Below are descriptions of the most common birds of Cold Canyon. For a more complete list, look at the complete checklist.
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Scanning the grasslands and savannah for a meal, large birds of prey such as the red-tailed hawk soar above the Stebbins reserve on the updrafts that rise off steep canyon walls. Though they vary widely in coloration, most red-tailed hawks are a shade of brown above, lighter underneath with darker markings flecking their broad wings and forming a band across their belly, and exhibit their namesake rust-colored tail. The red-tailed hawk's piercing call, a familiar sound effect from movies and television, descends in pitch and is often heard in the spring as mated pairs perform acrobatic aerial courtship displays.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). The turkey vulture teeters from side to side as it soars on long wings held up in shallow "V". It uses both vision and smell, not in search of living prey, but in search of carrion. Its plumage is black overall, though the undersides of its flight feathers have a silvery cast, and the red skin of its head (gray in juveniles) is left unfeathered. Turkey vultures lay their eggs in sheltered ledges on cliffs such as those found to the West above Cold Canyon.
Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica). Well known in California due to its abundance and brash behavior, the Western scrub-jay can scarcely be missed at the reserve. Its loud, grating call is given as a singular statement or in a series. The sky blue of its head, wings, and long tail surrounds its gray back and extends as a broken necklace into its white underparts. In autumn the Western scrub-jay switches from a diet of mostly insects and begins to collect acorns and cache them in the ground. By burying more acorns than it consumes over the winter, the scrub-jay effectively plants the next generation of oaks. It is believed that this relationship allows the oaks to disperse uphill, counteracting the tendency of acorns to roll downhill.
Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii). The series of rattling calls given by a Nuttall's woodpecker often announces its presence high on the side of a tree. Its back is barred horizontally with black and white, and its head is black with white marks, plus a red crown on the male. Nuttall's woodpecker uses its specialized bill to flake away bark as it forages for insects, to make a territorial drumming on tree trunks, and to excavate a nest cavity in a trunk or branch.
Black Phoebe (Sayonis nigricans). Closely associated with riparian habitat, the diminutive black phoebe can be seen perched above Cold Creek. From this perch it nervously flicks its tail and makes occasional flittery flycatching forays into the air. A solid black head, upperparts, and breast in contrast with a white belly give this bird a trim coloration. Two rising notes followed by two descending notes constitute the song of the black phoebe.
Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus). Tiny but kinetic, the bushtit is pale gray with a light brown crown and relatively long tail. Frantically moving through the chaparral and woodlands as they forage in winter, bushtit flocks keep in constant communication by a twittering of whistled chirps. In spring these contact calls continue between mated pairs as they build elaborate gourd-shaped hanging nests of plant material and lichen woven together with silk from the webs of spiders and cocoons of insects.
Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata). The wrentit is another small bird with drab coloration to match the brushy environments of the reserve. On the rare occasion when it emerges from the shelter of dense undergrowth, one can see the wrentit's dark gray-brown plumage, white eyes, and long tail, often held up at an angle. It is more often heard giving its characteristic "bouncing ball" song, a descending eries of notes that become more rapid until they run together as a trill.
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus). Often heard scratching with both feet simultaneously as it combs the leaf litter for seeds and insects, the spotted towhee also prefers chaparral or the understory of woodlands, but is more elaborate in coloration. Black on the male--brown on the female--covers the upperparts and forms a hood over its head and upper breast, accented by red eyes, white wing bars, and white spotting above the wings. The red-brown that marks the sides of the spotted towhee was referred to in the former name of this large sparrow, then classified with its eastern relatives as the "rufous-sided towhee". A buzzy trill is the song given by the male, usually from a prominent perch, and the call of the species is a scratchy, rising slur.
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys). When winter brings harsh weather and a scarcity of available seeds to their breeding territories high in the mountains, populations of white-crowned sparrow move into suitable habitat in the Central Valley and interior coast ranges, including the woodlands of the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. Identify this small ground-feeding sparrow by its black-and-white striped crown (brown striped on immatures) and pink to orange bill. The white-crowned sparrow's song consists of one to three clear whistles followed by a trill and is sung often in spring before the birds depart. A close listen distinguishes the dialect sung by wintering white-crowned sparrows at Cold Canyon from that of the resident populations on the California coast.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata). While most North American wood warblers migrate to the tropics, the hearty yellow-rumped warbler can be found here in abundance as a winter visitor. Gathering in flocks, wintering yellow-rumped warblers give a sharp chirp as a contact call. Though variable by race, sex, and season, plumage follows a basic pattern of grey upperparts with patches of yellow above the tail, on the sides under the wings, and on the crown. The "Audubon's warbler" form, more common in the West, has white crescents above and below the eye and, in males, a yellow throat. The "myrtle warbler" form is also possible and can be distinguished by a white eyebrow stripe and white throat extending to the sides of the neck.
Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). In metabolic overdrive, tiny hummingbirds hover by rapid wingbeats as they drink sugary nectar from flowers with their needle-thin bills. Exceptional for its ability to overwinter, Anna's hummingbird is an abundant year-round resident at the reserve while other hummingbirds are only present during their breeding or migration seasons. Both sexes of Anna's hummingbird have metallic green upperparts and pale gray undersides with a green wash. With light reflected from a certain angle, the male's head and throat feathers shine pink, and the female's throat is sparsely flecked with these iridescent feathers. The Anna's male sings a squeaky series of high chirps from a perch.