Most of the birds we encounter daily are small passerines or songbirds. They twitter through our gardens and backyards, calling to each other while looking for food. But rarely do we see the giant birds that soar over open grasslands or perch in towering trees on majestic mountains. The behemoths of the flying world are typically birds of prey who lead solitary lives away from humans, so we don’t always appreciate their splendor. And seeing these birds up close can be intimidating. Read on to learn more about the largest birds in North America, including where to find them and just how big they can grow!
What’s the largest bird in North America? The California condor! These New World vultures weigh around 20 pounds, stand four feet tall, and feature an impressive 9.5-foot wingspan. The average height of a man is five feet, nine inches, so this bird is so big it can completely envelop a fully grown man with its wings. The condor has had a complicated history with humans, becoming extinct in the wild in 1987 due to lead ingestion from bullet fragments in carcasses. Today they are still listed as endangered, but small populations live in several southwestern states, including California, Arizona, and Utah. You can also find them in Baja California, Mexico. Their habitats include rocky, forested areas like mountains and canyons.
American white pelicans are enormous waterbirds with huge bills, long necks, and broad wings. The average white pelican weighs around 14 pounds and grows between four and five feet long, with a nine-foot wingspan. These majestic birds are smaller than the California condor but larger than an eagle. They breed in Central North America and move farther south to Central America and South America, where they spend their winters. You can find them nesting in shallow wetlands and wintering along coasts and bays.
Bald eagles are majestic birds that have officially represented the United States since 1782; it’s also the most common eagle in the country. The average bald eagle is 2.5 to three feet long, with a 6.5-foot wingspan. Females tend to be larger than males, and the most significant bald eagle population resides in Alaska, where they are a bit smaller, weighing around 17 pounds and featuring eight-foot wingspans. These giant creatures can carry 108% of their body weight, lifting animals weighing up to 15 pounds. Bald eagles reside throughout Canada, the United States, and Northern Mexico, near large bodies of open water; nesting in old-growth trees.
Golden eagles are the most widely distributed eagle species in the Northern Hemisphere, and they are famous for being one of the largest, fastest, and most agile birds in the world. On average, the golden eagle stands at 2.5 to three feet long, weighs ten to 15 pounds, and has a six to seven-foot wingspan. Golden eagles are the fifth largest eagles in the world, and they build gigantic nests. The largest golden eagle’s nest on record was 20 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide! Their range in North America includes Canada, the United States, and Mexico, where they inhabit open mountains, foothills, and plains.
The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture in North and South America and one of the largest birds on the North American continent. Adult turkey vultures average two to four pounds and grow two and a half feet long with a six-foot wingspan. While more prominent than most birds, these vultures are smaller than condors and eagles. They are known for eating carrion, and human garbage. Vultures are often seen circling dead animal carcasses. In North America, they inhabit open and forested habitats and breed in farmlands and low-elevation mountains.
Ospreys are fish-eating birds of prey often referred to as sea hawks. Ospreys can weigh between two and four pounds, stand two feet tall, and spread their wings 4.5 to six feet wide. They are smaller than eagles but larger than hawks and falcons and are easily identified by their long, narrow wings that bend in an M-shape when flying. These birds are a relatively common sight as they soar over shorelines and waterways. They breed along both coasts of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico and from Alaska to Nova Scotia.
The trumpeter swan is the heaviest bird native to North America and the largest extant species of waterfowl. They can weigh up to 30 pounds and grow up to five feet long, with a six-foot wingspan. However, some males are known for growing as tall as six feet, with wings that span ten feet! This species was once endangered but is now recovering. Trumpeter swans can be found in Canada, Alaska, and the Northwestern United States. They live in wetlands during spring and summer and in coastal and inland waters during winter.
The wandering albatross is one of the largest seabirds to inhabit the Southern Ocean. They can weigh up to 28 pounds, reach 4.5 feet tall, and have the longest wingspans of any bird, reaching up to 11 feet! These birds are imposing, with their giant wings outstretched as they fly over the waters near Antarctica. The wandering albatross is native to the far Southern Ocean and is an extremely rare visitor to North America, with only a handful of sightings of the United State’s West Coast.
Ferruginous hawks are large birds of prey in the Buteo genus. It is the largest hawk species in North America and is often mistaken for an eagle due to its enormous size. These birds average 3.3 pounds and are slightly over two feet long, with a 4.5-foot wingspan. Unlike most birds, ferruginous hawks are unafraid of humans and will allow people to approach them closely. They are typically found in the Western United States in wide open spaces, like grasslands, prairies, and scrublands.
Great Grey Owl
Its name is fitting as it is the most giant owl in North America! The great grey is a huge owl and the world’s largest by length. They weigh an average of 2.5 pounds and measure between two and three feet tall, with a four to five-foot wingspan. These powerful owls use their beaks to break through hard-packed snow to search for their prey, including small mammals. They breed in the dense boreal forests of Northern North America, ranging as far south as the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest and the Sierra Nevada in California.
Snowy owls are a scarce sight! These large snow-white owls inhabit the Arctic Regions of North America, with occasional sightings as far south as Washington State. While not quite as enormous as the great grey owl, the snowy species holds its own. Adults weigh around two pounds (on average) and stand 4.5 feet tall, with a four to five-foot wingspan. However, some individuals can weigh up to five pounds and are considered the heaviest owls in North America. Look for them in open areas with few trees, like fields, grasslands, and tundra.
Great Horned Owl
The great horned owl is a stately bird and the most widely distributed true owl in North America. It is one of the most dangerous birds in the world due to its powerful, aggressive hunting style. Their grip strength is impressive, squeezing over 500 pounds per square inch (psi) with their talons. They can carry up to nine pounds! Great horned owls are one of the most common in North America and reside in many habitats, including deserts, forests, grasslands, wetlands, backyards, and cities.
The gyrfalcon is the largest falcon species and somewhat of a rare sight as they spend most of their time in the Northernmost regions of North America. They can weigh up to 4.6 pounds and stand two feet tall, with a four-foot wingspan. This bird can also reach 80 miles per hour and take down prey twice its size. They live primarily in Arctic tundra, open fields, coastlines, and prairies.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jim Cumming/Shutterstock.com
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