slate-colored Junco: This is the most widespread and recognizable form. It has a slate-gray body with a white belly and white outer tail feathers.
- Oregon Junco: This form has a darker, richer gray upper body with a distinct dark hood, brown back, and pink sides.
- White-winged Junco: Found in the western part of their range, this form features a dark hood and white wingbars on its gray wings.
9. Bewick Wren
Wrens are small birds with many species, including the Bewick Wren, house wren, and Carolina wren. Both males and females reach about 5.1 inches in length and weigh just 0.4 ounces
Increases in house wren populations have caused declines in the Bewick’s Wren populations in the eastern United States. House Wrens knock eggs to the ground and have directly affected the Bewick’s wrens’ populations. Eggs knocked to the ground become meals for snakes, birds of prey, squirrels, or raccoons.
The wide range of the Bewick wren is impressive. They live from Central America and the West Indies up to Canada. Some even migrate to the southernmost point of South America.
The plumage of the Bewick’s Wren can vary slightly, but it generally has the following characteristics:
- Upperparts: The upperparts of the Bewick’s Wren are brown, often with a warm reddish-brown hue. The back and wings are typically streaked with darker brown or blackish markings. The tail is often held upright and is usually barred with black and white.
- Underparts: The underparts are pale buff or whitish with a noticeable buffy wash on the sides of the breast and flanks. The belly is typically lighter in color.
- Face and Head: The face of the Bewick’s Wren is marked with a white or pale eyebrow stripe that extends back from the eye. The crown is brown with dark streaks, and the nape (back of the neck) may also have streaks or markings.
- Bill and Legs: The bill is slender and pointed, and it is often slightly curved. The legs are typically a pale pinkish or grayish color.
8. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Both female and male Ruby-crowned Kinglets range from 3.5-4.3 inches in length and weigh 0.2-0.3 ounces, with wingspans between 6.3-7.1 inches.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are grayish and black and have red or yellow crowns. There are several different Kinglet species, such as the golden-crowned Kinglet, goldcrest Kinglet, and ruby-crowned Kinglets.
- Plumage: The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a rather plain appearance with olive-green upperparts and a whitish belly. One of its most distinctive features, as the name suggests, is the ruby-red crown patch on the head. However, this crown patch is often concealed and not visible unless the bird is excited or displaying. When agitated or during courtship, the male can raise its crown feathers, revealing the vibrant red patch.
- Behavior: Ruby-crowned Kinglets are known for their energetic and active behavior. They are constantly on the move, flitting among branches, foliage, and twigs in search of insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. Their quick movements and restless nature make them a bit challenging to observe closely.
- Range and Habitat: These Kinglets breed in coniferous and mixed forests across North America, primarily in the northern and western parts of the continent. During migration, they can be found in various habitats, including woodlands, shrubby areas, and even gardens.
7. Yellow-rumped Warbler
The yellow-rumped warbler grows between 4.7 and 5.5 inches in length and weighs 0.4-0.5 ounces with a wingspan between 7.5 and 9.1 inches in both males and females.
Habitats include coniferous and deciduous forests. As a migratory bird, the yellow-rumped warbler changes location in the fall before winter to reside in coastal areas, in both urban and wooded and shrubby forests. Warblers range in color from grays to yellows and blue.
It is one of the most widespread and well-known warbler species in North America.
- Plumage: The Yellow-rumped Warbler is known for its striking and distinct plumage, particularly during the breeding season. It has several plumage variations, but the most distinctive features include:
- Myrtle Warbler (Eastern): This form has a blue-gray back, white throat, and a yellow patch on its crown and rump. It also has white wingbars and a black streak through the eye.
- Audubon’s Warbler (Western): Found in the western part of North America, this form has a yellow throat and chest, a yellow patch on its crown, and yellow on its rump. It also has white wingbars and a yellow stripe above the eye.
- Habitat and Range: Yellow-rumped Warblers are highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats, including coniferous and mixed forests, woodlands, and even urban areas. They breed in North America and have a wide distribution, both in the breeding season and during migration.
- Feeding Habits: These warblers are known for their ability to eat a variety of foods. They feed on insects during the breeding season, but they are also one of the few warbler species that can digest waxy berries, such as those from wax myrtle and bayberry plants. This allows them to remain in more northerly areas longer into the fall and early winter when insects are less abundant.
Verdin are grayish-blue and yellow and forage insects and plants, enjoying the remnants of dried sugars from hummingbird feeders.
Verdin predominately reside in the southwestern United States. Both males and females grow to be 3.5-4.3 inches in length and weigh around 0.2-0.3 ounces.
Verdins usually nest and forage in desert shrubs like cacti with remote tree coverage. They are small but strong and have adapted to living in the hot, arid desert environment.
- Plumage: Verdin have a distinctive appearance. They are primarily grayish in color with a pale yellow head and face. Their plumage is muted and well-camouflaged for their desert habitat. They have a thin, slightly curved bill and short wings.
- Habitat and Range: Verdin are adapted to arid and desert environments. They are found in areas with sparse vegetation, including desert scrub, arid washes, and mesquite-dominated habitats. They are common residents in the southwestern United States, particularly in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and parts of northern Mexico.
- Feeding Habits: Verdin are primarily insectivorous, feeding on insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. They also consume nectar and pollen from desert flowers, making them one of the few North American songbird species with a more varied diet that includes plant matter.
- Behavior: These birds are known for their active and acrobatic behavior. They often hop and flit among desert shrubs and trees, searching for food. Their agility allows them to glean insects from leaves and branches.
5. Carolina Chickadee
Chickadees are small North American bird that hails from the tit family. Numerous chickadee species exist, including Black-capped chickadees, Mountain chickadees, Chestnut-backed chickadees, and the Carolina chickadee.
The Carolina chickadee, named by John James Audubon when he was visiting South Carolina, is 3.9-4.7 inches in length, weighs 0.3-0.4 ounces, and has a wingspan of 5.9-7.9 inches.
Chickadee species prefer forested areas, urban backyards, and parks with large trees. Carolina and black-capped chickadees often share territories and are intelligent birds.
- Plumage: Carolina Chickadees have a combination of gray, white, and black plumage. They have a gray back, wings, and cap, a white face, and a black throat patch that extends down to their upper chest. This pattern creates a striking contrast.
- Habitat and Range: These chickadees are primarily found in the southeastern United States, ranging from parts of Texas and Oklahoma to the Atlantic coast. They inhabit a variety of wooded and forested areas, including deciduous and mixed forests, as well as urban and suburban environments.
- Feeding Habits: Carolina Chickadees are insectivorous birds that feed on a wide variety of insects and spiders. They are also known to eat seeds and berries, particularly during the colder months when insects are less abundant.
- Behavior: Chickadees are known for their active and inquisitive behavior. They often forage by hopping among branches and foliage, searching for insects. Chickadees are known to cache food, hiding it in tree crevices or other hidden spots for r consumption.
4. Brown-headed Nuthatch
Male and female Brown-headed nuthatches grow to 3.9-4.3 inches in length and weigh 0.3 ounces. The wingspan usually reaches 6.3-7.1 inches.
Brown-headed nuthatches are a tool-using species. They use bark from tees to cover seeds or as a lever to remove other bark pieces. Brown-headed Nuthatches are social birds, participating in behavior referred to as allopreening. They preen each other, congregating on branches to groom other birds feathers
The oldest known brown-headed Nuthatches were recorded as five years and nine months.
- Plumage: As the name suggests, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has a brown cap on its head, contrasting with its bluish-gray upperparts. The cap extends to its nape, creating a distinctive appearance. The underparts are a pale grayish-white. Its eyes are surrounded by a distinctive black line.
- Habitat and Range: These nuthatches are found in the southeastern United States, ranging from parts of Virginia down to Florida and over to Texas. They are particularly associated with pine forests, where they are often found in mature pine trees.
- Feeding Habits: Brown-headed Nuthatches are primarily insectivorous, feeding on insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. They are skilled at foraging in various positions on tree trunks and branches, including head-down.
- Behavior: One of the unique behaviors of the Brown-headed Nuthatch is its tendency to move head-first down tree trunks, much like woodpeckers and other nuthatch species. This distinctive behavior sets it apart from other nuthatches that typically move in an upward direction.
3. American Bushtit
American Bushtits are the smallest passerines in North America, ranging from 2.8-3.1 inches in length and weighing 0.1-0.2 ounces.
Bushtits prefer oak forests, woodlands full of evergreen trees, while some will reside in urban areas. You may find this species from sea level to elevations over 10,000 feet.
These small songbirds flutter and tweet as they fly between bushes, hanging upside down in search of spiders and other insects. The American Bushtit is commonly found in western North America. Constantly on the move, American Bushtits mix with other small songbirds, such as chickadees, kinglets, and warblers.
- Plumage: American Bushtits have plain, subtle plumage. They are grayish-brown overall, with a pale belly and a buffy or grayish throat. Both males and females have similar plumage.
- Habitat and Range: These birds are found primarily in western North America, ranging from southwestern Canada down to Mexico. They inhabit a variety of habitats, including woodlands, chaparral, shrubby areas, and sometimes urban gardens.
- Feeding Habits: American Bushtits are insectivorous birds that feed on a wide range of small insects and spiders. They often forage in small flocks, actively searching for food in shrubs and trees. Their slender bills are well-suited for extracting insects from crevices.
- Behavior: Bushtits are known for their highly social behavior. They often move in small, tight-knit flocks, foraging together and staying in constant contact with each other through soft, high-pitched calls. They are known for their agility and ability to hang upside-down while foraging.
- Nesting and Reproduction: American Bushtits build intricate hanging nests that are often likened to hanging socks or purses. These nests are made from spider silk, plant materials, and feathers, and they provide a well-insulated and cozy environment for raising their young. The female lays a clutch of eggs, and both parents participate in incubation and caring for the chicks.
2. Calliope Hummingbird
The calliope hummingbird is one of the smallest native birds in North America at 3.1-3.5 inches long and weighs only 0.1 ounces with a wingspan of 4.1-4.3 inches.
Calliope Hummingbirds thrive in meadows surrounded by mountains, thickets with a new streaming water source nearby, and forests that are controlled or natural forest fires have burned.
- Plumage: Male Calliope Hummingbirds have a distinctive and vibrant plumage. They have a green back and crown, with a streak of iridescent rose-red on their throat and gorget. The gorget feathers can appear dark when not catching the light, but they shimmer with bright iridescence when the bird moves. Females are generally less colorful, with greenish upperparts and a pale, buffy underbelly.
- Habitat and Range: Calliope Hummingbirds breed in mountainous and subalpine habitats in western North America, particularly in areas with coniferous forests and meadows. They can be found from southern Alaska down to central Mexico. During migration, they may also pass through more open areas.
- Feeding Habits: These hummingbirds primarily feed on nectar from a variety of flowering plants. They have specialized tongues that allow them to extract nectar from flowers. In addition to nectar, they also consume small insects and spiders for protein.
- Behavior: Calliope Hummingbirds are known for their energetic and agile flight. They hover in front of flowers while feeding and can perform impressive aerial displays during courtship. Like other hummingbirds, they are capable of flying in all directions, including hovering and flying backward.
1. Bee Hummingbird
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird species in the world. It is a tiny, iridescent bird that belongs to the family Trochilidae, which includes hummingbirds. The Bee Hummingbird is known for its diminutive size, impressive flight capabilities, and vibrant plumage.
The Bee Hummingbird is incredibly small, measuring only about 2 to 2.4 inches in length. It holds the title of being the smallest bird on the planet.
On average, a Bee Hummingbird weighs an incredible 0.056 to 0.067 ounces. This featherweight makes them one of the smallest and lightest bird species in the world. Their lightweight build is essential for their agile flight and hovering capabilities, which allow them to feed on nectar and catch insects while in mid-air.
- Plumage: Male Bee Hummingbirds have iridescent plumage that can appear greenish or bluish, depending on the angle of light. They have a colorful throat patch, or gorget, that ranges from bright red to violet-purple, depending on the lighting conditions. Females generally have more subdued plumage, often grayish-green with a white underbelly.
- Habitat and Range: Bee Hummingbirds are found exclusively in Cuba and the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) in the West Indies. They inhabit a range of habitats, including forests, gardens, and coastal areas.
- Feeding Habits: Like all hummingbirds, Bee Hummingbirds are primarily nectar feeders. They have long, specialized bills and tongues that allow them to extract nectar from flowers. Despite their small size, they are also capable of catching small insects and spiders to supplement their diet with protein.
- Behavior: Bee Hummingbirds are known for their rapid and agile flight. They are capable of hovering in place, flying backward, and performing intricate aerial maneuvers. Their wings beat at an incredibly high rate, often exceeding 50 times per second.
- Nesting and Reproduction: Bee Hummingbirds construct tiny cup-shaped nests made of plant materials and spider silk. The nests are often well-hidden and placed in shrubs or trees. Females lay eggs that are about the size of peas. The female incubates the eggs and cares for the young on her own.
- Conservation: While Bee Hummingbirds are not considered globally threatened, their populations can be affected by habitat loss and changes in their natural environment. Their restricted range also makes them vulnerable to local disturbances.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.