Six iconic Southern Utah birds

“Where are all the birds?” It’s a common inquiry we get on our tours that surprised us at first. We finally brought the question to a Utah birding group whose members said there are simply fewer resources to support birds in our arid climate than other places. Folks coming from lush areas out east with rivers, coastlines, lakes and diverse plant life will be used to seeing and hearing more birds back home than our pinyon-juniper forests and sage flats support.

That’s why we’re writing this article, to ensure you’ll have an amazing bird experience while you’re here. Because our birds are located in areas specific to resources, it helps to know where to look. We will also tell you about some of our favorite, most iconic birds we see or hear on our tours: California condor, greater roadrunner, common raven, western meadowlark, canyon wren and pinyon jay. You’ll fall in love with these fascinating birds who represent just six species out of 298 that have been observed in Kane County, Utah. And hopefully you’ll log a couple of lifers while you’re here.

Where can I watch birds near Kanab, Utah?

Jackson Flat Reservoir is our birding hotspot. We see waterfowl you probably didn’t expect in southern Utah, including common loon, snow goose, northern pintail, green-winged teal and hooded merganser, plus lots of more common species such as mallard and American coot. You’ll also find gulls, songbirds, raptors, herons, ravens, and roadrunners. Winter brings a lot of diversity, especially in waterfowl, eagles, raptors and osprey.

Johnson Canyon was called Spring Canyon until 1871 and its water attracts Canada geese, black-billed magpies, and some bird species we don’t see as often such as western tanager, mountain and western bluebird, western meadowlark and spotted towhee. Here is a brochure to enhance your trip up Johnson Canyon.

Kanab Creek is another wet spot that supports plenty of birds. Check out its small reservoir north of Kanab near the Greenlough trailhead, or the creek areas near Best Friend’s Animal Sanctuary, including nearby Hidden Lake. Look for gambel’s quail, wild turkey, broad-tailed hummingbird and black-chinned hummingbird.

Where can I see a California Condor? This is our No. 1 discussed bird species on tour. They sometimes make an appearance flying over the cliffs surrounding Kanab. The best place to see them is Navajo Bridge which crosses Highway 89 south of Page because they are there frequently and you can get a good, close look. Also check out the California Condor release site in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (we often stop there on our White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes tours) Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon, especially the south rim, are also condor hotspots.

Elevation matters. Our varying terrain will allow you to change ecosystems within a short  drive. Head up into the mountainous forests of the Kaibab Plateau near Jacob Lake, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Duck Creek and Navajo Lake or Bryce Canyon National Park to seek out Clark’s nutcracker, steller’s jay, red-breasted nuthatch, spotted towhee, red-headed grosbeak, many kinds of hawks and woodpeckers and perhaps a rarity like dusky grouse.

St. George has a lot of birding spots, too. Here is a great birding resource for that area.

Which birds are we most likely to see on our tours? It obviously varies seasonally and by location, but the birds we see most often are: common raven, lesser goldfinch, juniper titmouse, dark-eyed junco, white-crowned sparrow, house sparrow, Say’s phoebe, black-throated sparrow, house finch, pinyon jay, Woodhouse’s scrub jay, turkey vulture, white-throated-swift, mourning dove, rock wren, Eurasian collared dove, red tailed hawk and black-chinned hummingbird.

A general word about bird conservation

Bird populations have fallen by 3 billion breeding adults in North America since 1970, a major study shows. The scale of loss is unlike anything recorded in modern natural history and it’s happening in virtually every habitat. Habitat loss, pesticides, birds flying into windows, city lights distracting migrating birds, domestic cats killing wild birds, it’s all adding up. One thousand birds died on a single night in 2023 while migrating through Chicago because the lights were left on during a convention in one single building. It’s a tough time to be a bird.

But it’s not all bad news. Focused efforts, like banning DDT and sale of waterfowl stamps to hunters has helped some birds thrive. Populations of waterfowl, raptors and turkeys are up and we can learn from these successes to help other birds. Cornell University offers some tangible ways you can help your feathered friends.

California Condor

Speaking of successful bird conservation, let’s talk about America’s largest bird, the critically endangered California condor. The population fell to just 22 birds in the 1980s, but biologists captured the remaining birds and brought them into captivity where they are bred for release into the wild. There are around 500 California condors in existence now, half wild and half in captivity. About 80 of the wild birds live in northern Arizona and southern Utah and we see them regularly at the condo viewing site on our way to White Pocket at South Coyote Buttes. There were about 100 wild condors in our area, but a bird flu passed through the population starting in 2022 and killed 20 birds.

California condors can have up to a 9-foot wingspan, may be spotted soaring along cliff edges, and can travel 100 miles in a single day in search of food. They are scavengers, preferring carrion from large carcasses, harkening back to when they fed on giant ground sloths, saber tooth cats and mammoths in North America. In our area today, they like to eat dead cattle, deer and sheep.

The Peregrine Fund, which has been breeding and releasing the condors in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument since 1993, says lead poisoning is the leading detriment to the birds. After a recent hunting season, 87% of condors trapped and blood tested had been exposed to lead. The birds consume tiny fragments of lead left in deer by hunters. Hunters can prevent the poisoning by switching to non-lead ammunition and more than 80% of hunters on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau have done so, according to the organization.

The birds are curious and attracted to shiny objects. X-rays have revealed bottle tops and coins in their digestive tracts; one more reason not to trash up our beautiful landscape. Power lines are another detriment because their wings are so large, they can touch two lines at the same time and be electrocuted. Birds born in captivity are trained to avoid power lines before being released into the wild.

California condors might be the ugliest birds around – so ugly some of us think they’re cute. Their featherless heads may be an adaptation to keep blood and guts from sticking them while feeding on rotting carcasses. They also poop on themselves to cool down, perhaps temperature control is more important to them than hygiene. If that’s not enough, condors vomit or regurgitate freshly eaten meat when they are nervous or agitated, but they don’t vomit as a defense mechanism to drive away predators as the myth suggests.

Though the birds have a long way to go to recover, this is a true success story of human intervention to help bring a species back from near extinction.

Greater Roadrunner

Greater roadrunners spend most of their time on the ground and rarely fly. Born to run, they can clock in at 20 miles per hour, and outrun all but the world’s fastest human athletes in a 100-yard dash. The unmistakable birds measure 20 inches long, including their prominent tail. They are expert hunters and eat almost anything they can catch, including snakes, mice, bugs, lizards and birds. YouTube is full of videos of roadrunners dramatically killing and eating rattlesnakes. Sometimes the rattlesnake gets in a lucky strike and kills the bird with its venom, but most often, the roadrunner quickly kills the snake and swallows it whole.

Roadrunners move quickly through the underbrush and never seem to stand still, making them hard to spot. Kanab is also at the very northern end of their range, so they aren’t as prevalent here as in the Mojave desert. Want to see a roadrunner on tour? They are most frequently spotted south of Kanab along highway 89A, which is the typical route we take to White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes. And they spend time on the Arizona Strip and occasionally make an appearance on the long gravel road to Toroweap.

Common Raven

Ravens belong to the corvid family that includes jays, crows and magpies. Corvids are known for their intelligence and ravens are no exception. Studies show ravens learn to use tools to gain food and have learned to recognize specific human faces. They have many calls and can mimic human voices and various sounds they have heard. They are also known to hold grudges against other ravens or people who have wronged them, according to Chirp.

Common ravens are a delight to watch. We see them on all of our tours and you might even hear the cacophony from a nest of chicks in Peekaboo Slot Canyon or Buckskin Gulch in the spring. One can also get a good, close look at common ravens near the Wave as they get more used to seeing so many people there.

Black feathers in the desert? Black feathers seem like a disadvantage in the desert sun, but because the feathers provide such good insulation, very little summer heat actually reaches the bird, according to “What it’s like to be a bird” by David Allen Sibley. In a light breeze, birds with black features actually stay cooler than white birds because the dark feathers absorb light and heat at the surface and allow it to dissipate back into the air. White feathers allow light to penetrate deeper into the feathers closer to the skin. Black feathers also block UV rays and help the birds hide easily in the shadows of a canyon.

Is that a raven or a crow? If you’re on tour with us, it’s probably a raven, but this website explains how to tell the difference. Ravens are considerably larger than crows and they have a huge, thick beak. Their tails are more wedge shaped, while a crow fans out more and their calls sound different.

Many Kanab locals call them all crows, but that’s not accurate. We do see some flocks of American crows come through Kanab on occasion, they often gather in a big group and make a lot of noise high up in the cottonwoods. Ravens, though social, are often spotted alone, in pairs or in small groups.

Common ravens are one of few birds that are actually increasing in number as they adapt to life with more humans around. They take to eating trash in parking lots and landfills and nesting on power poles. However, this can upset a delicate ecological balance, here is one example. The Washington County Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee performed years of research that shows ravens are preying upon young, endangered desert tortoises near St. George, Utah. The committee, in 2023, approved egg olining as a sort of raven birth control to slow population growth and prevent adult ravens from teaching their young to eat baby tortoises. Future efforts may include installing lasers around landfills to discourage birds from feeding there and teaching people not to leave fast food trash and pet food outdoors and putting covers on their trash cans, according to the St. George News article titled, “Birth control for ravens” April 21, 2023. This isn’t a problem in Kanab where we have no desert tortoises, but there will always be effects on an ecosystem when one species gains an upper hand or falls in decline.

Western meadowlark

You know spring has returned to Kanab when you hear the bright, melodious song of a western meadowlark. Just look for the large, cheerful bird with the bright yellow chest and distinctive black ‘V’ on the breast. It will be perched on the top of a fence post, its song carrying over newly planted alfalfa fields.

Meadowlarks and farming go together. In 1914, California grain growers studied the western meadowlark’s diet to determine whether the bird could be labeled a pest species. The birds do eat some of the farmer’s grain, but they also help farmers by eating lots of crop damaging insects. As development overtakes farming and ranching in our area, meadowlarks are losing their habitat.

The creature is so well-loved it is the state bird of six states: Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oregon, Wyoming and North Dakota. The northern cardinal is the only bird who represents more states.

We sometimes see meadowlarks on our drive through House Rock Valley or on the way to Toroweap. They can be spotted right in Kanab along 1100 South where ranchers still grow hay, or out in Johnson Canyon. Take a moment to simply be quiet and listen to your surroundings, you might catch that meadowlark singing its cheery song.

Canyon Wren

Another distinctive vocalist on our tour of Southern Utah birds is the canyon wren. Romanticized by nature writers like Edward Abbey and Craig Childs, the tiny bird hops unnoticed along steep, canyon walls until its recognized, descending notes ring out. This tiny bird measures 4.5 to 6 inches long and weighs less than an ounce.

They scale vertical cliffs with ease and move swiftly to catch bugs and spiders in cracks with their long beaks. The birds aren’t attracted to water sources, as they get all they need from the insects they eat. They are also not tied to specific plant communities as much as they are bound to areas of deep canyons and steep cliffs.

They look similar to the rock wren, which we see in more open areas where it perches on top of loose boulders.

Our Peekaboo and Buckskin Gulch slot canyon tours are great spots to hear a canyon wren. They are designed for these types of tight spaces. According to All About Birds, their vertebral column is attached higher on the skull than on most other birds. This allows the wrens to probe for food in tight spaces without bumping its head.

Pinyon jay

When a noisy flock of pinyon jays flies over White Pocket even the least tuned in visitors put down their selfie sticks to see what the heck the fuss is about. Tightly packed flocks of the boisterous birds travel through the pinyon-juniper forest seeking seeds, especially pinyon seeds (pine nuts), which they eat and cache for later. They have an expandable esophagus so they can carry 40 at a time to bury and cache, effectively helping plant pinyon pines at the same time they store up food.

The birds have a complex social structure and their permanent flocks might have more than 500 birds. It is common for them to stay in their flock their entire lives and they mate for life, according to All About Birds.

Biologists have become increasingly concerned about the West’s pinyon jay populations as national surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, have estimated an 85% decline since the 1960s, according to “Iconic jay native to Southern Utah ‘rapidly vanishing’” in St. George News.

The news article states the species was listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. But the U.S. Forest Service says the pinyon-juniper forest is expanding, so it is unclear why pinyon jays are disappearing. Scientists are studying which areas of the pinyon-juniper woodlands the jays use to better understand their decline. Read more about recent pinyon jay research in the West. On our tours, the birds are fairly common but can be hit and miss, which makes sense since they cover so much ground and spend time where the pine nuts are in season. One thing’s for sure, when the jays make an appearance, everyone notices.

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