Saturday, October 5, 2019

What birds have red heads? 17 kinds with photos!

You saw a striking bird with a red head, did you? You wonder what it is. That shouldn't be too hard to figure out, should it? How many kinds of birds with red heads could there possibly be?

In the United States and Canada there are many birds with either fully or partially red heads. Sometimes there is just a touch of red. Sometimes the entire bird is mostly red. Sometimes the red color is more orange, sometimes it is more pink. The list of birds with red heads includes these:
  • House Finch
  • Purple Finch
  • Cassin's Finch
  • Red Crossbill
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Summer Tanager
  • Western Tanager
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Vermilion Flycatcher
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-breasted Sapsucker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker

If you saw this bird with a red head at your backyard feeder, the options go way down. In fact, at least 90% of the time you are likely inquiring about the common House Finch. But there are other possibilities. This list isn't all of the birds with red on the head, but it is most of the ones you are likely to see in your backyard. So let's get started discovering what you saw!



Finches with red heads at your seed feeder


Finches love seeds. So they are likely to show up at your backyard seed feeders. Finches are brown streaky sparrow-like birds, more likely in your trees than on the ground. It is only the adult males that show color. So in a flock of red finches only a few of the birds will show a red head.

House Finch

Photo of House Finch in tree top
House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
This is it! If you saw several small streaky gray-brown birds, some with bright reddish-orange forehead, breast, and rump at your seed feeder, this is probably your bird. Most birds are a reddish-orange, some can be yellow, but the underlying pattern is the same.

House Finches are found in residential areas, towns, farms throughout the United States. They are only missing from the grasslands of the Great Plains and from most of Florida. They barely reach southern Canada. They are residents, meaning they don't migrate for the most part, rather stay year-round in the same area.

They give chirping calls and sing throughout the year with a wiry warble with scratchy notes at the end.

Purple Finch

Photo of Purple Finch on branch
Purple Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
Purple Finches don't have the streaked flanks of House Finches. The male birds have a pinkish cast, especially on the top of the crown (the House Finch has a red forehead and brown crown). They have a forked tail.

Purple Finches live in damper woods. They are found in summer across southern Canada, barely reaching the northern tier of the United States in the Midwest and New England states. They are also found in the mountains of the West, clear south to southern California. In winter they move out of Canada and are found throughout the Eastern US.

They have a rollicking warbled song with three identical quick rolling phrases, ending with two short notes, without the harsh ending noted of House Finches. I think the song sounds like "hurry little, hurry little, hurry little, hup! hup!" They also give a sharp "plic!" call in flight.

They may visit your seed feeder in winter.

Cassin's Finch

Photo of Cassin's Finch on feeder post
Cassin's Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
In the drier mountain ponderosa pine forests of the West lives the Cassin's Finch.

Males are very softly brushed with pink. The crown of the head is the brightest red. Note a thin white eye ring and deeply forked tail.

As with most finches they eat mostly seeds.

They give a 3-part call "tee-dee-yip" call and have a long song. The song lacks the harsh notes of House Finch and is less structured than Purple Finch.

Red Crossbill

Photo of Red Crossbill on branch
Red Crossbill
Photo by Greg Gillson
Red Crossbills live in conifer forests. They are found from southern Alaska, across Canada, in the northern Midwest and New England states, in a few places in the Appalachians. They are widespread in the West, through the mountains of Mexico to middle America.

Crossbills sometimes irrupt in winter, moving in huge numbers from one area to another as the cone crops fail or are abundant locally. They may show up at backyard feeders well outside or south of their typical range, but mostly feed on pine cone seeds.

Males are red; females are yellowish. Birds with large crossed bills feed on the seeds of big pine cones. Birds with dainty bills feed on tiny soft spruce cones.

More than 10 forms of Red Crossbills have been "discovered" recently. They all have different songs and call notes. They have different size of bills and tend to feed on the cone seeds of different species of conifers. But they overlap in range in a confusing manner that scientists are still trying to figure out.

Red Crossbills have a warbling song similar to the finches above and give a doubled "kip-kip" or "jiff-jiff" call.

Pine Grosbeak

Photo of Pine Grosbeak on ground
Pine Grosbeak
Photo by Greg Gillson
This large plump finch lives in conifer forests in Alaska and across Canada. In winter it barely makes it the northern tier of US states.

Different forms show quite a bit of variation in the amount of coloring--red on males, yellow on females. Otherwise they are about 9 inches long, plump, with two white wing bars, a heavy black conical bill and forked tail.

They eat seeds, fruit and buds in winter. They are especially fond of the fruit clusters of mountain ash trees.

They sing a warbling song and give a flight call of "pui pui pui."

Cardinals with red heads at your seed feeder


If you see a crested bird with a red head and short conical bill at your seed feeder it is going to be one of the cardinals. They are larger than the finches.

Northern Cardinal

Photo of Northern Cardinal at feeder
Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay
One of the most well-known feeder birds in the Eastern United States is the Northern Cardinal. They also occur from Texas to Arizona and south into Mexico. They are found in woodlands, thickets, and gardens. A form also lives in the desert Southwest.

Males are brilliant red throughout with a black face and bib. Females are buffier and duller, but still show some red.

Cardinals eat insects, fruit, and seeds. They readily come to backyard feeders and eat a wide variety of seeds and other bird foods.

Both sexes sing nearly year-round. Common whistled phrases include "cheery cheery cheery."

Pyrrhuloxia

Photo of Pyrrhuloxia on rock wall
Pyrrhuloxia
Uploaded by berichard, CC BY 2.0, Link
Males of this gray desert cardinal have red patches on face, crest, breast, wings and tail. Females lack red. The thick conical bill is an obvious mark.

This species is found from Texas to Arizona and south into Mexico. They live in mesquite thickets and other thorny brush.

Pyrrhuloxias feed on the ground and eat weed seeds and other hard seeds.

They sing a liquid whistles song and have a metallic "chink" call.

Tanagers with red heads in your shade and fruit trees


Tanagers eat mostly insects, including bees, wasps, and beetles. They also eat fruit and berries. They migrate to Middle America for the winter. Bills are fairly heavy, but not as short and conical as seed eaters such as finches, sparrows, and cardinals.

Summer Tanager

Photo of Summer Tanager in cottonwood tree
Summer Tanager
Photo by Greg Gillson
Male Summer Tanagers stay bright red all year round. Females are much paler, tending toward yellowish with a red wash. The bill is pale. Another similar species, Hepatic Tanager, is found in mountain forests of the Southwest and has a black bill.

These birds are found in pine-oak woods in the East, but in cottonwoods in the West (see photo above).

They are found in the East from about Virginia to Iowa and south, west from Texas to southern California and into Mexico. They migrate out of the US in winter, except for a few in southern coastal regions from Florida to Texas and southern California.

They sing robin-like phrases and give a "ki-ti-tuk" call.

Scarlet Tanager

Photo of Scarlet Tanager on branch
Scarlet Tanager
Image by Steve Maslowski, Fish & Wildlife Service. Public domain.
Males are red in breeding plumage but in fall and winter molt into a greenish plumage similar to the female. Males have deep black wings and tail. The bill is smaller than other tanagers.

They summer in deciduous woods in the eastern United States and migrate south out of the country in winter.

They sing hoarse robin-like phrases. Call is "chip-burr."

Western Tanager

Photo of Western Tanager eating an orange
Western Tanager
Photo by Greg Gillson
Males in summer sport red heads on this bright yellow and black tanager.

They are found in the West, from northern Canada barely to Mexico in summer. They winter in Middle America.

These tanagers may appear in fall at backyard bird feeders. But as with all the tanagers, may be attracted to birdbaths and fountains year-round.

They sing a hoarse robin-like song and have clicking calls "pit-er-ick."

Flycatchers with red heads catching flies


Most flycatchers are olive-green. There is one, however, that has a red head. Most flycatchers sit quietly for long periods on an exposed perch. Then they sally out to snap up a flying insect and return.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Photo of Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher
Photo by Greg Gillson
This small bird of the desert Southwest is a hurt-your-eyes red. Females are grayer above, white below with streaks on the breast and peach-colored on the lower belly. They are found throughout Mexico. In winter they disperse from California to Florida.

Even though they are desert birds they are usually found near stream sides. Typical manmade habitats they favor include golf courses, ball fields, cemeteries.

In breeding season the males sing their song in a fluttery display flight "pi-a-see pit-a-see."

Woodpeckers with red heads on your tree trunks or suet feeder


Male woodpeckers of most species have red on the head--some much more than others. They are frequently seen propping themselves up on the trunk of a tree as they search for insects in the bark or drilling into trees.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Photo of Red-headed Woodpecker on tree trunk
Red-headed Woodpecker
Image by unknown. Public Domain. From Pixabay.
This striking woodpecker is found in most of the East and farms and streamside woods in the Great Plains.

They require trees big enough to drill their nest holes, and away from competition for those holes with European Starlings.

They eat flying insects they catch in the air or find other invertebrate prey, nuts, and seeds on the ground.

Their call is a soft rattle.

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Photo of Red-breasted Sapsucker on tree branch
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Photo by Greg Gillson
This red-headed woodpecker (but NOT Red-headed Woodpecker!) is found on the West Coast from Alaska to southern California. It prefers mixed woods or deciduous trees in conifer woods for nesting. In winter many descend from mountains to lowlands orchards and backyards.

They drill tiny rows of sap wells in trees and then visit them to drink the sap and eat any insects that were trapped in the sticky sap.

They aren't very active, but give themselves away by their periodic wheezy descending calls.

Pileated Woodpecker

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker on tree trunk
Pileated Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson
This huge black-and-white woodpecker with the flaming red crest is crow-sized and unforgettable. This species is found in eastern woodlands, across Canada, and in western mountains.

They prefer mature forests and deep woodlands, both deciduous and conifer. They drill huge square holes in dead stumps and downed trees to excavate carpenter ants for food. They are one of only a few woodpeckers that will drill their nest cavities into firm live trees.

The loud wild call is a sign you are in the wilderness forests, a ringing "kik-kik, kik-kik, kik…."

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo of Red-bellied Woodpecker on tree trunk
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Image by skeeze from Pixabay
There are several similar species of black-and-white barred woodpeckers. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the most common backyard birds in the Eastern United States. They live in woodlands and urban areas.

They readily come to backyard bird feeders. They eat suet, peanuts, and sometimes sunflower seeds. Their "wild" food consists of beetles, grasshoppers, and ants.

A common call is a rolling "churr."

Acorn Woodpecker

Photo of Acorn Woodpecker on wood post
Acorn Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson
This black and white woodpecker with clown-like face and red crown is common in California and nearby areas of the Southwest.

They are found wherever there are groves of large oak trees, including pine-oak woodlands.

They live in large family groups and small colonies where they collect and store acorns tightly into the bark of trees. As the acorns dry they shrink and may fall out. So they are constantly testing the fit and moving acorns into better-sized holes. Granary trees can contain many thousands of acorns. They eat these acorns in winter. They also eat insects, frequently flying insects they catch in the air.

These are social and noisy birds, constantly calling "Whack-up! Whack-up!"

Downy Woodpecker

Photo of Downy Woodpecker on suet block
Downy Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson
The Downy Woodpecker is a tiny bird. They are common in backyards across the United States, Canada, and Alaska.

Only the males have a red spot on the back of the head. This is a frequent pattern for woodpeckers around the world. Only a few species have red heads, many types of larger woodpeckers do have red crests, though.

The bill is tiny on this bird compared to other woodpeckers. Thus they tend to pick for beetles, ants, and other bark insects, rather than drilling for food. They are especially fond of suet at backyard feeders.

They give a sharp "pik!" call and in spring "sing" a longer descending whinny call, composed of a very rapid series of those "pik!" calls.

Hummingbirds with red heads


Male hummingbirds have iridescent throats that show red, orange, purple, and pink highlights. There is only one species of hummingbird regularly found in the eastern United States. There are 6 species of hummingbirds throughout most of the western United States. Southeast Arizona, though, is the US capitol for hummingbirds. There are 15 species of hummingbirds that occur in the United States each year. Of the 130 species of hummingbirds in the world (only in the Americas), a total of about 26 have occurred north of Mexico.

Anna's Hummingbird

Photo of Anna's Hummingbird on twig
Anna's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
In the United States hummingbirds mostly have red throats. In the desert southwest Costa's Hummingbirds have a purple throat and crown while Anna's Hummingbirds have a pinkish-red throat and crown.

Anna's Hummingbirds are a common bird of California that have expanded in recent years into Oregon (even a few to SE Alaska) and Arizona. In winter they are found throughout the Baja peninsula and occasionally to Texas.

They eat flower nectar and insects they catch in flight or glean from plants. They take over hummingbird feeders but the tiny Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds can sometimes stand up to these larger bullies.

Males in spring (winter even!) start singing a long buzzy insect-like refrain from an exposed perch.

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