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9 Red Birds in Kentucky

red birds in kentucky
Northern Cardinal in Jefferson, Kentucky: Photo by Jamie Baker


From brightly-colored woodpeckers to subtly-hued ducks, there are a variety of red birds in Kentucky. Their fiery tones stand out beautifully against backgrounds of forest, field, and wetland. Let’s explore some top red birds gracing the Bluegrass State’s diverse landscapes.

Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

  • Features: This compact diving duck shows rich reddish-brown plumage in breeding season. The male has a sky-blue bill, prominent white cheek patches, and a stiff upturned tail. In winter, both sexes appear drab gray-brown. 
  • Locations: Found year-round on Kentucky’s lakes, reservoirs, rivers and freshwater marshes. Often floats low in the water.
  • Fun Fact: The male thrashes his stiff tail against his back during courtship displays while beating his bill against his chest puffing out cheek feathers.

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)

  • Features: This large, pink wading bird has a bare greenish head, white neck feathers, dark flight feathers, and a distinctively flat pink bill used to sift pond mud for tiny aquatic creatures. 
  • Locations: Rare visitor found in coastal marshes and shallow wetlands in far western Kentucky. Seen more often further south like the Gulf coast. 
  • Fun Fact: Sweeps its bill side to side through shallow water feeling for small fish, shrimp, crabs, snails or insects to snatch up.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)  

  • Features: This medium woodpecker shows a brilliant crimson red head, neck and upper breast. The back and wings contrast crisp black with large white patches. Unique melodic squeaky call. 
  • Locations: Found breeding in open woodlands such as oak forests and savannas, groves, golf courses, cemeteries, parks throughout Kentucky. 
  • Fun Fact: Stores acorns and nuts in tree cracks for later recovery. Will fly out from high exposed perch to catch flying insects often returning to the same post.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  

  • Features: This familiar red-breasted thrush shows gray upperparts, black head and orange-red underparts bordering white throat area. Known for cheery songs usually perched prominently. 
  • Locations: Found statewide year-round in grassy open areas with scattered trees like lawns, parks, pastures and most landscapes with feeding and nesting opportunities. 
  • Fun Fact: The male American robin returns early in spring, claiming the best territory by identifying reliable food sources to attract a female making open-cup nests of grass and mud in tree nooks.  

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  

  • Features: The male house finch has rich red plumage on head, upper breast and rump while females and juveniles are brown-streaked. This sociable finch frequents backyards and feeders with a musical warbling song.  
  • Locations: Found statewide year-round in both rural and urban areas frequenting bird feeders, farms, orchards, parks and other areas with seed sources.
  • Fun Fact: Originally limited to the southwest, house finches were introduced on the east coast and spread rapidly across the continent.

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)  

  • Features: The adult male purple finch shows deep rosy red head and upper breast fading towards the tail with brown back and wings with faint streaks below. The female is mostly uniformly streaked brown. Conical bill.
  • Locations: Found year-round breeding in northern Kentucky’s coniferous forests across the Appalachian mountains out to the Cumberland Plateau region. Winters farther south in Kentucky.  
  • Fun Fact: Breeds in dense conifer stands across Canada south to the mountains. Male sings intricate warbling song often associated with the phrase “Go get her caps and mitts.” 

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)  

  • Features: The male summer tanager sports velvety overall crimson-red plumage from bill to tail tips contrasting grayish wings and tail. The duller female is olive-yellow with olive-reddish tinges in wings and tail.   
  • Locations: Found breeding statewide in mature open deciduous forests during summer before migrating to wintering grounds in South America by September.
  • Fun Fact: The brightly colored male stands out vibrantly against green forest as he sings a hoarse chatty song that speeds up at the end. Nest placement varies from low to high in tree canopy.  

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)   

  • Features: The male scarlet tanager sports brilliant flame red plumage from bill to tail contrasting jet black wings and back. The olive-yellow female has darker olive-brown wings and tail which help distinguish the duller species.  
  • Locations: Found breeding in mature deciduous forests across Kentucky before wintering in South America. The male’s brightly colored plumage stands out against green foliage.
  • Fun Fact: Male repeats a series of staccato chip notes faster at the end sounding like a sparrow unlike the male summer tanager’s song. The female lays pale blue eggs with brown spots.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  

  • Features: The common northern cardinal male displays entirely brilliant red plumage crest, face, throat, breast and belly contrasting a reddish orange bill and black face mask. The female shows more subdued red tinges in wings, tail and crest. 
  • Locations: Found year-round breeding and wintering across a variety of semi-open habitats statewide with dense brush and feeders nearby including suburbs. 
  • Fun Fact: Bright red males are easily visible as they sing loud, echoing whistled songs like “whip! cheer! cheer!” proclaiming breeding territory or courting mates from high exposed branches.

Threats and Conservation  

Habitat loss poses serious threats from development and farming diminishing essential mature forests, wetlands and brushlands birds require. Pesticides also reduce vital insect food populations. Cats and windows kill many fledglings and migrating birds annually. Careful habitat stewardship and conservation action can mitigate declines.

Citizen Science Opportunities

Kentucky birders contribute to knowledge and conservation of red birds by:

  • Uploading checklists to eBird documenting populations and trends to inform decisions  
  • Participating in breeding bird surveys adding data on distribution  
  • Building and monitoring nest boxes providing breeding success data
  • Banding birds to elucidate migration routes and demography
  • Conducting Christmas Bird Counts of winter residents 
  • Education outreach inspiring future generations about bird conservation


From small purple finches to vivid scarlet tanagers, there is no shortage of red birds in Kentucky. But protecting essential habitats and enhancing policy protections remains crucial to ensure future generations can continue appreciating these stunning species statewide.