22 Marvelous Water Birds in Kentucky (In-Depth Guide)
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Nestled in the Appalachian foothills and bordered by the Ohio River, Kentucky is a state that boasts a rich diversity of water birds. Its plentiful rivers, lakes, and wetlands create a varied landscape that attracts an array of these remarkable creatures.
The American White Pelican is a large water bird known for its impressive size, distinct white plumage, and extraordinary cooperative feeding behavior. They are commonly found in the inland freshwater lakes of North America during the summer and along the coastlines in the winter.
Appearance: American White Pelicans have a pure white body with black wingtips that are visible in flight. Their large yellow-orange bill is equipped with a stretchy pouch used for catching prey, and during the breeding season, they develop a unique, horn-like plate on the upper part of their bill.
Diet: Unlike their Brown Pelican cousins, American White Pelicans do not dive for their food. Instead, they catch their prey while swimming. They primarily xatch fish, but occasionally supplement their diet with crustaceans and amphibians. Interestingly, they often feed in groups, moving together to herd fish into shallow waters where they can easily scoop them up.
Reproduction: American White Pelicans typically nest in colonies on isolated islands. The female lays 2 to 3 eggs in a nest on the ground, which is made from dirt and vegetation.
Listen to Double-crested Cormorant
Scientific Name: Nannopterum auritum
Length: 28 to 35 in
Wingspan: 45 – 48 in
Weight: 2.6 – 5.5 lb
The Double-crested Cormorant is a large waterbird recognized for its long neck, hooked bill, and notable diving abilities.
Appearance: Double-crested Cormorants have a dark body with a somewhat iridescent sheen. The bird’s name derives from the presence of two tufts or crests of feathers that appear on the sides of the head during the breeding season. They have striking greenish-yellow to bright orange skin around the throat and cheeks, and their eyes are an interesting, bright turquoise color.
Diet: Double-crested Cormorants are excellent divers and their diet primarily consists of fish. They dive beneath the water’s surface from the air or while swimming to catch their prey. After a successful dive, they can often be seen standing with their wings outstretched to dry.
Reproduction: These birds typically nest in trees, on cliffs, or on ground colonies on islands. The female lays a clutch of 3 to 4 eggs, which both parents incubate for about a month.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Listen to Great Blue Heron
Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
Wingspan: 66–79 in
Weight: 4.0–7.9 lb
The Great Blue Heron is a large species of wading bird recognized for its majestic stature, stately flight, and impressive hunting prowess.
Appearance: Great Blue Herons are strikingly tall and slender, with a gray-blue body, a wide wingspan, and a long, pointed bill. They have a white head with a black stripe above the eye extending into feathery plumes, and long, reddish-brown legs.
Diet: Great Blue Herons are skilled hunters, primarily feeding on a variety of aquatic animals such as fish, frogs, and crustaceans. They can often be seen standing motionless in shallow water, waiting patiently for prey to come within striking distance.
Reproduction: Great Blue Herons nest in large colonies, often high in trees near bodies of water. The female lays a clutch of about 3 to 5 eggs, which both parents incubate for around a month. After hatching, the young herons are fed by both parents and start to explore outside the nest within a few weeks.
Scientific Name: Ardea alba
Length: 80 – 100 cm
Wingspan: 1.3 – 1.7 m
Weight: 0.7 – 1.5 kg
The Great Egret is a large, stunningly white bird commonly found in both freshwater and saltwater habitats across the United States. Known for its elegant flight and poised hunting stance, it is a symbol of conservation success.
Appearance: Great Egrets are recognized by their bright white plumage, long, black legs, and a yellow, dagger-like bill. Their slender, long necks and large wings are highlighted when they take flight, creating an elegant and captivating sight.
Diet: Primarily, the Great Egret feeds on fish, making use of its sharp bill to spear its prey in shallow water. However, its diet is diverse and can include other aquatic creatures like amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals, and invertebrates.
Reproduction: The Great Egret typically nests in trees or shrubs near water bodies, often in colonies with other water birds. A female lays 3 to 4 eggs, with both parents participating in the incubation process.
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
Scientific Name: Egretta thula
Length: 22.1–26.0 in
Wingspan: 39.4 inches
Weight: 13.1 oz
The Snowy Egret is a small, graceful bird celebrated for its striking white plumage and contrasting black and yellow details. Found across the United States in a variety of water habitats, this bird is known for its animated hunting style.
Appearance: Snowy Egrets are particularly noticeable due to their pure white feathers, slender black legs, and bright yellow feet, which are often described as looking like they’ve been dipped in golden paint. They also sport a thin, black bill and expressive, yellow eyes.
Diet: Their diet mainly consists of fish, but they are known to consume a variety of aquatic animals such as crustaceans, insects, and small amphibians. Notably, their unique yellow feet are used to stir up prey from the bottom of shallow water.
Reproduction: Snowy Egrets typically nest in trees or shrubs in colonies with other water birds. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs, and both parents take turns incubating them.
Scientific Name: Butorides virescen
Length: 25 to 31 in
Wingspan: 53 to 65 in
Weight: 4.5 to 6.0
The Green Heron is a small yet captivating bird, famous for its tool-using abilities and its striking appearance. This species can often be found around the edges of freshwater and saltwater habitats across much of North America.
Appearance: Green Herons possess a dark greenish-blue back, a rich chestnut body, and a dark cap on their head. Their bill is long and sharp, allowing them to be proficient hunters, while their relatively short legs give them a stocky appearance compared to other heron species.
Diet: As opportunistic feeders, Green Herons feed mainly on small fish, but their diet also includes a variety of invertebrates, insects, amphibians, and occasionally even small mammals and birds. They’re known for a unique hunting technique – using baits such as insects, feathers, or twigs to attract fish.
Reproduction: Green Herons build their nests in trees or shrubs, usually over or near water. The female typically lays 3 to 5 eggs, with both parents sharing the responsibilities of incubation.
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
Scientific Name: Nycticorax nycticorax
Length: 22.8-26.0 in
Wingspan: 45.3-46.5 in
Weight: 25.6-35.8 oz
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is a medium-sized heron species that is known for its nocturnal habits, standing out among other, mostly diurnal herons.
Appearance: Black-crowned Night-Herons have a stocky appearance, with adults characterized by a black crown and back, contrasting sharply with a white or gray body. Their eyes are notably red. The legs are yellow to greenish yellow, but become pinkish or even red during the breeding season. Young birds are brown, speckled with white and gray.
Diet: As opportunistic feeders, Black-crowned Night-Herons eat a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial animals. They primarily consume fish, but their diet can also include crustaceans, insects, small mammals, reptiles, and even other birds. They usually feed at night, which gives them a unique niche among heron species.
Reproduction: Black-crowned Night-Herons are colonial nesters, often forming nesting colonies with other heron species. They build platform nests in trees or shrubs, usually over water. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs, and both parents share the responsibility of incubation.
Listen to Mallard
Scientific Name: Anas platyrhynchos
Length: 20–26 in
Wingspan: 32–39 in
Weight: 1.5–3.5 lb
The Mallard is a well-known species of duck they are particularly recognized for their adaptability and can thrive in both urban and wild environments.
Male Mallards are renowned for their striking plumage, with a glossy green head, a white collar, and a chestnut-colored chest, while females sport mottled brown feathers. They both have blue speculum feathers on their wings, which can be seen during flight. Both sexes also exhibit a distinct curl on the tail feathers, more noticeable in males.
Mallards are omnivorous in nature. Their diet is diverse and includes seeds, aquatic vegetation, insects, and small fish. They are frequently seen ‘dabbling’ in the water, where they dip their head and neck below the surface while upending their body to forage for food.
In terms of reproduction, Mallards usually nest on the ground near water bodies, camouflaged by vegetation. The female lays a clutch of 7 to 10 eggs, and she incubates them for about a month. After hatching, the ducklings are precocial – they are active and able to feed themselves, but they continue to stay with their mother for protection until they can fly, which usually takes about two months.
Mallards are an iconic species that have significantly contributed to the genetic makeup of many domestic duck breeds. They are beloved for their rich colors, distinctive quacks, and playful demeanor.
Scientific Name: Aix sponsa
Length: 19 to 21 in
Wingspan: 26 to 29 in
Weight: 16.0-30.4 oz
The Wood Duck is an exquisitely colorful waterfowl known for its unique nesting habits and is commonly seen in wooded swamps, marshes, and streams across North America.
Appearance: With their dazzling plumage, Wood Ducks are among the most stunning birds. Males display a multitude of colors, including a green and purple crested head, red eyes, and a white-striped chest, all contrasted with a bronze-colored body. Females, though more subdued with a gray-brown body and white eye-ring, also possess their own charm.
Diet: Wood Ducks have a diverse diet that includes seeds, fruits, and insects, as well as other invertebrates. Their broad diet helps them to adapt to a variety of habitats, whether in the wild or in urban areas with suitable nesting sites.
Reproduction: Unlike most other ducks, Wood Ducks prefer to nest in tree cavities near water, leading to their common name. They will also readily use nest boxes if they’re available. A typical clutch consists of 9 to 14 eggs, which the female incubates alone.
Listen to Blue-winged Teal
Scientific Name: Spatula discors
Length: 16 in
Wingspan: 23 in
Weight: 13 oz
The Blue-winged Teal is a small species of dabbling duck known for its striking plumage and its extensive migratory habits.
Appearance: Male Blue-winged Teals are quite colorful, with a slate gray head and neck, a white crescent in front of the eyes, and a predominantly brown body with specks of black. The name “Blue-winged” comes from the patch of blue feathers visible on their wings during flight. Females, in contrast, are primarily brown and subtly mottled to provide camouflage.
Diet: The Blue-winged Teal feeds mainly on plant matter, such as seeds and aquatic vegetation. However, they also supplement their diet with small invertebrates, especially during the breeding season. They are known for their “dabbling” behavior, where they feed at the surface of the water rather than diving.
Reproduction: Blue-winged Teals prefer to nest on the ground in grassy areas near water. The female typically lays a clutch of 9 to 13 eggs, which she incubates alone for about three weeks. After hatching, the ducklings can feed themselves but remain under the mother’s protection until they are capable of flying.
Listen to Northern Pintail
Scientific Name: Anas acuta
Length: 23–30 in
Wingspan: 31–37 in
Weight: 1 –3 lb
The Northern Pintail is a graceful species of duck recognized for their elegance in flight and their sleek bodies and long tails which is pin-shaped.
Male Northern Pintails are celebrated for their distinctive appearance, featuring a chocolate brown head, a white neck, and a grayish body. The most notable characteristic is the long, pointed tail feathers, which give this species its name. Females are more understated in color, sporting a mottled brown plumage.
Diet: Consists primarily of plant matter, including seeds and aquatic vegetation. They are also known to eat insects, especially during the breeding season. The Northern Pintail is often seen dabbling and upending in water bodies to forage for food.
Reproduction: Northern Pintails usually nest on the ground, near water bodies. The female lays a clutch of 7 to 9 eggs and is solely responsible for their incubation, which lasts for about three weeks.
Scientific Name: Aythya valisineria
Length: 19–22 in
Wingspan: 31–35 in
Weight: 1.900–3.527 lb
The Canvasback is a large diving duck species known for its sloping forehead and long, robust bill. These distinctive birds are primarily found in the wetlands and open water bodies across the United States.
Appearance: Male Canvasbacks are easily recognized by their reddish heads, black chests, and white bodies, which gives the impression of a canvas-like texture, hence their name. Females, on the other hand, have light brown feathers and a slightly paler belly. Both genders have dark gray bills and red eyes.
Diet: Canvasbacks are primarily vegetarian, feeding on aquatic plants like wild celery, pondweeds, and algae. They also occasionally consume small aquatic animals, such as snails, insects, and crustaceans.
Reproduction: Canvasbacks typically nest over water, using marsh plants to construct their nests. The female usually lays a clutch of 5 to 11 eggs which she alone incubates for about a month.
Scientific Name: Aythya americana
Length: 15 in
Wingspan: 33 in
Weight: 2.0 to 2.5 lbs
The Redhead is a medium-sized diving duck species recognized by its rounded head and broad blue bill. This bird is frequently found in wetlands, ponds, and open water bodies across the United States.
Appearance: The male Redhead is particularly striking, characterized by a coppery red head, black breast, and a gray body. The female is less colorful, featuring a brownish body and a duller, brownish-red head. Both sexes have a prominent blue bill with a black tip.
Diet: Redheads feed on a variety of items, including aquatic plants, seeds, and tubers. They also consume aquatic invertebrates, particularly during the breeding season.
Reproduction: Redheads often nest in marshes and ponds with dense vegetation.Females often lay their eggs in the nests of other ducks, a phenomenon known as brood parasitism. When nesting themselves, the female typically lays a clutch of 7 to 10 eggs and incubates them for about three weeks.
Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)
Scientific Name: Aythya collaris
Length: 15.3-18.1 in
Wingspan: 24.4-24.8 in
Weight: 17.3-32.1 oz
The Ring-Necked Duck is a small to medium-sized diving duck known for its distinctive markings and agile diving abilities.
Appearance: Male Ring-Necked Ducks are characterized by their bold black-and-white coloration, with a glossy black back, a striking white ring around the base of the bill, and two white “rings” on their flanks. Despite their name, the chestnut-colored ring around their neck is often hard to see. Females are more subtly colored with a gray-brown body and a white eye-ring.
Diet: These ducks have a varied diet that includes aquatic plants, seeds, and invertebrates, which they obtain by diving underwater in both shallow and deep water bodies.
Reproduction: The Ring-Necked Duck nests near water, often in densely vegetated areas. The female typically lays between 8 to 10 eggs, which she incubates alone, but both parents will care for the ducklings once they hatch.
Scientific Name: Aythya affinis
Length: 16.4–16.9 in
Wingspan: 27–31 in
Weight: 1–2.4 lb
The Lesser Scaup is a small diving duck species commonly found in North America, particularly in the lakes, ponds, and coastal bays of the United States.
Appearance: Male Lesser Scaups are characterized by their glossy black heads and necks, bright yellow eyes, and pale bluish-gray backs. They also feature a distinguished black chest and tail-end. Females, on the other hand, are primarily brown with white bands near the bill and a slightly lighter brown color on their heads and necks.
Diet: Lesser Scaups are divers, and their diet mainly consists of aquatic invertebrates, including insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They are also known to eat aquatic plants and seeds, particularly during the non-breeding season.
Reproduction: Lesser Scaups nest on the ground, generally close to water bodies. The female lays a clutch of around 9 to 11 eggs and is solely responsible for their incubation, which lasts for about three to four weeks.
Listen to Bufflehead
Scientific Name: Bucephala albeola
Length: 13–16 in
Wingspan: 21.6 in -23.2 in
Weight: 9.5–19.4 oz
The Bufflehead is a small, compact species of diving duck known for its striking appearance and large heads and unique nesting habits.
Appearance: Male Buffleheads are easily recognized by their large, bulbous head with a green-purple iridescent sheen, a large white patch across the back of the head, and a predominantly black and white body. Females are more subtly colored, primarily in gray-brown tones with a smaller white cheek patch.
Diet: As diving ducks, Buffleheads feed by diving beneath the water’s surface. Their diet consists largely of aquatic invertebrates, such as insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, as well as some plant matter.
Reproduction: Uniquely among ducks, Buffleheads often nest in tree cavities, especially those made by Northern Flickers, a type of woodpecker. The female lays a clutch of about 6 to 11 eggs, which she incubates alone for roughly a month.
Listen to Hooded Merganser
Scientific Name: Lophodytes cucullatus
Length: 15.8-19.3 in
Wingspan: 23.6-26.0 in
Weight: 16.0-31.0 oz
The Hooded Merganser is a distinctive species of diving duck known for its showy crest and its excellent diving skills.
Appearance: Male Hooded Mergansers are especially striking with a large, fan-shaped, black and white crest, which can be expanded or contracted. They have bright yellow eyes, a dark back, and a white chest. The females have a more understated appearance with a brownish body, a smaller, reddish-brown crest, and dark eyes.
Diet: Consists of small fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans. Their eyes are specially adapted for underwater vision, allowing them to spot and catch prey while diving.
Reproduction: Similar to Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers often nest in tree cavities near water bodies. The female lays a clutch of about 10 to 12 eggs and incubates them alone for about a month.
Scientific Name: Mergus merganser
Length: 23–28 in
Wingspan: 30 – 38 in
Weight: 2 lb 0 oz – 4 lb 10 oz
The Common Merganser is a large and elegant diving duck, famous for its unique fishing abilities and seen often in the lakes, rivers, and coastal areas across North America.
Appearance: The male Common Merganser is quite striking with its dark green, almost black, crested head, bright red bill, and white body tinged with salmon-pink. The females have a reddish-brown crested head, a white neck, and a grayish body, but share the same red bill as the males.
Diet: True to their diving duck status, Common Mergansers are exceptional hunters, primarily feeding on fish. They’re also known to consume aquatic invertebrates and, on occasion, small mammals and birds. Their serrated bills are specialized to hold slippery fish tightly.
Reproduction: Like the Wood Duck, Common Mergansers also nest in tree cavities or nest boxes close to water bodies, but can also use rock crevices or holes in the ground. A clutch usually contains 9 to 12 eggs, incubated solely by the female.
Scientific Name: Fulica americana
Length: 13–17 in
Wingspan: 23 to 28 in
Weight: 1.270 to 1.870 lb
The American Coot is a ubiquitous water bird commonly seen in the wetlands, lakes, and ponds of North America, recognized for its adaptability and striking features.
Appearance: American Coots are easily identifiable by their slate-gray bodies, offset by a white, chicken-like bill and a red eye. Their legs are also distinctive, equipped with lobed toes, as opposed to the webbed feet seen in ducks, which assist them in navigating both land and water adeptly.
Diet: While aquatic plants form the bulk of an American Coot’s diet, they aren’t strictly herbivores. These versatile birds also consume small invertebrates and fish, demonstrating their ability to adapt and survive in a variety of habitats.
Reproduction: Nesting for the American Coot usually happens in shallow water bodies, where they construct a floating nest hidden among the vegetation. A clutch can contain between 8 to 12 eggs, all of which are incubated by both parents.
Scientific Name: Antigone canadensis
Length: 2 ft 7-4 ft 6 in
Wingspan: 16.5–23.6 in
Weight: 4 – 4.5 kg
The Sandhill Crane is a tall, elegant bird known for its impressive size and striking appearance. They are found across North America, in habitats ranging from wetlands to grasslands.
Appearance: Sandhill Cranes are recognized for their tall stature, gray body, long legs, and long neck. Their most distinctive feature is a red forehead, which contrasts with their otherwise primarily gray plumage. During the breeding season, their gray feathers often take on a rusty-brown hue due to them rubbing iron-rich mud onto their feathers.
Diet: Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous birds and their diet is quite diverse, consisting of seeds, grains, berries, insects, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. They are known to forage while walking in shallow water or in fields.
Reproduction: Sandhill Cranes mate for life and their complex courtship dance is a sight to behold. They nest in marshy areas and the female typically lays two eggs.
Listen to American Wigeon
Scientific Name: Mareca americana
Length: 17–23 in
Wingspan: 30–36 in
Weight: 1 –3 lb
The American Wigeon is a medium-sized duck species that is a popular sight in wetlands, ponds, and lakes and is often seen in mixed flocks with other ducks.
Males of the species are recognized by their distinctive appearance. They sport a unique white forehead and crown, coupled with a green band stretching from the eye to the back of the head. The body is mainly gray with a pinkish hue on the chest. Females are more subdued in color, with primarily gray and brown tones.
Diet: comprising mainly plant material like aquatic vegetation and grasses, but it also includes insects and other small invertebrates. They are known for a feeding behavior called “kleptoparasitism,” where they often snatch food from other ducks.
American Wigeons usually breed in the northernmost parts of North America. The females create their nests on the ground, often hidden in tall grass near water bodies. They lay a clutch of 6 to 11 eggs which they incubate for about three to four weeks and the ducklings feed on small aquatic invertebrates and aquatic insects.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
Length: 50–66 cm (19+1⁄2–26 in)
Wingspan: 127–180 cm (50–71 in)
Weight: 0.9–2.1 kg (2 lb 0 oz – 4 lb 10 oz)
The Osprey, a fascinating bird of prey, is universally known for its exceptional hunting prowess and striking physical characteristics. Osprey are dark brown hawks on the upperparts, contrasting beautifully with the predominantly white underparts, and a distinctive dark band that stretches across the eyes towards the sides of its head.
Equipped with specialized talons and a reversible outer toe, the Osprey’s hunting strategy involves a spectacular plunge-dive into bodies of water, often emerging with a fish securely gripped in its claws.
Found on every continent except Antarctica, the Osprey is a cosmopolitan species favoring habitats near water bodies such as lakes, rivers, and coastal areas, reflecting its piscivorous diet. This bird has a diet almost exclusively of fish, making it a unique member of the raptor family and often referred to as the sea hawk or fish hawk. They locate their prey from the air, often hovering before plunging feet-first to capture a fish. When it comes to breeding, Ospreys are monogamous, often mating for life.
They construct large, bulky nests made of sticks, lined with softer materials, and prefer elevated or isolated areas such as treetops or artificial structures like utility poles. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks.
Where to Spot Kentucky’s Water Birds
You won’t find many water birds around the bird feeders however if you venture out into the wildlife parks, there are plenty of wading birds and shore birds to be seen! However, many Kentucky birds of prey might visit bird feeders, just to prey on the little backward birds in kentucky at the bird feeder!
Mammoth Cave National Park, Edmonson County: Aside from its famed underground passages, this park also boasts the Green and Nolin Rivers, which attract water birds such as Great Blue Herons, Double-Crested Cormorants, little blue herons and various species of ducks and other medium sized birds.
Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, Western Kentucky: These two massive lakes and the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area sandwiched between them serve as fantastic locations for spotting water birds like the American White Pelican, Western Grebe, and other wading birds and numerous waterfowl thanks to the abundant water and dense vegetation surrounding it.
Daniel Boone National Forest, Eastern Kentucky: The numerous rivers and streams flowing through this forested area provide habitats for species such as the Green Heron, American Coot, and Mallard. You can also see prarie warblers (the females have dark stripes whilst the males have vibrant yellow underparts).
Sloughs Wildlife Management Area, Henderson County: This large wetland reserve on the Ohio River floodplain is a hotspot for a wide variety of water birds, including Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and Sandhill Cranes and other large birds.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Bullitt and Nelson Counties: Not far from Louisville, the forest’s Lake Nevin is a great spot for observing water birds such as the Great Blue Heron, Bufflehead, and the Northern Pintail.