There are over 400 species of native birds in Tennessee, with over 100 of them being birds common to Tennessee. In other words, there are a lot of feathers flashing around in the Volunteer State!
So these TN birds have plenty of wild spaces to roam… and that’s not even getting into the numerous common backyard birds of Tennessee.
With such a vast, varied landscape, and so many birds mocking (the Tennessee State Bird is the Northern Mockingbird), migrating, and making homes, we can’t hope to cover them all here.
But while this is not a complete Tennessee bird identification guide, it is a great list of some beautiful TN birds that visitors are likely to spot during their travels.
Whether it’s the small birds of Tennessee or the mountain birds of ol’ Rocky Top, it’s always a lot more fun to know a bit about the fine feathered friends you find.
Read on for an in-depth guide to some of my favorite birds of Tennessee, in hopes that maybe you can spot them during your Tennessee vacation!
READ MORE: 25 Beautiful Birds of North Carolina
Birds of Tennessee Guide
- Belted Kingfisher (Megacery alcyon)
- Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias)
- Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous)
- Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)
- American Kestral (Falco sparverius)
- Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
- Barred Owl (Strix varia)
- Red-Tailed Hawk (Butea jamaicensis)
- Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
- Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
- Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
- Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
- Blue grosbeak (Passerina coerulea)
- Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
- Eastern Blue Bird (Sialia sialis)
- Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)
- Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
- Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
- Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)
READ MORE: 20 Beautiful Birds of Virginia
Water Birds of Tennessee
1. Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfishers have swaths of blue and white with red accents, and their head is adorned with a mohawk of feathers.
They’re usually easy to spot because they’re easy to hear. They come racing into areas with machine gun-like chittering calls to let others know to get out of the way.
Then they dart from perch to perch, gazing down into the water in search of fish, crayfish, tadpoles, and frogs.
The Belted Kingfisher is present in every county of Tennessee, and can often be spotted near clear water with fish.
READ MORE: The Ultimate Ocoee River Rafting Guide
2. Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Herons are massive and majestic birds (the largest heron in North America). They’re fantastic fun to watch as they stalk around the shallows of ponds, streams, and lakes in search of lunch.
Despite their name, these beautiful herons are more grayish than blue, with long, pointy yellow bills and slender S-shaped necks.
Their legs are spindly, with brownish feathers at the upper portion. This gangly appearance often gets them confused with cranes.
Great Blue Herons can have a wingspan up to 6 feet and stand nearly 4 feet tall when wading through the water or walking in pastures. They feed primarily on fish, but are known to eat small field mice as well.
These Tennessee water birds are found throughout the state, almost anywhere there’s a body or flow of water.
READ MORE: The 20 Best NC Swimming Holes for Summer
The most common shorebird in North America, Killdeers are year-round residents in Tennessee. They make their homes in sports fields, lawns, gravel roads, pastures, and mudflats.
Killdeers are medium-sized birds a little under a foot long, with a wingspan of about 2 feet.
They have brown backs and heads, with a white underside. Their most striking features are the black rings around their necks, and deep red eyes.
One of the cooler Killdeer behaviors is a broken wing deception. If a potential predator nears their nest, one of the parents will fake an injury and lure the predator away. Once it has been distracted, the Killdeer flies to safety.
These birds are found throughout the state of Tennessee, often hanging out in open habitats like golf courses, plowed fields, and airports.
4. Wood Duck
Wood Ducks are generally shy and often dash towards cover when spotted, but it’s possible to see them around quiet ponds, shallow lakes, swamps, and slow-moving streams.
We have a Wood Duck couple that visits us a few times a year, usually swimming around the pond near the forest edge in the early morning.
Male Wood Ducks are strikingly attractive birds. Their heads have geometric patterns of black, white, green, and red, all of which is accentuated by a feathery tuft at the back.
They have a mottled brown chest, blue-tipped wings, and golden sides, while the female is best described as brownish.
In Tennessee the Wood Duck is more of a spring/summer breeding bird than a winter bird. They’re common around forest wetlands, and wildlife refuges often attract them with nesting boxes.
Tennessee Birds of Prey
5. American Kestrel
Although commonly known as a Sparrow Hawk in the past, the American Kestrel is actually a falcon. In fact, it’s the smallest, most widespread falcon, and it is by far the most colorful.
Measuring about 9 inches long and weighing about a 1/4-pound, American Kestrels eat big bugs, small mammals, amphibians, and smaller birds.
These birds of prey tend to hang out in open areas with plenty of human activity, such as crop fields, pastures, and roadsides. They’ll often hover a few feet above the ground when hunting.
They have pointed wings and long tails, bright faces with dark mustaches, and eye spots on the back of their heads. Their backs are rusty, their wings are blue-gray, and their chest is pale with black spots.
American Kestrels can be spotted anywhere in Tennessee, often perched along roadsides on telephone poles or power lines. Look for them from October to April.
6. Bald Eagle
The Bald Eagle isn’t the most common of the many birds of prey in Tennessee, but it’s always so exciting to see them and they are truly remarkable to behold.
Despite being America’s national symbol, Bald Eagles have had serious struggles in the lower 48 states. In fact, DDT nearly made them extinct in the 1960s.
After the pesticide was banned in 1972, the birds recovered sufficiently enough to be taken off of the IUCN’s threatened and endangered species lists.
There are now nearly 200 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Tennessee. Hundreds more come during winter, peaking in late January.
Bald Eagles can grow up to 3 feet long and have a wingspan of over 6 feet. They have white heads and tails, and their bodies are dark brown. The eyes, beak, and legs are golden yellow.
They live in forested areas near large bodies of water, such as reservoirs and large rivers. Their favorite meal is fish, but they are opportunistic and will also munch on waterfowl, mammals, and carrion as well.
7. Barred Owl
There are 7 types of owls in Tennessee, but we chose the Barred Owl as our representative for a few reasons.
First off, they look the part so splendidly, and they give the characteristic “hoot.” They’re also a bit more likely to be seen in the daytime than other Tennessee owl species.
Barred Owls measure about 17 inches tall, with a wingspan over 3 feet.
They have stocky bodies, large heads (with no ear tufts), gray-brown feathers, dark eyes surrounded by white feathers, and dull yellow beaks.
You’ll likely hear them before you see them. They tend to call out quite a few times, and it is said to sound like someone saying, “Who cooks for you?”
They like to hang out in forest areas near swamps or bottomlands, where they hunt for small rodents, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.
Barred owls are most common in West and Central Tennessee, but they can be found throughout the state.
8. Red-Tailed Hawk
The Red-tailed Hawk ranks among the largest hawks in Tennessee (and the US), growing to around 18 inches long, with a wingspan of over 4 feet.
They have all sorts of feather patterns and colors, but they’re named after the reddish tail that adult birds have.
Red-tailed Hawks are known for their distinctive call, which is the raspy cry we hear almost anytime a movie shows a bird of prey.
These birds are commonly spotted throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. They often hang out on perches around pastures and and parks, chilling on power poles and power lines while keeping an eye out for prey.
They’re year-round, all-county birds in Tennessee, but their numbers are highest here during the winter.
Forest Birds of Tennessee
9. Cedar Waxwing
The Cedar Waxwing is unusual in North America in that it is mostly a fruit-eating bird, with an occasional departure for large insects.
They’re known to winter throughout the USA, but the Cumberland Mountains and East Tennessee are great places to spot breeders.
Colorful Cedar Waxwings have a black strip that runs right above their beak, encompassing their eyes and wrapping around their head.
They have a little crest with cinnamon-colored plumage that goes down to their breasts. Their back and wings have a grayish hue with waxy, red feathers at the tips of the wings and yellow feathers terminating the tail.
Due to the yellow feathers on the tail, these birds are easy to identify in Tennessee, where they’re the only ones with that characteristic. Look for them in spring, summer, and autumn.
10. Pileated Woodpecker
The largest of the woodpeckers in TN (and the entire country), Pileated Woodpeckers are crow-sized birds with black bodies, white stripes around the neck and face, and a flaming red crest.
Pileated Woodpeckers are common forest birds in the Eastern US.
They live in coniferous and deciduous woodlands, feeding primarily on ants and beetle larvae they find in trees. They’ll also eat some fruit and nuts.
These big, beautiful birds typically nest in holes dug into the trunks of dead trees, usually around 35 to 40 feet above the ground.
These holes are vitally important to ecosystems, as many other forest animals will take up residence in them once the woodpeckers have moved on.
11. Wild Turkey
One of the heaviest birds native to Tennessee, Wild Turkeys are fun to spot in the forest or in empty corn fields.
They tend to move in flocks, and in spring the males are often seen strutting around with their terrific tails fanned.
Turkeys are the largest nesting birds in TN, but they can fly for short distances, often to roost in the safety of trees.
Successful males will mate with several females in a single season, but the females work alone in building nests and raising the offspring.
Blue Birds in Tennessee
12. Barn Swallow
Barn Swallows appeal to me because they have lovely coloring, so much so that they’re popular as tattoos. They often show up in pairs to represent soul mates, a.k.a. true love.
These are the most abundant swallows in the world. They have metallic blue wings, whitish-brown undersides, and red faces. Like martins, swifts, and other swallows, their tails are distinctively forked.
Barn Swallows are named for their tendency to nest in the ceiling of outdoor structures.
They were originally found primarily in caves and caverns, but almost exclusively use buildings now. So they’re often in close contact with people.
I had the pleasure of working on a property with a shed where Barn Swallows nested and flitted in and out constantly to feed.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Caves and Caverns in Virginia
13. Blue Grosbeak
Spotting a Blue Grosbeak in the wild is really a special occasion. They’re somewhat reclusive birds, and they’ve only been nesting in Tennessee since the 1940s.
They summer in the Southern US, including Tennessee, and winter in Southern Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Grosbeaks have an unusual cone-shaped bill. Only the males are blue, with rust-colored wing bars, while females are basically brown.
These birds are found in most parts of Tennessee, but they don’t frequent the higher elevations around Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Blue Grosbeaks like to find scrubby fields and unkept pastures. Look for them in late April, and expect them to be gone by the end of September.
14. Blue Jay
Easily on my list of favorite birds, Blue Jays are striking birds with beautiful blue plumage and shocks of midnight black and pure white.
They may seem somewhat common here in the Eastern US, but they are still truly remarkable.
These are the only jays found in Tennessee, and they’re the smartest of the blue birds in TN, known to be great mimics of Red-tailed Hawks.
They’re also very aggressive birds, capable of attacking hawks, owls, snakes, raccoons, and anything else found encroaching on their territory.
Blue Jays are found around forests throughout Tennessee, and they are year-round residents of the state. Flocks are easy to spot in spring and fall, when they’re often on the move.
15. Eastern Bluebird
A classic crowd-pleaser among Tennessee backyard birds, the Eastern Bluebird is super cute.
It’s small and plump, with a blue back and wings, a red chest and neck, and a white belly.
Bluebirds are found everywhere in the state. They’re frequent visitors to gardens, where they can forage on earthworms, insects, and snails.
They also like bluebird houses, so many state/local parks in TN put them up to create “bluebird trails.”
Eastern Bluebirds are frequent visitors around my house, and they are truly one of my favorite birds to spot.
16. Indigo Bunting
Of all the species of blue birds in TN, Indigo Buntings are easily the bluest, with electric blue from their beaks to their tail feathers.
In reality, it’s only the males that are blue, and even they are only blue during mating season. Otherwise, Indigo Buntings are mostly brown.
Indigo Buntings are migratory birds that are primarily found in Tennessee in the summertime. They tend to be spotted along roadsides, and they show up in abundance in shrubby, weedy areas.
These are true songbirds with the habit of repeating catchy phrases that turn into beautiful melodies.
Red Birds in Tennessee
17. Northern Cardinal
Similar to Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals are common backyard birds of Tennessee. But they’re just stupidly gorgeous.
It’s the male cardinals that make the splashy red flashes: They’re bright red with black faces, as seen on countless sport team logos.
Female cardinals tend to be a bit more muted, with earthy colors and a few streaks of dulled red.
Cardinals love to eat berries, insects, and spiders, but seeds are probably their favorite food. They’re also frequent visitors to TN bird feeders.
18. Purple Finch
Goldfinches are generally my favorite finch to see, but Purple Finches are also among the most attractive small birds of Tennessee.
Females and young males are streaked brown and white, with remarkable patterns around their faces. Mature males are similarly streaked, but with a vivid raspberry color instead of brown.
Purple Finches are migratory birds that winter all over Tennessee, but they’re especially fond of cool coniferous forests. They like to eat seeds, flower buds, blossoms, and even nectar.
A great spot to look for Purple Finches is Roan Mountain, which is about 25 miles east of Johnson City TN.
19. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species of hummingbirds in TN that actually breeds there.
It flies non-stop about 20 hours from Southern Mexico and Central America in April, only to turn around and make the return flight across the Gulf of Mexico in October.
Though these spectacular little birds are not totally red, males have a vibrant red throat that warrants their inclusion in this section.
Otherwise, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are iridescent green on top and white on their undersides.
They’re common visitors to local gardens in the summer, often making squeaky noises as they flitter around in search of nectar.
Male hummingbirds are extremely territorial and will mate with several females.
20. Scarlet Tanager
Male Scarlet Tanagers are a combination of impossible red (body and head) and black (wing and tail).
But the females almost don’t seem to be of the same species, with yellow bodies and gray wings!
Scarlet Tanagers are summer migrants, flying in from South America. You can expect to see them throughout Tennessee between mid-April and mid-October.
Note that these colorful birds can be hard to spot, as they usually like to hang out high in the canopy of mature hardwood forest.
The best time to see a Scarlet Tanager is when they first arrive in Tennessee, prior to the trees leafing out. Just look for flashes of red in the treetops. –Jonathon Engels; lead photo of a Blue Bird in TN via Canva