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7 Red Birds in Missouri

red birds in missouri
Northern Cardinal in Phelps, Missouri: Photo by Gary Mueller


From brightly crested woodpeckers to richly hued tanagers, there is a diverse variety of red birds in Missouri. These red-colored species contribute ample splashes of color against backdrops of forest, field, and backyard. Let’s closely explore some favorite red resident and migrating birds at home across Missouri’s varied landscapes.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus

  • Features: This medium-sized woodpecker shows striking plumage patterns with a bright ruby red head, throat and upper breast. The red stands out boldly against crisp black and white barring on the back and wings along with large white patches on the primaries. A sleek black tail contrasts white rump patch. Legs are bluish-gray. Its plumage and behaviors make this woodpecker easy to identify. Spends much time fruitfully fly catching and hawking insects like beetles, ants, caterpillars, and grasshoppers from low exposed perches often returning to favorite posts. This agile bird’s diet also includes nuts, acorns, corn, and some fruit. The species possesses unique morphological adaptations like a specialized hyoid bone that loops up over the skull assisting their long barbed tongue in probing deep into trees to nab insects. Its small nostril openings can seal out debris while excavating. The melodic squeaky calls include rattling cries ascending in pitch. 
  • Locations: Found breeding in open Missouri deciduous woodlands, floodplain forests, scattered groves, fencerows, parks, golf courses, and cemeteries. They occupy habitats with larger trees for nesting yet require nearby open ground to forage similar to blue jays but with less shrub cover on average. Cavity nesters excavating unlined holes in dead trees. More solitary nester than other woodpeckers. Also roosts in cavities year-round. Tends to migrate shorter distances than other woodpecker species aside from breeding range expansion northward to Canada’s Prairie Provinces facilitated by climate change. 
  • Fun Fact: Collectively dines on vast numbers of pest crop-damaging insects promoting healthier plants. Sometimes drives off competing species like starlings or house sparrows from prime nesting holes. Overwinters farther north than other North American woodpeckers. Stores food like acorns and corn in crevices of bark mainly in territory trees allowing recovery during harsh weather or overextended periods. Occupies abandoned Red-bellied Woodpecker nests on occasion. The species epithet erythrocephalus derives from Greek roots roughly translating to “red head.”

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  

  • Features: This familiar and beloved thrush measures 10 inches long and weighs about 3 ounces. The male American robin sports gray upperparts, black head, and rich brick-orange underparts bordering lighter throat area. Broken eye ring and fine white spots on the tips of outer tail feathers become visible in flight. Yellow bill and legs/feet. Well adapted to human commensal habitats. Large numbers descend on Missouri during peak migration spanning February to May as countless overflow river bound individuals pause to rest and refuel in areas with reliable food sources having eaten little while traversing the Gulf of Mexico. The male American robin arrives early on breeding grounds to establish territory by identifying dependable grub, worm, and fruit supply to attract a Plain Jane brown mate. She then constructs a sturdy mud lined open cup nest often on manmade structures or in tree forks while the male stands guard. Up to 3 broods per year. This robin begins molting shortly after young fledge. Their cheery songs incorporate several melodic whistled phrases and come from high treetop perches. 
  • Locations: Found statewide year-round in grassy open areas offering feeding opportunities with scattered trees for nest placement like spacious lawns, parks, fields, pastures and most human-altered habitats. Partially migratory, northern breeding birds overwinter in Missouri. 
  • Fun Fact: Loud territorial squabbles commence during late winter among competing males. They battle vigorously often flashing white tail spots while positioning over food. The American robin belongs to a genus whose Latin term roughly equates to “wandering thrush.”

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus

  • Features: Native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, this sociable 5-inch finch has expanded its range dramatically since the 1940s after escaped domesticated captive birds from Long Island took up residence in the metro NYC area, spreading feverishly throughout the east. The house finch male wears rich red plumage from crown to upper breast descending into narrow white patches before fading into considerably streaked underside with a broad forked brown tail. Their conical beak adeptly crushes seeds and small fruits. Females and juveniles don simple streaky brown and white camouflage with hints of plumage red often taking over a year to acquire full male lipstick. Courting males feed potential sweethearts seed tidbits. When defending territory, the house finch male perches prominently singing insistently a lively blurring warbled zreeee-oh-leeeeee. 
  • Locations: Found statewide year-round in both rural and urban areas frequenting bird feeders, farms, orchards, parks and other semi-open habitats often containing thickets and tall trees nearby supplying everything they need from shelter to nest materials and winter provender.  
  • Fun Fact: House finches build sturdy nests out of vegetation, hair and feathers up to 15 feet above ground in protected thickets or tree limbs that later serve as insulation against harsh winter nights, shielding the slumbering flock from bitter cold. 

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)

  • Features: Slightly bigger than house finches, the red on these birds extends down the breast and belly with more streaking. The purple finch male exhibits rosy red head, throat, and upper breast fading towards the tail and wings, which display dusky brown horizontal barring against a white belly with slight streaking below. They sport notched tails. Females wear gracefully streaked brown and white camouflage year-round with no red. Their broad flat bill specialized for eating seeds cracks open sunflower and thistle with ease. 
  • Locations: Found year-round breeding in dense coniferous forests of the Missouri Ozarks region before cooler weather ushers these finches south into lower Missouri and beyond. More locally distributed than house finches.  
  • Fun Fact: Breeds across Canada then disperses south into the eastern deciduous forest mountains and northern Great Plains where seasonal movements likely follow cone crop fluctuations. The intricate male’s warbling song often sounds similar to the phonetic phrase “Go get her caps and mitts.” This bird frequently visits feeding stations. 

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)   

  • Features: The velvety crimson-red summer tanager male looks nearly featureless without wings or tail while the female wears a modest olive-yellow summer dress with olive reddish hints in wings and tail. Her flecked breast provides good camouflage while incubating eggs. Both sexes have a thick hooked sable bill suited for fruit consumption. Weighing about an ounce, this small-beaked songbird breeds across central and eastern North America. As a Neotropical migrant, they winter from Mexico to the Amazon. The towering forest canopy offers ideal nesting habitat needing considerable room for their awkward small-winged style flight accompanied by an odd whirring wing whistle. Summer Tanagers sing a repetitive hoarse rasp archaeopteryx off key from high lofty branches.  
  • Locations: This tanager frequents mature open deciduous forests with sparse understory statewide during warm seasons before migrating south by September. You may spy them eating bees or raiding nests for eggs and young to consume. 
  • Fun Fact: That brightly colored red male really stands out vibrantly against ubiquitous green spring foliage making camouflage unnecessary. The blue-green eggs hatch in roughly two weeks. Both parents share brooding duties. This species belongs to the cardinal family. 

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

  • Features: The male scarlet tanager exhibits brilliant red body plumage from contrasting jet black wings and back. Hues come from carotenoid pigments in their diet like fruit and berries. The female wears far more commonplace dull yellow-olive attire with darker olive-brown wings and tail. Their pale brownish bill has a darker upper ridge and sharp tip for eating insects and fruit—a hallmark adaptation of tanagers. This species weighs roughly an ounce. While the male announces his presence boldly with color during the breeding season, he relies more on thick foliage within mature forests to conceal their nest placement through summer adding protective cover. His song differs from the summer tanager, sounding like an American robin but ending with a sparrow-like repetition of staccato chip notes faster at the end. 
  • Locations: This tanager frequents breeding grounds in Kentucky’s dense deciduous forests scattered with clearing openings for catching winged insects. Migrates at night to winter grounds in South America.  
  • Fun Fact: The scarlet tanager male gets his vibrant red pigmentation from eating pigment-laden foods during molting on wintering grounds then transports them back to wow potential mates. Their sometimes cupcake paper blue eggs bear reddish-brown speckles.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

  • Features: From crest to toes, the male northern cardinal flashes unmistakable all-over red even in low light conditions. Look also for the prominent erectile crown feathers forming a short red Mohican haircut when agitated. Black face mask perches over heavy conical red bill couples with a perky red crest make this big-billed bird’s visage striking amid green deciduous trees and scrub where they reside year-round across Missouri and points south. The northern cardinal male most certainly wields his ruby red finery standing out against winter snow and brown dormant vegetation almost anywhere offering sufficient cover and feeders. They haven’t missed the fact that a splashy red male catches human eyes, frequently gracing calendars and Christmas cards. The muted sandy brown female shows her brilliance only with red tinges in her wings, tail, and crest along with a sharp orangey bill tending toward dullness in sunlight. Her historic role as wallflower allows this cardinal to blend into nesting shrubbery evading predators. These quintessential backyard visitors flash through the air and bound across the ground vocalizing their namesake metallic “what-cheer! cheer-cheer!” songs meant to repel competing suitors and attract available females along with other chips and whistles. Expect serious skirmishes as breeding season approaches for these feisty Types often fighting beak and foot at backyard feeders.
  • Locations: Abundant and increasingly familiar year-round resident statewide across suitable semi-open brushy habitats with dense cover nearby including hedgerows, woodland edges, overgrown fields, ravines and swamps where they breed and shelter. Also common in suburban backyards.
  • Fun Fact: Female chooses nest site hidden near trunk base in dense evergreen or thorny vegetation from 3 to 10 feet up. She incubates eggs and cares for altricial hatchlings while male helps feed the noisy chicks once they fledge until independence. Birds maintain pair bonds during winter flocking and defend nest sites again come spring.

Threats and Conservation

Habitat fragmentation and loss poses serious threats diminishing essential mature forests and wetland corridors birds require. Increased predation and interspecific competition from species adapting well to human structures negatively impacts naive endemic birds. Climate change could alter migrations and threaten food chains. Outdoor free roaming cats rank disturbingly high killing fledglings and migrating songbirds. Collisions with buildings, towers, and vehicles remains substantial for many species. Public policy and active conservation measures like enhancing bird friendly architecture plus protecting existing high quality habitat preserves can mitigate declines in Missouri’s cherished avian diversity. 

Citizen Science Opportunities 

Missouri citizens and birders make valuable contributions to scientific knowledge and conservation:

  • Uploading checklists documenting bird populations and trends to eBird and other databases helps track health over time and inform management decisions
  • Participating in breed bird surveys, atlasing projects and journeys documenting nest locations and reproductive success
  • Building and maintaining nest boxes in areas where natural tree hollows have become scarce assists populations
  • Banding birds to elucidate seasonal movement patterns and demography provides insights into survivorship and behavior 
  • Conducting annual Christmas Bird Counts compiling winter avian residents 
  • Working with conservation groups lobbying legislators for improved policy protections
  • Educating others to garner increased appreciation protecting precious bird heritage


Missouri celebrates outstanding wild red bird richness delighting millions. Protecting essential habitats remains crucial for sustaining populations. With adequate habitat preservation policies, responsible stewardship practices, rescue interventions when appropriate and accumulating scientific census data for effective conservation management approaches, future generations will remember us fondly instead of asking weeks why we stood by watching Missouri’s cherished ruby-throated avifauna unravel.