New Mexico is an absolute wonderland for birding! With its southern border touching the deserts of Mexico and its northern border hitting Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, it’s a confluence for both exciting tropical southern species, like Elegant Trogons, and temperate northwestern species like Western Tanagers.
Likewise, birds of the Great Plains frequently enter the state by way of its eastern neighbors, Texas and Oklahoma, and unusual Sonoran Desert species from its western neighbor, Arizona, often make an appearance, too.
Encompassing over 77 million acres, it’s the fifth-largest state in the United States – and much of it is still gloriously wild and untouched, leaving plenty of space for birds to thrive. What’s more, New Mexico supports an incredibly diverse range of habitats, including grasslands, deserts, wetlands, sagebrush flats, and isolated mountaintop pine forests.
The 57,331-acre Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the southwestern corner of the state is a hotspot for migrating waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds visiting the region in spring and fall. Two massive rivers also span New Mexico – the Rio Grande and the Pecos – which create lush riparian corridors that are favored by both specialist and migrating species. The state also boasts five national forests.
Bottom Line Up Front
Overall, a shocking 551 species of birds can be found in New Mexico. Though three species have been extirpated, it’s still the fourth most bird-diverse state in the country. Due to its uniquely situated location, many incidental species, like the Blue Mockingbird and Eared Quetzal, also occasionally wander into the state, so birders should always be keeping a watchful eye out. I’ve personally birded in New Mexico several times, and it’s always a pleasure. You truly never know what you’ll see!
Still, visiting such a bird-rich state can be a tad overwhelming, so I’ve whittled down the giant checklist to just 10 of New Mexico’s most iconic species. These are unique and unforgettable birds that you’re unlikely to see in the U.S. outside of the southwest region, but fairly likely to encounter with a little know-how within the bounds of the great state of New Mexico. Read on to take a deeper look at these fascinating birds. I’ll also give you some tips on how to find them in the wild!
Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
These notorious birds are unmistakable, what with their bold personalities, raised crests, and habit of running on the ground instead of flying.
Roadrunners are fairly large birds, with mottled brown and white plumage, long tails, and dark crests.
Roadrunners can be found year-round in open arid areas like deserts and grasslands with scattered vegetation throughout New Mexico.
Roadrunners are mostly carnivorous, feeding on lizards, snakes, birds, insects, arachnids, centipedes, frogs, toads, small mammals, and sometimes eggs and carrion. In winter, they add seeds and fruit to their diets.
Though they can fly, roadrunners much prefer life on the ground, and, true to their name, they can run up to 15 miles per hour. They run parallel to the ground, using their long tails as rudders, stopping often to survey their surroundings. They use their speed – and flashes of their white wing patches – to capture prey.
Roadrunner courtship is elaborate and often involves a male bringing a female a prey item as a gift. Their bulky nests can be found in shrubs, cacti, and small trees. Both parents diligently tend the chicks, which require a steady supply of meat. Roadrunners typically mate for life and both sexes are fiercely territorial, intimidating rivals by flashing the orange patches of skin behind their eyes.
Find This Bird
To find a roadrunner, stake out an open area with a few low shrubs and small trees and plenty of their preferred prey, like lizards. Look for their X-shaped footprints on the ground for signs that they are nearby. In spring, listen for the males’ descending cooing song that sounds eerily like a sad puppy whining. Adults also communicate with one another using rattling calls and beak snaps that sound like castanets.
- Roadrunners are giant ground cuckoos.
- They can kill rattlesnakes – though it requires a little teamwork and a lot of well-timed head-bashing.
- They are well-adapted to desert life, getting most of their water from their prey, secreting excess salt via specialized glands, fluttering flaps of skin over their throats to dissipate heat, and sunbathing in cool weather.
- The Greater Roadrunner is New Mexico’s state bird.
Roadrunners often take advantage of urban environments – something that is keeping their numbers healthy while many other bird species are declining.
Curve-Billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
While drab at first glance, these medium-sized songbirds are uniquely adapted to desert regions and have endearing and comical mannerisms.
Curve-billed Thrashers have piercing orange eyes and long, downcurved bills that give them a dour expression. Overall, they are drab birds, predominantly brown with light mottling on their chests.
Curve-billed Thrashers can be found in deserts, canyons, and open shrubby environments throughout New Mexico year-round.
They feed on insects, snails, and spiders, supplementing their diets with seeds, agave flowers, and fruits.
Curve-billed Thrashers spend most of their time running around in the undergrowth relying on their strong legs and long tails for support while they use their curved bills to rummage for insects.
They have a special relationship with cacti – especially chollas – and even build their nests in them. Curiously, thrasher pairs will often build several different nests before choosing one to lay eggs in. Pairs usually mate for life, and males ruthlessly defend their territory from other thrashers and Cactus Wrens, which may compete for prime nest sites.
Find This Bird
Finding a Curve-billed Thrasher is relatively easy. Simply head to a desert area, especially one featuring cholla and prickly pear cacti and mesquite trees, and listen for their distinct whistled “whit-whit!” calls or remarkably musical song, typically sung by a male perched near the top of a shrub or cactus in the late winter and spring. With a little patience, you’ll catch a glimpse of this personable desert bird.
- The Curve-billed Thrasher’s long legs allow it to safely perch on cacti.
- Curve-billed Thrashers get most of their water from their diet and build roosting nests, which they may sleep in on cold desert nights.
Curve-billed Thrashers are abundant and populations are stable, though habitat loss remains a risk for these highly-specialized birds. Still, they are quite accepting of life alongside humans, so simply adding their preferred plants, like chollas, to city landscapes could help offset the effects of urbanization.
Broad-Billed Hummingbird (Cynanthus latirostris)
While there are many hummingbirds in New Mexico, none are quite as spectacular as the jewel-like Broad-billed Hummingbird.
Male Broad-billed Hummingbirds are primarily a brilliant green with teal and yellow accents and deep blue throats and upper breasts. They also have slightly decurved bright red black-tipped bills. Females are a mousy gray with hints of yellowish-green iridescence on their backs.
These unique hummingbirds primarily live in Mexico, but visit the extreme southwestern United States in the spring and summer to breed. Broad-billed Hummingbirds frequent shady areas along streams with plenty of flowers to feed from, like riparian woodlands, lower-elevation mountain canyons, and gardens. In the fall, they fly south to Mexico.
Broad-billed hummers show a preference for the nectar of Mohave beardtongue, agaves, honeysuckles, penstemons, desert willows, ocotillo, and milkweed – though any red, tubular flower will do. They also supplement their diet with small insects and regularly visit hummingbird feeders.
Courting Broad-billed Hummingbirds put on quite a show. Males perform a display flight, flying back and forth in front of a perched female like a pendulum. If she is receptive, they will mate – though she will do all the work of nest-building and raising the young herself.
In late summer, monsoon rains bring about a second bloom of flowers in the canyons and mountains, so the birds spend most of their days flying from flower to flower at various elevations in a circuit that changes to fit different bloom times – a feeding strategy known as “traplining.”
Find This Bird
In New Mexico, your best chance of seeing a Broad-billed Hummingbird is in the state’s southwestern corner. To find these incredible birds, head to shady streamside areas in late spring or summer. Look for them around flowers in the early morning and evening, when they feed most intensively. Or, better yet, stake out a feeder for easy viewing.
- Broad-billed Hummingbirds are members of a group of hummingbirds called the emeralds.
- Unlike most North American hummers, males of this species are almost entirely covered in dazzling iridescent plumage.
- Females build nests in low vegetation overhanging streams that resemble debris deposited by floods.
Populations of Broad-billed Hummingbirds appear to be stable, with around 200,000 pairs breeding in the U.S.
Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii)
With their curly top knots and adorable calls, Gambel’s Quail are true desert birds with some fascinating adaptations and behaviors.
Gambel’s Quail are stocky, tubby-bodied birds. Males have black masks and bellies, rusty caps, and curly top knots. Females are mostly brown and gray but still feature the signature top knot.
Gambel’s Quail are year-round residents in New Mexico, occurring most commonly in well-vegetated desert areas like washes, mesquite forests, suburban yards, and shrublands in the southwestern corner and center of the state.
These birds spend most of their time searching for seeds, greens, and cactus fruits on the ground.
Gambel’s Quail are well-adapted to their harsh environments, though they always stay close to a reliable water source. They feed actively in the mornings and evenings, minimizing their activity mid-day by resting in deep shade. They are social birds that typically gather in family flocks called coveys that, in the fall, can combine to include hundreds of birds.
In spring, quail pair off. Males often advertise their territory from a high perch, issuing a squeaky cry. In wet years, it’s not uncommon to see a mother quail trailed by up to 15 tiny striped fuzzballs with small tufted crests. The chicks emerge when summer rains start, which ensures that there will be plenty of tiny insects and seeds available for them to eat.
Find This Bird
To find a Gambel’s Quail covey, stake out a water source within a brushy desert area in the morning or evening when they are most active and listen for their quiet muttering clucks and loud contact calls that sound like “Chi-CA-go!” You shouldn’t have much trouble, as these birds are quite abundant.
- Gambel’s Quail are in the order Galliformes, the same group as chickens, pheasants, and other game birds.
- They are closely related to the nearly identical California Quail.
Following winters with high rainfall, Gambel’s Quail pairs produce large clutches that benefit from the abundance of seeds. In drier years, they lay fewer eggs. Despite this “boom and bust” cycle, the species remains abundant.
Red-Faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons)
If you’re planning a trip to New Mexico in the summer, be sure to visit a high-elevation coniferous forest to look for colorful Red-faced Warblers.
Males of this petite songbird species are truly striking, featuring bright red masks, black helmets, and white rumps that contrast with their gray bodies. Females look similar but their colors are slightly more subdued.
Though they spend winters in southern Mexico, Red-faced Warblers migrate north to breed in the mountains of the desert Southwest. In New Mexico, you’ll most likely find them in streamside canyons within forests of pine, oak, and fir trees at higher elevations in the southwestern corner of the state.
Red-Faced Warblers feed exclusively on small insects.
Like many warblers, they spend much of their time foraging high in the treetops. During courtship, males flutter their wings, raise their heads, and hop before a female, presenting their white rumps and red faces. Should she accept, she performs her own version of the display before mating. Then, the pair will raise a clutch of young together. They nest in holes in the ground which can offer close-up views for the patient birder.
Find This Bird
It can be challenging to get a good look at this incredible warbler. Luckily, their bright red faces and white tails, which they flick frequently to startle prey, can make them easier to spot. Often, the best way to locate these tiny birds is to listen for the males’ fast-paced, melodious songs, which they sing frequently to stake out their territories and attract mates. Also, keep a look out for their breeding displays.
- Unlike other warbler species, females are also brightly colored.
- They feed high in the trees but nest on the ground.
- “Cheating” is common among mated pairs.
Unfortunately, the Red-faced Warbler’s reliance on coniferous forests puts it at a greater risk of extinction, as logging can quickly destroy its only available breeding habitat.
Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)
Sandhill Cranes are truly magnificent. Luckily, seeing thousands of these large birds in New Mexico is pretty easy if you time your trip right.
Standing almost four feet tall and bearing gray plumage and bright red caps, Sandhill Cranes are truly impressive birds.
Migratory Sandhill Crane populations spend their summers breeding in the marshes and prairies of extreme northern North America, then head south to New Mexico and Mexico for the winter.
Sandhill Cranes feed on grains and small aquatic life.
Starting around age seven, Sandhill Cranes perform elaborate dances and bugling duets to woo mates. If they succeed, a pair may remain together for the rest of their lives – which can be up to at least 37 years. They raise small clutches of only one to three chicks, with only one typically surviving to adulthood. This low reproductive rate puts them at a greater risk of extinction.
Find This Bird
The best place to see Sandhill Cranes is the famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Several thousand cranes gather in noisy flocks in the area’s shallow lakes from October through March, calling noisily back and forth to one another before or after a busy day of foraging on nearby crops or wetlands. Head over around dawn or dusk and listen for their loud trumpeting calls. Get there early or stay late, as watching these giant birds take to the skies en masse is breathtaking.
- Around 23,000 Sandhill Cranes gather in southern New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley every winter.
- Their loud trumpeting calls can carry for up to a mile.
- Sandhill Cranes are a conservation success story, as overhunting and habitat loss once drove the species nearly to extinction by the early 1900s.
Luckily, conservation efforts helped Sandhill Cranes rebound from near extinction, and today their numbers are increasing.
Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)
The tiny Elf Owl is a must-see for any birder – and any person, really. Their minuscule size is truly something you have to see to believe.
Elf Owls stand just five inches tall – about the size of a sparrow. They are brown and white and have bright yellow eyes.
Elf Owls spend winters in Mexico, heading north to the desert Southwest to breed in spring and summer. They prefer dry habitats like deserts with large cacti, shrublands, riparian woodlands, and low-elevation forests.
These tiny owls feed on insects and other small prey.
Elf Owls are nocturnal, capturing prey from the ground, off of flowers, and by snagging them right out of the air using their bristly feet. Males issue a repetitive high-pitched yapping call to proclaim territories and attract mates.
Elf Owls do not build nests but instead roost and raise young in holes made by woodpeckers in trees and cacti. Though they are small, they fiercely defend their nests from would-be predators, often ganging up with others to mob larger owls, mammals, and snakes.
Find This Bird
To find an Elf Owl, visit dry habitats in the southwestern corner of New Mexico in spring and summer. Listen for their yapping calls in the evening, especially on moonlit nights, and be sure to head out with a flashlight to get a look at this most unusual tiny owl.
- The Elf Owl is the world’s smallest raptor.
- They sometimes bring small snakes back to their nests alive, allowing them to live and feed on parasites that could harm the owlets.
Sadly, habitat loss is slowly reducing their numbers and additional conservation efforts may soon be needed to protect this amazing owl.
Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus)
If you don’t know what the word “vermilion” means, this bright red songbird is here to show you.
Male Vermilion Flycatchers are predominantly a shocking shade of red save for their black backs and bandit masks. Females are more subtly lovely, being primarily gray with a slight coral blush on their underparts. Both are compact with fairly long dark bills, lively black eyes, and tufted crests. They often pump their tails when perched.
The Vermilion Flycatcher’s range barely extends into the United States, but they spend their summers in parks, open shrublands near water, deserts, wetland edges, and riparian streamsides throughout the arid portions of New Mexico.
Vermilion Flycatchers feast on a variety of insects and spiders.
As their name suggests, these birds are insectivores, regularly darting from a perch to snatch a flying insect from the air or suddenly dropping down to pluck a beetle from the ground. Courting males also perform a hovering display flight that is accompanied by a distinctive stuttering song. He may also try to impress a female with gifts of butterflies and grasshoppers.
Find This Bird
To find a Vermilion Flycatcher, visit a riparian area or park in New Mexico’s lowlands in the summer. Look for flashes of bright red in the air or among the trees and listen for their distinctive rolling songs. With their habit of perching out in the open and returning to the same perch repeatedly, they are pretty easy to spot and observe.
- Vermilion Flycatchers are named for the males’ vibrant red plumage.
- In the U.S., the greatest density of these birds occurs in Tucson, Arizona.
- These birds love city parks!
Vermilion Flycatchers are sensitive to land alterations and habitat loss – particularly the overuse of water in the Southwest, which compromises the necessary riparian habitats they use to breed. Luckily, they are still quite common.
Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
While most birders are familiar with the smaller House and Carolina Wrens, Cactus Wrens take things to another level. Their bold, clownish personalities make them a joy to watch.
Cactus Wrens are the size of large sparrows. They are birds of understated beauty, with both males and females covered in brown, white, and black speckles and stripes. Rusty flourishes, large white eyebrows, and long slightly decurved bills complete the ensemble.
As their name suggests, Cactus Wrens are true desert birds, living their entire lives in the country’s hottest and driest southernmost regions. In New Mexico, they can be found year-round in the lower half of the state. Look for them anywhere there are cacti – even in urban areas!
Cactus Wrens eat insects and cactus fruits.
These plucky birds typically make their presence known with their low-pitched chugging song that sounds like a struggling engine, sashaying runs, frequent raspy calls, and animated dust baths. They build large bulky elliptical nests of fine materials in cacti, especially chollas.
Find This Bird
More often than not, these inquisitive birds will find you first. Head to open desert areas with plenty of cacti and pay extra close attention to chollas with nests in them. Find one of these and you’ll surely find a resident Cactus Wren pair! Simply wait and listen, these birds are not shy and are active pretty much all day long, even in the heat.
- Cactus Wrens are the largest wrens in the United States.
- They often build two nests, one for breeding and one for roosting in on cold desert nights.
- They get most of their water from insects and fruits.
Sadly, Cactus Wrens are declining at an alarming rate, primarily due to habitat loss. Since these birds adapt well to life alongside humans, simply planting more native cacti and shrubs in urban areas can help them out.
White-Winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)
The desert Southwest is rich in doves – and the large White-winged Dove is arguably the most spectacular of them all. Their lilting coos have become synonymous with Southwestern summers.
White-winged Doves have uniform gray bodies, white wing patches, orange eyes, and colorful blue faces, making them flashier than other native doves.
This desert-adapted dove spends spring and summer in brushy desert areas, washes, riparian woodlands, cactus forests, and suburban backyards throughout the southern half of New Mexico. In the fall, they migrate south to Mexico.
White-winged Doves mostly feed on seeds, grain, and fruit.
White-winged Doves spend their days foraging on the ground, at feeders, or atop cacti. Males woo females with tail fans, raised wings, and gifts of sticks. Like most doves, they build flimsy nests of twigs in shady trees and typically raise two young.
Find This Bird
You won’t have any trouble finding these birds in spring and summer, and, in fact, some White-winged Doves stick around all winter, too. Listen for their long up-and-down songs and shorter “Who cooks for you?” coos in the arid southern regions of the state.
- White-winged Doves have a special fondness for the flowers and fruits of the saguaro cactus and many populations plan their migration to arrive just in time to feast on its nectar and fruits.
- The lilting call of the White-winged Dove is referenced in Stevie Nicks’ song “Edge of Seventeen.”
White-winged Doves are a success story, as they were once over-hunted. Today, their numbers are actually increasing, as they readily take advantage of urban areas, feeders, and bird baths.
New Mexico is an excellent destination for birders. Owing to its well-situated location, wild and untamed landscapes, and wealth of different habitats and elevations, it’s a melting pot of diverse species from wading birds to colorful songbirds to tiny owls. While you probably won’t see all 551 species on your first visit, you’ll surely find more than you ever thought possible! And, even if you only see a few of the iconic species on this list, it’ll be worth the trip.
Answer: The most commonly encountered birds in New Mexico are House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, Spotted Towhees, Bushtits, Mountain Chickadees, House Sparrows, and White-winged Doves according to recent data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. These species are most commonly seen because they regularly visit bird feeders.
Answer: While many unusual birds end up as vagrants in New Mexico, the rarest, according to the American Bird Conservancy, was a Long-billed Murrelet, which, as a coastal bird native to Russia and Japan, was thousands of miles from home.
Answer: It’s hard to say which is the most endangered, but the National Audubon Society lists the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Mexican Spotted Owl as just three of the most imperiled and declining birds found in New Mexico.
- Alderfer, J., et al. (2006). Complete Birds of North America (2nd Edition). National Geographic Society.
- Kaufman, K. (1996). Lives of North American Birds (1st Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Sibley, D.A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- American Birding Association
- Birds and Blooms
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All about Birds
- The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List
- National Audubon Society
- New Mexico Ornithological Society
- Santa Fe New Mexican
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service