If you’ve visited the pine barrens and wetlands scattered across Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas or spotted a giant bird in your backyard, you’re probably wondering what large Michigan bird you just saw. Known for its vibrant natural habitats with more than 450 bird species, Michigan is a great place for both enthusiastic birdwatchers and wildlife photographers.
The 15 popular large birds in Michigan include massive woodpeckers and birds of prey such as soaring bald eagles, Gyrfalcons, and Great Horned Owls, to herons, egrets, and the black-masked, snowy white Trumpeter swan that range from 16 inches tall, up to a whopping 5 foot 11 inches with a wingspan that’s over 8 feet wide.
Check out 15 popular large birds that you just might spot in Michigan.
Popular Large Birds in Michigan
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1. Pileated Woodpecker
Most people know what a woodpecker looks like, although many people aren’t aware that not all woodpeckers are pint-sized birds knocking away at trees outside.
In fact, if you’ve seen a woodpecker that seems too big to be real, you’ve probably just spotted the Pileated Woodpecker. This forest bird is a year-round native to Michigan. It not only measures 16 to 19 inches in length, but it also can live up to 12 years.
If you’re wondering why it is called a “pileated” woodpecker, it’s because the word is derived from the Latin “pileatus”, meaning a “capped” look. You can recognize this bird because it has a largely black body, with white lines down its throats, white markings on its wings, and a bold and distinctive red crest or “cap” atop its head.
The Pileated Woodpecker lives in forests throughout Michigan but tends to avoid domestic bird feeders. A good way to attract them to your backyard is to leave dead trees for pecking and place suet in an outdoor feeder.
In the wild, look for them hanging out in dead trees drilling for carpenter ants and insects, or snacking on nuts, fruit, or berries. If you notice rows of rectangular holes in trees, it’s a clue that a Pileated Woodpecker (or another type of woodpecker) is nearby.
2. Caspian Tern
This arctic-looking seabird lurks around the Michigan shoreline during the shorter and milder summers. Measuring 19 to 24 inches with a 50-to-57-inch wingspan, this shore-nesting bird has a lifespan of up to 12 years. These birds also are native in large numbers to the Caspian Sea south of Russia, which is how the birds got their name.
With its white body, pale upper wings, a big head with a black shock of feathers, a slightly forked tail, and a coral-red beak, the Caspian Tern is currently a State Threatened Species.
Watch for this cool-looking bird during May, June, and July. Although it can be harder to spot, the Caspian Tern is also in the region from the second week of April through the end of September.
It loves to nest near islands in wider bodies of water and along pebbled or open, sandy beaches. Aggressively territorial, they fly high and dive for fish in Alpena, Arenac Bay, Alcona, Delta, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Mackinac counties. More concentrated numbers are located along the Garden and Beaver archipelagos.
3. Great Horned Owl
This giant of the Great North Woods lives an ancient 15-25 years and has a wingspan that can stretch up to over 60 inches. It’s also sometimes called the tiger owl due to its distinctive mottled and striped feather pattern, glowing yellow eyes, white patch on its neck, and feathered tufts that rise like ears on either side of its head.
You can find this large, nocturnal bird year-round throughout the entire state. It favors conifer forests, dry areas, mountains, scrubland, grasslands, and many other kinds of habitats. An aggressive predator with sharp hearing, night-vision eyesight, and a diverse appetite, the Great Horned Owl hunts mice, rats, voles, rabbits, reptiles, frogs, snakes, and multiple other small and medium-sized mammals. They even attack and feed on Gyrfalcons and other kinds of owls.
Long-lived like many owls, the Gyrfalcon is one of the largest falcons that breed along Michigan’s northern coasts. It’s about 19-24 inches long with wings that stretch from 43-60 inches. It can also live up to 20 years in the wild.
Prized as a royal hunting bird during medieval times, the Gyrfalcon is a monogamous bird that mates for life. The Gyrfalcon is roughly the same size as a Red-Tailed Hawk but has a very different color with white, silver, gray, or soot-brown feathers. A female Gyrfalcon is larger, thicker, and heavier than a male bird. Prized
You’re most likely to spot a Gyrfalcon during the winter from October to January along shorelines, open fields, and shrubland in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula areas.
5. Great Gray Owl
It’s no surprise that even winged predators live longer in captivity than in the free wilderness. That’s true of the Great Gray Owl, which is one of the largest birds you can see during the winter in Michigan’s northern Lower and Upper Peninsulas.
Standing 24-33 inches tall with up to a 60-inch wingspan, this species of owl can live up to 27 years in a zoo. They’re also one of the largest owl species on earth.
Great Gray Owls, also known as sooty owls and bearded owls, these Phantoms of the North can have a spooky look with their mottled brown and white streaked feathers and huge, startling yellow eyes that stare out of ringed patterns of feathers.
Rare, unsociable, and silent, these solitary raptors perch high in conifer trees, blending in with the grayish-brown bark, before swooping down to seize mice and voles with their steely talons in the crepuscular hours between dusk and dawn. They’re even terrifying enough to drive off large predatory mammals like black bears when protecting their nests.
Listen for deep, booming “hoos” from male owls that echo through the forest during mating season.
You’ve probably seen an Osprey if you notice a large brown bird with a hooked beak and a white head and underbelly perching on light posts, telephone poles, or cell towers. Despite this risky attraction to electrical sources, Ospreys often live 15-20 years.
Rising 19.7 to 26 inches tall with a wingspread that’s 50-71 inches, Ospreys have a layover throughout most of Michigan, except the Tri-cities area, during their summer migration from South America. Male birds appear first, when they are two years old, for the breeding season. Over a 20-year-lifespan, an Osprey can travel more than 160,000 miles.
If you get to see an Osprey up close, check out its reversible outside toe that lets them grab fish with their two front toes and two back toes to prevent the fish from escaping. Also known as seahawks, Ospreys can be seen diving and swooping for prey over bodies of water.
7. Common Loon
Another large and very long-lived bird (20-30 years) that resides during the summer in Michigan’s Upper and Northern Lower Peninsulas, the Common Loon is known as the great northern diver. It’s also one of the biggest loon species found in the state.
Measuring 26-36 inches long and with wings that range from 50 to 57.8 inches wide, the Common Loon mostly sticks to breeding grounds in the far northern reaches of the peninsulas.
If you want to catch sight of these large birds with black heads, black spots on their backs, and white breast feathers, look for this threatened Michigan species in northern bodies of water from April through the end of summer.
Stealthy water birds that sink under the surface of the water to catch a fish without a splash, the loon is also known for its wild, eerie, and tremulous wailing call. Monogamous and fiercely protective, males and females often band together to defend their nesting territory.
8. Great Black-backed Gull
This “king of the Atlantic waterfront” dominates Michigan’s lakefront shorelines like a scavenging pirate during the winter months.
With a long life up to 27 years and a wingspread that beats out most waterfowl competition at 59 to 66.9 inches wide, this aggressive hunter is not only the largest gull species in the state but in the entire world.
You can recognize the Great Black-backed Gull by its predominantly white body with black or dark gray wings, pink legs, and sporty yellow and red beaks. Large in numbers, adaptable, and omnivorous, this waterfowl enjoys fish, mollusks, insects, crustaceans, marine worms, berries, carrion, and rodents.
9. Great Egret
Aristocratically tall and slender with pure white plumage except for a long, yellow-orange beak, green-colored eyeshadow, and slim black legs, the Great Egret is another big bird that haunts Michigan’s southeastern wetlands and other bodies of water during the summer.
Generally long-lived (up to 22 years) with a tall, 31-41-inch body and massive 52-to-67-inch wings, the Great Egret flies into the state in July and leaves at the end of October. These birds are the second largest fowl in the North American heron family.
Once hunted to near-extinction for their gorgeous “aigrettes” plumes, once coveted for hat feathers during the 19th century, the Great Egret species has regained its numbers, thanks to conservation laws and actions.
Monogamous each season, these birds can be spotted in breeding colonies that roost in trees near large lakes. A Great Egret displays motionless or stalking behavior when hunting fish, insects, frogs, crustaceans, small reptiles, or smaller mammals in shallow water or among reeds.
10. Snowy Owl
Insulated against the arctic cold with enormous, heavy bodies and thick feathers that even cover their feet, Snowy Owls are winter residents all through the state of Michigan.
Although they are large predators, standing 21-28 inches tall, with wings that are 45.7 to 72 inches long, and weighing 5-6 pounds, Snowy Owls usually only survive about 10 years in the wild. In captivity, they can live up to 28 years.
Like many birds, the females are bigger than the males. Many of them have wings that are 6 feet across. Both male and female Snowy Owls are the only white owls in the world with a pure white head and neck and distinctive black or brown crescent marks that offset their big yellow eyes.
Native to the tundra and arctic North America, these vocal birds fill the Michigan woods with 15 different kinds of calls. Most of these include rough notes that echo for miles.
They’re also monogamous and diurnal creatures that sleep at night and hunt by day, unlike other types of owls. They enjoy feasting on small mammals such as mice, fish, and some types of waterfowl and particularly enjoy lemmings. A Snowy Owl can consume as many as 1,600 lemmings per year.
11. Canada Goose
A placid visitor to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the summer and an often-annoying guest on golf courses, parks, lawns, and beaches in southern Michigan year-round, the Canada Goose is an easy bird to identify.
Weighing up to 14 pounds, with a maximum wingspan of 73 inches, and a lifespan that’s anywhere from 10-24 years, this bird gravitates to urban areas or places that offer plenty of food and few wild predators.
A Canada Goose’s brown and white body and sleek black neck with white cheek patches make it easy to spot, even when they’re not honking and flying in classic V-formations.
12. Sandhill Crane
With broad, 78-inch wings and a body that is over 47 inches long, the Sandhill Crane visits Michigan during the summer. They carry distinctive redheads and black-masked eyes above a body covered in slate gray and rusty-colored plumage and perch on long black legs.
These striking, giant birds are social fowl that stay with a monogamous mate for life until one of the pair dies. They’re also often found in family groups. These beautiful birds forage for berries, nuts, roots, snails, insects, and spilled grain. They start nesting deep in bogs and marshes in late spring. By October through late November, they start migrating south out of the state.
13. Golden Eagle
Despite its name, this large bird, boasting 70–90-inch wings, isn’t a yellow color. Instead, this bird of prey has a chocolate-colored body with white wing decorations and washes of deep amber and gold that offer a subtle sheen in the sun.
With a hooked beak and powerful talons, this bird isn’t native to Michigan. You may spot this swift predator in the state during the spring and autumn mating seasons when it migrates through the state toward warmer climates.
One of the biggest and most aggressive raptors in North America, the Golden Eagle often attacks bigger animals such as deer, foxes, coyotes, and small Caribou calves in the Arctic regions.
It’s harder to spot these creatures in Michigan since they don’t live or nest in the state. They also tend to favor more open, rocky spaces with mountains, steppes, or hill landscapes that are found in the western United States.
14. Great Blue Heron
Whether you’re visiting Michigan or live there, the Great Blue Heron lives year-round in the state.
Most birds can live up to 15 years, have a 36-54-inch length, and have wings that stretch from 66 to 79 inches wide. This is the biggest North American heron and one of the largest birds that you’ll find in both the Upper Peninsula and the southern part of Michigan. Sometimes, these northern heron populations will migrate to warmer regions in Central America or the Caribbean islands.
Found in river reeds, lakes, and wetlands, these birds are identified by their big bodies, thick build, swift speed, and S-shaped flight with trailing legs.
Seasonally monogamous, the Great Blue Heron parents take turns hatching the eggs until the chicks take to the skies at just two months old. The heron colonies, known as heronries, sometimes contain over 500 nests.
Like its cousin, the Great Egret, the Great Blue Heron stalks fish, frogs, reptiles, snakes, and small mammals through shallow waters or reedy areas along bodies of water.
15. Trumpeter Swan
The final large Michigan bird on this list, the Trumpeter Swan is a regal summer visitor in the Great Lakes region.
Known as the Cygnus buccinator, the Trumpeter Swan is the biggest swan on the North American continent. Weighing 15-30 pounds with 72 to 98-inch wings, the heavy flying waterfowl has snowy white plumage with a striking black bill.
The Trumpeter Swan gained its name from their loud, trumpeting call that echoes across the lakes and other bodies of water favored by this bird. While the Trumpeter Swan mainly sticks to a vegetarian diet composed of water or nearby shore plants, this bird will vary its food sources with smaller fish, insects, and even eggs on occasion.
With plenty of big birds in the wild in Michigan, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen at least one of these birds at some point.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s a good place to start since it showcases over a dozen of the most popular large birds in the state. Next time you spot one of these birds in person, it’ll be easier to recognize one of them.