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11 Red-headed Birds in Wisconsin

red-headed birds in wisconsin
Red-headed Woodpecker in Lake Kegonsa SP, Wisconsin: Photo by Kris Perlberg


The Badger State’s diverse landscapes from lakes to forests host over 450 bird species. Some favorites boast vibrant crimson crowns, like the aptly-named and familiar Red-headed Woodpecker. This article explores favorite resident and migrating red-headed birds in Wisconsin.  

Canvasback (Aythya valisineria)  

  • Features: Males have a distinctive red head and black bill. They show elegant sloping profiles and crisp white canvas markings on back. Females more subtly patterned overall in brown.
  • Locations: Spring and fall visitor to lakes and ponds statewide. Breeds farther north. Winters to the south. 
  • Fun Fact: Dives underwater to forage, where its sloping bill profile facilitates uprooting aquatic plants. Courting is marked by “cooing” and head-throwing displays.

Redhead (Aythya americana)  

  • Features: Appropriately named duck species. Males show bright crimson red head feathers from yellow eye to nape. Gray sides and back with black underside. Blue bill tipped in black. 
  • Locations: During migration found on Wisconsin lakes, marshes and rivers. Breeding farther west. Winters along the Atlantic Coast into Mexico after migrating.
  • Fun Fact: Male has striking courtship displays, laying head flat on water and kicking feet up. Nest built over water concealed in emergent vegetation. 

Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)

  • Features: Long ragged brown crest fans down nape. Male has glossy green head, red eyes, and intricate white and black/gray color patterns. Female has oranger-red crest and gray body.
  • Locations: Common year-round on Wisconsin’s inland lakes and rivers. Most numerous during migration periods. 
  • Fun Fact: Swims rapidly underwater to catch small fish, while wing beats partly submerged also propel their pursuit after prey. Nests in tree cavities fairly close to water.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)  

  • Features: Tiny blazing red gorget decorates otherwise plain gray-green male Ruby-throats. Females lack red throat patch features. Very rapid wing beats enable specialized nectar-feeding.
  • Locations: Summer breeder across Wisconsin. Require flower beds providing nectar nutrition. Most migrate to Mexico and Central America during winter.
  • Fun Fact: Defends patchy feeding territories by dramatic aggressive aerial displays from the male, who has the red throat patch. Food reserve needs during migration are scientifically extraordinary for this bird’s diminutive size.   

Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)  

  • Features: Large elegant crane species with intricate gray bodies, crimson caps on adults, and white cheeks. Red skin visible above black featherless wedge. Young birds are rusty tan overall. 
  • Locations: Found year-round inhabiting open wetlands, prairies, and agricultural fields statewide. Southwards migration for wintering. Northern birds pass through during spring migration. 
  • Fun Fact: These social cranes migrate and occupy winter range in large protective flocks. Their “rattling” calls communicate across long distances. Courtship dances feature exuberant leaping with wings fluttering. 

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)  

  • Features: Very long graceful legs and thin upturned bill that sweeps sideways making these shorebirds instantly recognizable. Has a black and white feather pattern on wings/body, rusty (close enough to red) head and breast in breeding season. 
  • Locations: Summers in central Wisconsin near wetlands, marshes and ponds. Migrates between wintering grounds further south and more northern nesting habitats.
  • Fun Fact: Uses their specialized bill adeptly to catch shrimp and insects by scything it side to side just under the water’s surface. The rusty brown head coloring is mostly just visible during mating season.   

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)  

  • Features: This medium woodpecker has vibrant crimson plumage completely covering its head, throat and breast. Back and wings black and white boldly patterned. White rump visible during flight.  
  • Locations: Found year-round in open woodlands, parks, scattered groves, and semi-rural farms statewide. 
  • Fun Fact: Catches insects on the fly. Males offer food morsels when courting females near suitable nesting trees in springtime. Stores nuts and acorns embedded into bark crevices. 

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus

  • Features: This crow-sized woodpecker shows intricate black and white patterns across the back and wings. Bright flaming red feather crest on forehead makes this forest bird very recognizable when territorial calls draw attention.  
  • Locations: Found year-round inhabiting extensive mature forests with ample stands of dead and dying trees statewide. 
  • Fun Fact: Uses powerful ivory-colored bill to excavate deep rectangular cavities seeking carpenter ant colonies. Also feeds on various wild fruits and berries in season near nesting trees.  

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

  • Features: Dark blue iridescent back contrasts with cinnamon colored forehead and throat on this species. Very long outer tail feathers and pointed wings enable superb aerial maneuvering to catch flying insect swarms. 
  • Locations: Summers widely across Wisconsin around structures that allow nest placement like barns, bridges and culverts. Most migrate to Central and South America for winter.
  • Fun Fact: Mud cup nests take 10,000 trips carrying blobs in their beaks. Males with longest tail streamers tend to acquire better mating opportunities.  

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  

  • Features: Originally limited to southwestern states before expanding rapidly eastward over recent decades. The male has rich red crown fading towards brown streaked flanks. Grey cheeks patch surrounds bill.  
  • Locations: Found year-round across Wisconsin occupying both rural farmlands and urban city parks where mature trees help nesting coupled with ample seed sources from backyard offerings through late autumn and cold winter months.
  • Fun Fact: Flocks collect communally each night during below freezing temperatures together for warmth benefits inside dense evergreen groves which helps survival success over the dark frigid hours until first light returns.

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)

  • Features: Distinguished from House Finch cousins by more extensive red on head flowing down towards upper breast before melding into brown and white streaked belly with hints of rose warmth at flank edges. Female shows delicate streaking overall. 
  • Locations: Breeds in northern conifer and mixed forests. Winters farther south in Wisconsin after migrating down from Canadian breeding grounds following seed and fruit mast crops inside mature forests.  
  • Fun Fact: The male performs a warbled melodic mating song containing clear notes often mnemonically interpreted as saying “Go get her caps and mitts” by enchanted listeners as their refrain cascades across high branches. 

Threats and Conservation

Habitat degradation and loss poses serious threats to wetlands and forests required by red-headed birds statewide. Climate disruption alters food availability timing migration badly. Windows strikes contribute to hundreds of millions of migratory bird collision deaths annually. Policy prioritizing mature protected parklands statewide plus more bird friendly architecture in urban areas and along flyways can aid future conservation towards sustainable populations.  

Citizen Science Contributions

Wisconsin birders and researchers help population monitoring:

  • Uploading eBird checklists shows regional trends useful for managing threatened species  
  • Breeding bird atlas projects map shifting nest locations signaling issues
  • Nest box availability projects boost breeding success  
  • Banding reveals migration route ecology and survivorship factors
  • Christmas Bird Counts tally wintering bird numbers  
  • Outreach develops future conservation ethics


Wisconsin sustains over 450 diverse bird species, though some remarkable red-crowned favorites capture special seasonal attention altering habitats during migrations or acquiring nesting territories come springtime. Protecting fragile ecosystems remains crucial ensuring future generations get to appreciate their majesty.