Bird species are plentiful around the swamps and marshes of the US. The different adaptations in social and feeding behavior mean you can have flocks of shorebirds, water-loving fowl and cormorants, long-legged herons, and all the predatory birds flying overhead. Every species is perfectly adapted to its habitat, leading to massive differences between them.
Swamps are home to water-loving birds such as herons, spoonbills, coots, rails, egrets, ducks, and stilts. However, birds of prey such as the osprey, peregrine falcon, harriers, and even bald eagles can often be seen feeding in marshes.
This guide shows just some of the many varied bird species you may see around marshes.
Herons, egrets, and spoonbills
The tall wading birds are some of the most well-known and easy-to-spot birds in the US’s swamps and marshes. Herons, egrets, and spoonbills can stride through the deep water on their long legs hunting for fish, amphibians, and other prey. Larger herons can stand like statues waiting for the right moment to strike, while egrets are often more active, waving their bright yellow feet like lures and disturbing the water. There are also smaller species like the yellow-crowned night heron.
The roseate spoonbill is an incredible species found in Louisiana and Florida. The name spoonbill comes from the bill’s shape, which it uses to sift through the water for food. Roseate relates to its pink coloration, which makes it stand out from the white Eurasian species. Then there is the more discrete American bittern that hides in the reeds. It is well camouflaged and much shorter, but the male does have a distinctive “booming” call.
Rails and gallinules
Other, smaller species have different ways of getting around in these marshy areas, especially with abundant vegetation. Coots and rails have adaptations in their foot that let them walk over the plants and roots to get around. The most common rail species in the US is the common gallinule, a moorhen that can also use its feet on lily pads and spend time feeding weeds and insects in the water.
Other waterfowl like duck species will venture into marshier areas, but it can depend on the species. The wood duck is one species found year-round in the swamps and marshes of the southern states. It is closely related to the Asian mandarin duck, which is evident in some male and female ducks’ plumage patterns.
This species was in trouble because of the demand for those feathers and meat. Today, it is recovering well, partly thanks to local beaver populations making new habitats. Mallards are also common, as they are across much of the world, and their ability to interbreed with other species leads to some curious hybrids in American wetlands.
Shorebirds of American wetlands.
Out in more coastal marshy areas, you will also find species of waders that take advantage of mudflats for feeding. There are around fifty species in North America. While some look similar in terms of plumage, there are many with clever adaptations to help them find food and their little niche.
Some have longer legs, like the aptly named stilts, to wade out a little further. Others will have specially adapted bills, like the curlew, to probe into the mud or handle certain prey. This is why you will see so many species co-existing and feeding in one area – they aren’t all after the same thing and have safety in numbers.
Kingfisher and snakebird
The diversity of these species continues with some other birds that take advantage of the reeds and waterways for food, nesting, and cover. One species different from anything else here is the belted kingfisher. Kingfishers are incredible hunters of fish, striking into the water with deadly accuracy from perches.
It is common year-round in Louisiana and other southern states but only winters in the south of the swamps and glades of Florida. It is large for a kingfisher and just as bold in its plumage.
Then there is the anhinga. This “snakebird” is closely related to the cormorant, with a similarly long neck but more of a spear-like bill. It spends its time chasing and catching fish in the water.
Birds of prey
Where there is a wide range of prey birds to be found, you are also sure to find predatory birds to take advantage of them. Harriers, eagles, and falcons can take advantage of the abundance of food in their way. Each bird has its own set of skills and preferred prey, making it the master of its food chain.
Harriers will pass over reed beds in marshy areas, flushing out their prey with incredible agility. Peregrine falcons are commonly associated with cities, with many attacking urban pigeons. But, they are also coastal birds nesting on cliffs.
They will keep watch over marshes where wading birds gather to feed. The waders may try predator satiation by rising together in a tight group, making it harder for the peregrine to hone in on one individual bird. But, the peregrine is also fast and deadly. Meanwhile, ospreys and bald eagles will turn their attention to the waters and take fish. The osprey has a clever trick of holding its prey in line with flight direction to reduce wind resistance.
This guide is far from complete. It merely provides a snapshot of some of the different groups of birds that you can find in these areas and key species of interest. If you head to a marsh or estuary and look at the mudflats, you will be amazed at how many birds are there and how this changes with the seasons. Some birds are a common sighting, while others are rarer and more secretive. You may even get the odd migrant passing by. Wherever you go, you will find diversity.
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.