Birds are incredible. They can sing beautiful songs and have astonishing body shapes, patterns, colors, and features like crests.
There are over ten thousand bird species worldwide, and only a tiny percentage have crests.
But what is a crest? A crest is a tuft of feathers on top of a bird’s head – a unique characteristic.
Crests often look dazzling, but they aren’t just good-looking – they have essential functions, too. They are used for defense, camouflage, courtship displays, communication, and identification of individuals.
By knowing which species have crests, you can quickly identify them using this unique feature to narrow down the potential species.
If you’ve ever wondered which birds in North America have crests, then read on to find out more. While 20 species are mentioned in this article, other species sport crests, too, so this isn’t an exhaustive list.
1. Black-Crested Titmouse
The black-crested titmouse is one of the more dashing titmouse species. Their most prominent feature is the black crest that stands out against their white forehead, gray upperparts, whitish undersides, and buff flanks.
They have a small geographic range in Texas and northern Mexico, so you may have to travel to find them. Luckily, they are common in their preferred habitats of woodlands, parks, suburbs, and orchards – particularly those containing oaks.
Their diet comprises insects such as moths, beetles, and flies, as well as berries, acorns, and seeds.
2. Blue Jay
The blue jay is an intelligent, common, well-known species throughout the United States and Canada, especially in the east.
These brilliant birds have highly complex social systems, and family members have tight bonds.
They are large and distinct, with their blue upper parts and whitish-gray underparts interspersed with black barring on the wings, a white wing bar, and a black necklace.
When it comes to food, they are not fussy, feeding on anything from fruit to nestling birds.
They live in multiple forest types, woodlands, scrublands, and suburban areas where they are familiar visitors to feeders.
3. Cedar Waxwing
Cedar waxwings are always a dashing treat to observe. They have a smooth appearance of browns on the head, which mixes into grays on the back and wings, a yellow belly, and a gray, yellow-tipped tail.
They also have a beautiful black face mask with a white outline and red wing tips.
These medium-sized migratory birds are found throughout the United States and in Canada. They inhabit coniferous and deciduous woodlands, as well as orchards and suburban areas.
You’ll likely see them feeding on fruits like berries in residential areas during fall and winter.
4. Crested Auklet
The crested auklet is an incredible-looking, tiny, dumpy seabird with an extravagant crest that hangs over its face during the breeding season. They are dark overall with an orange bill, pale eyes, and white whiskers.
They live in extreme environments, having to dive below the surface to catch krill and other planktonic organisms.
Crested auklets aren’t easy to see, as you’ll have to travel to the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to have a chance of finding this impressive crested bird on their rocky breeding islands.
5. Crested Caracara
Looking and behaving like something between a vulture and a hawk, the crested caracara is a large falcon and one of the largest birds with a crest on the head.
Possibly the most recognizable raptor in North America – they have long yellow legs and yellow-orange faces, contrasting with their black crowns and bodies, as well as the white neck and cheeks.
You’ll find these birds in open areas like grasslands and deserts in the southern United States and further south into Central and South America.
They use their heavy beaks to scavenge on carrion, but they also eat a range of live prey, from mammals and insects to fish.
6. Double-Crested Cormorant
The double-crested cormorant is a large, long-necked, brownish-black waterbird with orangy-yellow facial skin. Their small head tufts are only visible during the breeding season.
Search lakes, lagoons, other water bodies, and along coastlines if you want to find them. They are most noticeable when they dry their wings on rocky outcrops and artificial structures over or near water.
They are a migratory species that can be seen in most of the United States.
This waterbird feeds almost exclusively on fish but may also eat amphibians, crustaceans, and insects.
7. Golden-Crowned Kinglet
The golden-crowned kinglet is one of the smallest crested birds, with its standout features being the bright yellow crest and the black-and-white striped face that punctuates the olive upperparts and grayish underparts.
This little bundle of energy lives high up in deciduous and coniferous forests located in swamps, riversides, and urban areas.
These roundish songbirds are found throughout the United States during winter.
Due to their small size, they mainly feed on insects and sometimes supplement their diet with seeds.
8. Great Blue Heron
Standing motionless on a riverbank, coastline, or lakeside is where you’ll likely see the graceful great blue heron. However, you could see them hunting in fields and different terrestrial habitats too.
Great blue herons generally move slowly, searching for almost any animal they can swallow, including frogs, fish, and small mammals.
The long orange-yellow bill, whitish head, and black plumes punctuate the grayish-blue plumage of this heron.
They are very tall birds with distinct silhouettes when standing and in flight, recognizable throughout their range in the United States, Canada, and Central America.
9. Great Crested Flycatcher
The great crested flycatcher is a large, long flycatcher with a brownish-gray head, reddish-brown upperside, rusty red tail and wing feathers, a yellow belly, and a gray chest and throat.
They are typically found in mixed and broadleaf woodlands, particularly along woodland edges.
Their diet mainly comprises spiders and insects like grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, beetles, and bees that they snatch out of the air. They also eat fruits such as berries.
You’ll most often see this migratory species in the eastern United States during summer.
10. Hooded Merganser
The hooded merganser has the most prominent crest of any bird in North America – especially when you compare it to its overall body size.
There is a high level of sexual dimorphism visible between males and females, but both look dapper in their own right.
The breeding males have chestnut flanks, a white patch on the crest, black upperparts, and whitish underparts. The females have brown bodies punctuated by a cinnamon crest.
They are easy to find on forested rivers, small ponds, lakes, and wetlands throughout their breeding range in North America.
These “big-headed” diving ducks feed on fish, insects, crustaceans, gastropods, plant material, and amphibians.
11. Juniper Titmouse
The juniper titmouse is a non-descript gray bird with a pale underside and a large tuft on its head. They enjoy singing, and that often makes up for their drab appearance.
This habitat specialist has a small geographic range and lives in pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Interior West region of the United States.
They mainly eat pinyon seeds, insects, and spiders. If you live within their range, there is a good chance they’ll visit your feeders to eat sunflower seeds and suet.
12. Northern Cardinal
The northern cardinal is among the most popular and well-known birds in the United States.
Males are beautifully colored – dressed in bright red plumage overall, except for the black throat and face mask.
The females are duller and brown, with red on the wings, crest, and tail. Even though they are duller, their large crest makes them noticeable.
They are primarily found in the eastern United States, where they inhabit thick, shrub-filled habitats like thickets, overgrown fields, forest edges, and many other forest types.
They love feeders and will be attracted to your backyard if you install one filled with seeds of all sorts. Naturally, they also eat many types of insects.
13. Oak Titmouse
Oak titmice are rather plain-looking birds with gray-brown plumage and a pale underside. What they don’t have in plumage characteristics, they often make up for in singing capabilities.
The oak titmouse has a tiny distribution, limited to a small part of the southwestern United States.
As you can tell from their name, they live in oak and pine-oak woodlands. Occasionally, they occur in western juniper woodlands in the north of their range.
These small songbirds eat many insects, other small invertebrates, seeds, berries, acorns, leaf buds, and other plant materials. They may visit your yard feeders if you live within their range.
14. Pileated Woodpecker
Say hello to the largest extant North American woodpecker. The pileated woodpecker is an impressive-looking black forest bird with a bright red crest, white underwings, and white stripes on the face and neck.
They ferociously eat carpenter ants – finding them by drilling large rectangular holes in dead trees and logs. They also eat other insects, fruits, and nuts.
They occur in most of the eastern and northwestern United States and parts of Canada. They live in deciduous and deciduous-coniferous woodlands.
If your neighborhood has large trees, you could find one of these birds entering your yard.
The pyrrhuloxia hails from deserts, savannas, scrublands, and mesquite-filled neighborhoods of the southern United States and Mexico.
They stand out in their favored dry environments with their stylish red crests, long red tails, yellow beaks, reddish wings, red face masks, and the reddish wash on the underparts of the gray-brown bodies.
The females aren’t as dashing as the males, but they still show enough red on their bodies to stand out.
This species is omnivorous – eating fruits, seeds, and insects.
16. Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
This small kinglet has greenish-gray upper parts, a white wing bar, whitish-gray underparts, a white eyering, and a ruby-red crown that is often not visible.
One of the ways ruby-crowned kinglets are identified is by their wing-flicking behavior observed while they’re foraging.
They are common throughout most of the United States during winter. To find them, you can look in coniferous and deciduous forests, woodlands, and meadows with isolated trees.
This tiny songbird eats many insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, fruit, and seeds.
17. Steller’s Jay
Steller’s jays are stellar in appearance and attitude – rocking their dark blue and black plumage, large crest, and long tails.
They are found in the mountains of the western United States, where they occur in coniferous and coniferous-deciduous evergreen forests. They also wander into backyards, where they attend feeders.
These large charismatic birds are generalists that feed on insects, small mammals, birds, seeds, nuts, and berries. They frequently eat nestlings and eggs of other birds.
18. Tufted Puffin
Tufted puffins are cute seabirds with long yellow plumes that hang off the back of their heads during the breeding season. They have huge red-orange beaks, red eyerings, white faces, and blackish bodies.
Most of their life is spent on the open North Pacific Ocean, only returning to rocky islands and coastlines along western North America to breed in burrows.
They mainly eat small fish that they capture at depths of up to 360 feet! In the non-breeding season, they feed on squid, crustaceans, and other marine invertebrates.
19. Tufted Titmouse
The tufted titmouse is a small, adorable bird with predominantly grayish upper parts, orange flanks, white underparts, and a sizeable tufted crest.
You’ll find them in the eastern United States, where they occur in mixed deciduous woodlands with dense canopies and hedgerows. They also occur in residential areas like yards and parks, especially in winter when they search for food at feeders.
They are mainly insectivorous, feeding on beetles, wasps, caterpillars, treehoppers, and other bugs. They also feed on berries, nuts, and seeds.
20. Vermilion Flycatcher
Donned with bright orange-red plumage overall, a dark brown face mask, and brown upper parts, the male vermilion flycatcher is arguably the brightest bird in North America.
Females dazzle in their own way with their red-washed underparts, white chest, and brownish-gray uppersides.
They are found throughout most of South America, Central America, and the southwestern United States. They inhabit open areas such as deserts, farmlands, scrublands, and parks.
Being flycatchers, they mainly hawk insects like bees, crickets, grasshoppers, and butterflies from exposed perches.
North America is spoilt with a range of crested birds of different sizes, patterns, and colors, which are all special in their own right.
Bird crests are a fabulous feature that only a lucky few birds possess. They have a critical role in the life of those birds as they have essential functions, from defense to survival and attracting a mate.
Now that you know more about some of the birds with crests that live in North America, keep an eye out for them in your backyard or the next time you venture out into the wilderness.