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8 Red Birds in Virginia

red birds in virginia
Northern Cardinal in Fairfax, Virginia: Photo by Matt Felperin

Introduction

From the cypress swamps of the Atlantic coast to the forested Allegheny highlands, Virginia provides prime breeding and wintering grounds for a remarkable diversity of birds exhibiting vivid red plumage. Ranging from waterfowl and marsh birds to woodpeckers, tanagers and finches, these ruby, crimson and vermilion species fill diverse niches across Virginia’s varied ecosystems. Let’s explore some of the most striking resident and migratory red birds finding homes in the Old Dominion State.

Redhead (Aythya americana

  • Features: Medium-sized diving duck with rounded head and bright blue bill. Male has rich chestnut-red head, neck and breast contrasting black underparts and mottled gray back. Female is cryptically brown overall with darker back and crown. Juveniles resemble females. Gregarious in winter, forming large rafts.
  • Locations: Winters in decent numbers on Chesapeake Bay, Lake Mattaponi and coastal bays and marshes. Breeds on shallow prairie marshes across the Prairie Pothole Region and west. 
  • Fun Fact: Forages by diving underwater for aquatic plants, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic insects. Male performs exuberant bobbing courtship displays and calls to attract mates. 

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)

  • Features: Large long-legged wading bird with pale pink plumage and brighter pink wings in flight. Distinctive flat spatulate bill used for tactile feeding. Orange tail coverts and lore area near bill. 
  • Locations: Rare summer visitor along Virginia’s coastline, seen mainly late summer and early fall. Breeds locally in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Common farther south like the Caribbean. 
  • Fun Fact: Sweeps side-to-side in shallow water to catch small fish, shrimp, crabs, tadpoles and insects. Nests in bushes and shrubs over standing water. Young hatch with quills on bare skin.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus

  • Features: Unmistakable mid-sized woodpecker with entirely crimson head, neck and breast. Mainly black body with large white wing patches. Short tail and rounded head. Often found aerially flycatching insects. 
  • Locations: Year-round resident of open oak and beech woodlands with ample dead trees across eastern Virginia. Cavity nester dependent on snags for nesting and roosting. 
  • Fun Fact: Caches nuts and seeds in bark crevices for later feeding. Very aggressive in defending nest sites and winter territories, chasing other woodpeckers and competitors. 

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

  • Features: Small lightweight finch with bright red forehead, breast and eyebrow. Females lack red and are plainly streaked brown overall. Short decurved conical bill. Very social, trading high frequent contact calls. 
  • Locations: Abundant introduced species found year-round across Virginia frequenting feeders, parks, farms and urban areas. Native to western North America but now found coast-to-coast. 
  • Fun Fact: Feeds on seeds, buds, fruits and nectar. Male feeds female during courtship. Carotenoid pigments in diet cause red coloration. Plumage can vary in intensity. 

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus

  • Features: Medium finch with rich raspberry red head, throat and upper breast contrasting sharply demarcated white belly and heavily streaked brown back and wings. Short notched bill for consuming seeds. Musical warbled vocalizations.
  • Locations: Locally fairly common winter visitor in Virginia coming south from northern coniferous forest breeding grounds. It remains to breed uncommonly in higher elevation areas. 
  • Fun Fact: Females build an elegant nest using bark strips, moss and lichens. Warm red plumage comes from pigments in chokecherries and other fruits. Recent declines may be linked to competition with House Finches.

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra

  • Features: Medium thrush-sized songbird with bright rosy-red body and slightly darker brick red wings and tail. Grayish pointed bill. Song is a relaxed hoarse series of “chuck” and “check” notes. 
  • Locations: Localized uncommon summer breeder in mature open deciduous forests and bottomlands across Virginia. It winters in western South America across the Amazon Basin. 
  • Fun Fact: The brighter red male and duller orangish female take turns incubating 3-5 eggs in an open cup nest placed high in an oak or other tree. 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 into buzzy trills.
  • Locations: Summer breeder in interior deciduous and mixed forests across Virginia. It winters primarily 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 alone builds nest on a horizontal tree branch high up.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

  • Features: One of the most recognized backyard birds. Male is vivid red overall with a tall peaked crest. Black face, chin, throat and upper breast. Female is pale tan with muted red crest, wings, tail and accents. Conical red bill.
  • Locations: Extremely abundant year-round resident across Virginia occupying diverse habitats from forests to suburbs. Favors brushy forest edges with dense tangles.  
  • 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 tanagers and woodpeckers which require intact mature woodlands for breeding. Forest fragmentation isolates populations. Backyard birds benefit from native plantings and maintained feeders providing cover and food. Overuse of pesticides and herbicides also reduces insect prey. Free-roaming cats kill billions of birds annually. Building collisions take a toll. Conserving remaining contiguous forests through parks and easements provides essential safe havens. Transition zones with native vegetation buffer the core. Monitoring aids wise conservation.

Citizen Science  

Virginia birders make essential contributions to knowledge and conservation:

  • eBird sightings help analyze species distribution, survival, nesting success, migration timing, population densities, trends, range shifts, and more based on millions of checklists. Photos verify rare birds. 
  • Nest box programs aid populations of cavity nesters like chickadees and woodpeckers while collecting long-term breeding data. Monitoring documents productivity over time.  
  • Feeder surveys track winter movements, map spread of introduced species like House Finches, and identify disease outbreaks in real time. This community data facilitates research.
  • Banding reveals survivorship, nest fidelity, lifespan, feather wear, migration routes, wintering Locations and demography. Band returns show individual dispersals.
  • Christmas Bird Counts analyze wintering bird population trends and community changes across the hemisphere over decades and centuries. 

Conclusion

Whether a flashy red-headed woodpecker drumming through the forest or a brilliant red Cardinal lifting your spirits on a snowy day, Virginia’s remarkable red birds provide ample rewards for birders. Conserving ample high quality habitat and reducing human-caused hazards will help ensure their color and songs brighten Virginia landscapes for generations to come.