How to Identify a Red Bird

How to Identify a Red Bird
If you spot a red bird in North America, you can restrict your identification to a relative handful of species. What follows are general steps for figuring out what type of bird you saw, meant to coincide with the consultation of a good field guide. This approach can be applied to birds of any color, of course, and in any part of the world. Note: For many of the species mentioned, it is the male that displays red color. Most male birds are flashier in plumage than females, as the males typically want to draw attention to themselves to secure territory and mates, while females tending eggs and young need to be more inconspicuous.


Difficulty: Easy

Things You’ll Need:
  • Birding guide
  • Binoculars (preferable)
Step 1
Look closely at the bird through binoculars or a spotting scope to pick up the most minute details you can. Birds rarely pose for long, and it's important to have a close and thorough look at identifying features.
Step 2
Note the general body shape and stature of the bird. In the United States, most red birds are passerines and thus likely small and relatively compact.
Step 3
Look for the plumage pattern for birds that are only partly red. Many North American woodpeckers have red crests or heads---their long, sharp beaks, wild chortling calls, looping flight and vertical posture on the trunks of trees are signifiers of the family. Some birds have red prominent on their breasts or sides, like American robins, spotted towhees and redstarts. Male red-winged blackbirds have striking fire patches on the "shoulders" of their wings.
Step 4
Consider the intensity of the red. Purple finches and crossbills, for example, are a rather dull pink-red (and may be distinguished from each other by bill shape). Male scarlet and summer tanagers, by contrast, are almost luminously crimson---as is the head and breast of the brilliant vermilion flycatcher.
Step 5
Check out the shape and color of the bird's bill. Cardinals have short, blocky beaks---perfect for crushing heavy seeds---in sharp contrast, say, to the relatively long and pointed bills of summer tanagers, with which, based on color alone, cardinals might be confused. (Northern cardinals and summer tanagers, in point of fact, are the only common North American birds that are entirely red-bodied---in the cardinal's case, excepting its black mask.)
Step 6
Where did you see the bird? Habitat and geographic region are always good factors to consider when identifying species. A hummingbird with a crimson throat in coastal California is probably an Allen's; in the eastern United States, it's most likely a ruby-throated.

Tips & Warnings

Look for birds of any color in cities, in suburbs, in the countryside and in the wilderness.
In addition to your field guide(s) and optical instruments, get in the habit of making notes and sketches in a journal; such a record will hone your observational skills, and you might begin noticing local patterns of species distribution and behavior.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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