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6 Red Birds in Michigan

red birds in michigan
Purple Finch in Alcona, Michigan: Photo by Manny Salas


A flash of red catches the eye—a male cardinal calling from a snowy branch. The cascading song of a scarlet tanager echoing through the forest canopy. A flock of house finches descending on a backyard feeder. From vivid woodpeckers to tanagers and finches, Michigan provides prime breeding and wintering habitat for a remarkable diversity of birds exhibiting rich ruby, cardinal and crimson plumage. Let’s explore some of the most eye-catching red resident and migratory birds finding homes in the Great Lakes State.

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus

  • Features: Small lightweight finch with bright red forehead, breast and eyebrow. Females lack red and are beige overall with heavy streaking. Short conical beak. Gregarious with varied warbling calls. 
  • Locations: Abundant introduced species found year-round across Michigan frequenting backyards, parks and cities. Originally western, now common across North America due to pet trade releases.
  • Fun Fact: Feeds on seeds, buds, fruits and nectar from feeders, bushes and gardens. The male feeds the female as part of courtship ritual. A conjunctivitis outbreak caused steep decline in 1990s.

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)

  • Features: Medium finch with warm raspberry-red head, throat and upper breast contrasting white belly and heavily streaked brown back. Short conical bill for crushing seeds. Dainty high-pitched call note. 
  • Locations: Uncommon winter visitor to Michigan coming south from boreal forest breeding grounds. It remains to breed across Canada and Alaska. Some remain in northern Michigan to nest.
  • Fun Fact: Females build an elegant nest high in conifers using bark strips, moss and lichens. She lays 3-6 light blue-green eggs with brown speckles. Recent declines likely linked to competition with house finches.

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

  • Features: Small lively finch with bright crimson cap and black chin strap. Streaky brown-olive back with black wings and tail. Small notched bill for eating seeds. Forms enormous nomadic winter flocks. 
  • Locations: Irregular winter visitor in northern Michigan coming south in influxes during food shortages farther north. It breeds in Arctic and boreal forests across Alaska and Canada.
  • Fun Fact: Highly gregarious, traveling in roaming flocks numbering in the hundreds. Male feeds sitting female as part of courtship. Nest concealed on the ground amid vegetation. 

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra

  • Features: Medium thrush-sized songbird with bright rosy-red body and darker brick red wings and tail. Grayish bill is stout and pointed. Song is a relaxed hoarse series of buzzy check notes.
  • Locations: Found during summer across southern Michigan in mature open deciduous forests, especially among oaks. It winters in South America, migrating through Central America. 
  • Fun Fact: The brighter red male and orangish female take turns incubating the eggs in an open cup nest placed high in an oak tree. It catches bees, wasps and other flying insects on the wing.

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

  • Features: Slightly smaller than summer tanager. Brilliant scarlet red body contrasts with black wings and tail. Female is dull yellow-olive overall with darker olive wings. Song starts with chick burrs then rises with buzzy notes. 
  • Locations: Breeds in mature deciduous and mixed conifer forests across northern Michigan. It winters in the western Amazon Basin region of South America.  
  • Fun Fact: The male’s fire engine red plumage really stands out against the green forest canopy. The drabber female builds nest alone on a horizontal tree branch up to 80 feet high!

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

  • Features: One of the most recognized backyard birds. Male is vivid red overall with a tall, peaked crest and stout red bill. Black face and throat. Female has buffy muted crest and red only in wings, tail and crest.
  • Locations: Extremely abundant year-round resident across Michigan. Found everywhere from deep forests to suburbs and urban areas. 
  • Fun Fact: Bright red color signals dominance and fitness. Mated pairs remain closely bonded throughout the year. Female builds a sturdy twig cup nest and feeds the incubating male.

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss severely threatens forest specialists like the scarlet tanager which require large intact mature woodlands for breeding. Fragmentation divides populations. Backyard birds like finches benefit from native plantings and maintained feeders. Use of pesticides and herbicides also reduces insect prey. Free-roaming cats kill billions of birds annually. Collisions with buildings and vehicles take a toll. Keeping pet cats indoors protects wildlife. Installing bird-friendly windows reduces hazards. Conservation of remaining intact forests through parks and easements provides essential safe havens.

Citizen Science

Michigan birders contribute greatly to scientific knowledge and conservation:

  • Uploading checklists and sightings to eBird documents species distribution, abundance, movements, survival, nesting success, migration timing, population trends, range shifts, and more. Photos help verify rare species. 
  • Nest box programs gather long-term breeding data on cavity nesters like chickadees and bluebirds while also boosting populations by providing critical nest sites in areas with few natural cavities. Monitoring provides reproductive data.
  • Feeder surveys help track irruptive winter finches, map spread of introduced species like House Finches, and identify disease outbreaks. This community data aids real-time research.
  • Banding stations yield data on survivorship, nest site fidelity, lifespan, feather wear, migratory routes, and demographics. Band recoveries show individual dispersal and migration distances.
  • Christmas Bird Counts compile winter population trends and shifts in bird communities over time both locally and across North America.


Whether spotting a flash of red in a snowy backyard or hearing the burbling summer song of a Scarlet Tanager high in the forest canopy, observing Michigan’s remarkable red birds is a true delight. Conserving ample high quality habitat and eliminating human-caused hazards will help ensure their color and songs brighten the landscape for generations to come.