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13 Red-Headed Birds in Massachusetts

red-headed birds in massachusetts
Redhead in Middlesex, Massachusetts: Photo by Matthew Sabourin

Introduction

From woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks to tanagers flitting through forest canopies, a variety of birds with brilliant red plumage on their heads frequent the Bay State. Read on to learn about some of the red-headed birds in Massachusetts.

Red-Headed Birds in Massachusetts

Redhead (Aythya americana)

  • Features: Stocky diving duck with a short, rounded head and bluish bill. Breeding male has a rich reddish-brown head and neck, contrasting with gray sides and flanks, a black back and breast, and pale underbelly. Non-breeding male is paler. Female is brownish-gray overall with a darker brown head that has a slight red tint.
  • Locations: Found on lakes, ponds, marshes, and sheltered bays along the Massachusetts coast during migration and winter. Breeds in prairie potholes and ponds in northcentral U.S. and Canada. Winters along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. 
  • Fun Fact: Male’s soft, purring “errrr” courtship call is given when bobbing head.

Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)

  • Features: Long, cylindrical duck with a shaggy double crest at the back of its head. Breeding male has a deep emerald green head, bright red bill, and crisp white neck collar and back feathers. Female has rich rufous-brown head and shaggy crest, grayish body, and orange-tinted bill. 
  • Locations: Ponds, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries in Massachusetts. Winters along the Atlantic coast and breeds in northern forests and around the Great Lakes.
  • Fun Fact: Their bills have serrated edges ideal for grasping slippery fish. They also eat crustaceans, mollusks and some aquatic plants.

Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis

  • Features: Very large bird around 4 feet tall with a long neck, long tapered red bill, and distinctive angular red patch above the white cheek. Mostly gray plumage with contrasting bright red crown. Immature birds are lightly speckled brownish-gray. 
  • Locations: Fields, meadows, wetlands, and agricultural areas across Massachusetts during spring and fall migrations. Breeds in northern U.S. states and Canada. Winters in southern U.S. states and Mexico.
  • Fun Fact: Known for its loud, trumpeting call that can carry for miles. Their elaborate dances include leaps, bows, and waving grass.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

  • Features: Large soaring bird with a 6-foot wingspan. Plumage is dark coffee brown-black overall with lighter flight feathers. The head has a characteristic red, pink, and white mottled appearance and few feathers. Bill is ivory-colored in contrast to the red head.
  • Locations: Wide-ranging across Massachusetts skies. Roosts communally in dead trees. Rarely seen on the ground.
  • Fun Fact: Finds carrion prey using a keen sense of smell, unlike most birds. Soars with wings in a slight dihedral, or V-shape.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus

  • Features: One of the largest woodpeckers with entirely black plumage except for a bright crimson crest on the head. Also has bold white stripes on the face and neck. Flashes large white wing patches in flight. Bill is long and chisel-like. 
  • Locations: Heavily forested areas with large snags and decaying trees across Massachusetts. Requires mature standing dead trees for nesting and feeding sites.
  • Fun Fact: Makes rectangular excavations in trees when searching for carpenter ants, which are its primary food source. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

  • Features: Medium-sized woodpecker with black and white checkered back, white stripe down the side, and lemon yellow underside. Male has a bold crimson red forehead patch. Juveniles lack the red patch. Stout chisel-like bill is yellowish. About 7.5 inches long.
  • Locations: Northern forests of Massachusetts, especially those with sap-producing trees. More common during spring and fall migrations. Winters further south and breeds in northern forests. 
  • Fun Fact: Drills orderly rows of sap wells in tree bark, which provide food for it and other species.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

  • Features: Medium-sized woodpecker with entirely deep crimson red head, neck, throat, and upper breast. Upperparts are black with large white wing patches. Underside is pale. Tail is black with white outer feathers. Bill is dark gray. Roughly 9 inches in size. 
  • Locations: Oak forests, savannas, open woodlands, parks and urban areas with mature oak trees. Uncommon breeder in Massachusetts.
  • Fun Fact: Stores acorns and other food items in the cracks and crevices of tree bark to eat later. Will also follow acorn woodpecker granaries.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

  • Features: Small streamlined songbird with steely blue upperparts, cinnamon underparts, and deep violet-blue breast band. Tail is deeply forked and rust-colored with white spots. Female’s tail is slightly shorter. Bill of male is darker reddish-brown. 
  • Locations: Open areas near barns, bridges, and structures for nesting across Massachusetts. Found statewide during spring and summer. Migrates to Central and South America for the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Mud nests are retouched and reused each year. Nests have been recorded still in use after over 40 years.

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

  • Features: Sparrow-sized songbird with a short, conical red bill. Male has bright red forehead, throat, breast and eyebrow stripes. Streaked brown back and belly. Female is plain gray-brown overall with faint streaking. 
  • Locations: Backyards, parks, farms, and cities across Massachusetts year-round. Originally from western U.S., now found coast-to-coast after introduction.
  • Fun Fact: Male house finches get their red coloration from pigments obtained from food. The brighter the male, the more attractive he is to females.

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus

  • Features: Sparrow-sized with short conical bill. Male is rosy red on head, throat, breast and upper back, with brown streaks below. Female is plain gray-brown with fine streaks. White belly and white wing bars.
  • Locations: Coniferous and mixed forests across Massachusetts. Winters farther south, summers across northern U.S. and Canada. Often visits backyard feeders.
  • Fun Fact: Males sing a rapid, warbling song often described as similar to a American goldfinch but more musical. 

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

  • Features: Medium-sized songbird with stout pointed bill. Male is brilliant scarlet red with jet black wings and tail. Female is yellow-olive overall with olive-colored wings and tail.  
  • Locations: Mature deciduous forests across Massachusetts. Winters in South America. 
  • Fun Fact: The male scarlet tanager is among the most brilliantly colored forest songbirds in the eastern U.S. 

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

  • Features: Songbird with a heavy red conical bill. Male is bright red overall with a pointed crest and black face mask. Female is buff-brown with some reddish tones in wings, tail, and crest. 
  • Locations: Thickets, gardens, parks across Massachusetts year-round. Originally from southeastern U.S., now widening range northward.
  • Fun Fact: Cardinals mate for life. The male feeds the female as part of their bonding ritual.

Arctic Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni)  

  • Features: Small finch with red crown, black chin, brown back streaked white, and light belly. Short notched tail and thin pointed bill.
  • Locations: Northern forests and tundras, rare visitor to Massachusetts mainly in winter. Breeds in Arctic tundra. 
  • Fun Fact: Arctic redpolls can survive temperatures down to -65°F!

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss threatens many forest and wetland bird species, as development fragments wooded areas and drains marshes. Climate change disrupts migration and breeding patterns. Pesticides reduce insect prey. Preventing deforestation and wetland drainage protects habitats. Enforcing clean air regulations aids insectivorous species. Responsible use of pesticides and herbicides also benefits red-crowned birds.

Conclusion

The variety of birds exhibiting brilliant red crowns found across Massachusetts provide an eye-catching pop of color and interest to the state’s ecosystems. From the uncommon Arctic redpoll visiting feeders in winter to the male scarlet tanager lighting up springtime forests, these species contribute to the diversity and beauty of the landscape. Ensuring healthy habitats remain through conservation practices will allow bird enthusiasts to continue enjoying sightings of these vivid red-crowned species gracing Massachusetts skies and trees.