North Carolina: Home to a Variety of Red Bird Species

North Carolina is a haven for a diverse range of red bird species. From the iconic northern cardinal, which proudly holds the title of the state bird, to the charming summer tanager with its vivid red plumage, the state is teeming with avian wonders. Other species found in this region include the scarlet tanager, house finch, purple finch, red crossbill, red-headed woodpecker, rose-breasted grosbeak, painted bunting, vermilion flycatcher, and white-winged crossbill. Each species boasts its unique features, such as the crimson chests and vibrant blue and green feathers of the painted buntings. Whether seen in wooded areas or singing in backyards, these red birds add a burst of color to North Carolina’s natural landscape.

Northern Cardinal


The Northern Cardinal is a medium-sized bird with a distinctive appearance. The male has a vibrant red plumage, a crest on its head, a black mask around its eyes, and a thick, cone-shaped bright orange-red beak. The female, on the other hand, has a more muted coloration, with a grayish-brown body and a reddish crest and wings. Both sexes have short, rounded wings and a long, thick tail.


Northern Cardinals are found in various habitats, including forests, woodlands, shrublands, gardens, and urban areas. They are native to North Carolina and are commonly seen in backyards and bird feeders. These birds are adaptable and can thrive in both rural and urban environments.


Northern Cardinals are known for their melodious songs, which can be heard throughout their territory. They are non-migratory birds, meaning they stay in their habitat year-round. They are monogamous and form strong pair bonds. Male cardinals often defend their territory by singing from high perches and engaging in territorial displays.

Relationship with Humans

The Northern Cardinal has become a beloved bird among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. Its bright red plumage and melodious songs make it a favorite in many backyards across North Carolina. Many people enjoy attracting cardinals to their feeders by offering them sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, or fruits like berries. The presence of these birds brings joy and beauty to gardens and serves as a reminder of the diverse bird life in North Carolina.

Summer Tanager


The Summer Tanager is a beautiful bird with completely red plumage. Both males and females have a vibrant red color, although males are often more intense. They have stout beaks, short, rounded wings, and long, notched tails. The plumage of immature Summer Tanagers may vary, with females showing a mix of green and yellow tones.


Summer Tanagers are found in various habitats, including open woodlands, forests, and streamsides. They are migratory birds and spend their breeding season in North Carolina before migrating to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.


Summer Tanagers are known for their aerial foraging behavior. They catch insects on the wing, often flying high in the canopy. They also feed on fruits and berries, plucking them from branches or vines. These birds are solitary and are more often heard than seen. Their song is a distinctive series of short phrases and can be described as a dry, husky chewink.

Feeding Habits

Summer Tanagers have a varied diet that consists mainly of insects, including bees, wasps, beetles, and grasshoppers. They are also known to eat berries and fruits when available. Their foraging behavior is active and agile, as they search for prey among the foliage or catch insects in mid-air. Their bright red plumage helps them blend in with the green leaves of the trees while foraging.

Scarlet Tanager


The Scarlet Tanager is a striking bird with bright red plumage, contrasting black wings and tail, and a thick, conical bill. Male Scarlet Tanagers have a deep red color, while females have a more olive-yellow color with hints of red. The plumage of immature tanagers transforms gradually from a greenish-yellow to the vibrant red of the adult male.


Scarlet Tanagers primarily feed on insects, including beetles, caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps, and other arthropods. They forage actively in the forest canopy, hopping from branch to branch in search of prey. Occasionally, they also eat small fruits when insects are scarce.

Migration Patterns

Scarlet Tanagers are neotropical migrants, which means they breed in North America and migrate to Central and South America for the winter. They spend their breeding season in North Carolina and can be seen from late spring to early fall. During migration, these birds face various threats, including habitat loss and collisions with tall buildings and communication towers.

Breeding Habits

Male Scarlet Tanagers defend their breeding territories by singing elaborate songs and displaying their vibrant plumage. Their song is a series of short, high-pitched phrases that resemble the sound of a robin. Females build cup-shaped nests made of twigs, leaves, and other plant materials. They lay 3-4 eggs, which they incubate for about two weeks. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the fledglings.

House Finch


House Finches are small birds with a slightly larger build compared to sparrows. They have a combination of brown and cream streaks on their bodies, with males having a red wash on their heads, chests, and rumps. Females have a more muted coloration, with subtle streaks and no red plumage.


House Finches are native to the western United States but have expanded their range across North America. They are common in North Carolina and can be found in a wide range of habitats, including urban areas, suburbs, farmlands, and open woodlands.

Feeding Behavior

House Finches have a varied diet that includes seeds, fruits, and insects. They are often seen feeding on various types of seeds, such as sunflower seeds, millet, and thistle seeds. They have a unique feeding behavior known as “swallowing.” Instead of cracking seeds open, they ingest them whole and grind them in their stomachs using special muscles to extract the nutrients.

Nest Building

House Finches build cup-shaped nests made of twigs, grass, and other plant materials. They typically choose a protected location, such as in shrubs, trees, or on man-made structures like buildings or nest boxes. Females lay 3-6 eggs, which they incubate for about two weeks. Both parents participate in feeding the young once they hatch.

Purple Finch

Physical Characteristics

Purple Finches are medium-sized birds with a stocky build and a short, conical bill. Males have a raspberry-red coloration on their heads, bodies, and breasts, while females have a more muted brown color with streaks on their bodies. Both sexes have a striped pattern on their wings and a slightly forked tail.


Purple Finches are found in various habitats, including coniferous and mixed forests, gardens, and parks. They are migratory birds and breed in the northern parts of North America, including parts of Canada. During the winter months, they can be found in North Carolina, where they may join mixed flocks with other finch species.

Feeding Habits

Purple Finches have a diverse diet that includes seeds, buds, fruits, and insects. They have a strong preference for conifer seeds, such as those found in pine cones. Their short, conical bills are well-suited for extracting seeds from cones, and they can be seen clinging to the branches of conifer trees while foraging.

Breeding and Migration

Purple Finches breed in the northern parts of North America during the summer months. They build cup-shaped nests made of twigs, grass, and other plant materials. Females lay 3-6 eggs, which they incubate for about two weeks. After the breeding season, they migrate south, and some individuals may spend the winter in North Carolina. The migration patterns of Purple Finches can vary from year to year depending on food availability and weather conditions.

Red Crossbill


Red Crossbills are medium-sized finches with a unique appearance. They have a dull red plumage overall, with darker wings and tail. These birds have a large, crossed bill, which is their most distinctive feature. The bill is adapted for extracting seeds from conifer cones and is used in a scissor-like motion to pry open the scales of the cones and access the seeds inside.

Specialized Bill

The specialized bill of Red Crossbills allows them to access the seeds of various conifer species. Their bills are adapted to specific cone shapes, and different populations of crossbills may have bills specialized for different tree species. This adaptation enables them to exploit the abundant food resource provided by conifer forests.

Feeding Ecology

Red Crossbills are highly specialized feeders that rely primarily on the seeds of conifer trees. They use their crossed bill to extract the seeds from cone scales, discarding the empty scales and consuming the nutritious seeds inside. They are skilled climbers and can navigate the branches of conifer trees with agility while searching for cones. The consumption of conifer seeds also helps crossbills maintain their sharp bill edges, which are constantly worn down during feeding.

Adaptability to Conifer Forests

Red Crossbills are well adapted to conifer forests, where they can find their primary food source. They have unique vocalizations that allow them to communicate with others in their flock and locate areas with an abundant supply of cones. Most red crossbills are nomadic, moving in response to the availability of cone crops. This adaptability to changing food sources enables them to thrive in coniferous habitats, including those found in North Carolina.

Red-headed Woodpecker


Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with a striking appearance. As their name suggests, they have completely red heads, necks, and upper breasts. They also have black wings and tails, a white belly, and a black and white patterned back. They have a strong, chisel-shaped bill that they use for drumming on tree trunks and excavating nests.


Red-headed Woodpeckers inhabit a variety of habitats, including open woodlands, forests, savannas, and orchards. They prefer habitats with large trees that provide suitable nesting sites and an abundance of insects and other food sources. They can be found in North Carolina, although their populations have declined in recent years due to habitat loss and changes in land use.

Feeding Habits

Red-headed Woodpeckers have a diverse diet that includes insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, and even small vertebrates. They forage by clinging to tree trunks or hanging upside down from branches, using their bill to probe for insects or peck at fruits and nuts. They also catch insects in mid-air and have been observed storing food in tree crevices or hollows to consume at a later time.

Breeding and Nesting

Red-headed Woodpeckers form monogamous pairs and defend their territory during the breeding season. They excavate nest cavities in dead or decaying trees, using their bill and strong neck muscles to chip away at the wood. Females lay 4-7 eggs, which they incubate for about two weeks. Both parents participate in feeding the young once they hatch, regurgitating insects and other food items into the nest.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Physical Appearance

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are medium-sized songbirds with a black and white plumage and a bright red patch on their chest. Males have a black head, back, and wings, while females have a brownish coloration with streaks on their bodies. Both sexes have a large, conical bill.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks breed in forests and woodlands, often near streams or wetlands. They prefer second-growth forests and forest edges, as well as gardens and parks with suitable vegetation for nesting. They can be found in North Carolina during the breeding season, and some individuals may pass through during their migration.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have a varied diet that consists of insects, fruits, seeds, and nectar. They forage actively among the foliage, gleaning insects from leaves or catching them in mid-air. They also eat berries, fruits, and seeds, depending on the availability of food sources. During the breeding season, both males and females may consume more insects to provide a protein-rich diet for their young.

Breeding Behavior

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks arrive at their breeding grounds before the females and establish territories by singing from perches in the treetops. Their song is a rich, melodious warble that can be heard from a distance. Females build cup-shaped nests made of twigs, grass, and other plant materials. They lay 3-5 eggs, which they incubate for about two weeks. After the eggs hatch, both parents take turns feeding the young until they fledge.

Painted Bunting

Distinctive Appearance

The Painted Bunting is a small bird with a striking and colorful appearance. Males have a combination of bright red, blue, and green feathers on their heads, backs, and chests, while females have a more subdued green coloration. They have a conical bill, short wings, and a long, notched tail.


Painted Buntings inhabit a variety of habitats, including woodlands, thickets, shrubby fields, and garden edges. They are often found near areas with dense vegetation and suitable nesting sites. They breed in the southeastern United States, including parts of North Carolina, and spend the winter in Mexico and Central America.

Feeding Preferences

Painted Buntings feed primarily on seeds, including those from grasses, weeds, and shrubs. They have a particular fondness for seeds from the sunflower family, such as thistles and asters. They also consume insects, fruits, and nectar when available. This diverse diet enables them to adapt to varying food sources throughout their range.

Breeding and Mating

During the breeding season, male Painted Buntings display their vibrant plumage and sing melodious songs to attract females. Males establish territories and defend them aggressively against rival males. Females build cup-shaped nests in dense shrubs or low vegetation, often hidden from view. They lay 3-4 eggs, which they incubate for about two weeks. Both parents participate in feeding the nestlings until they fledge.

White-winged Crossbill

Physical Features

White-winged Crossbills are medium-sized finches with a unique appearance. They have a red plumage overall, with black wings and distinctive white patches on their wings, formed by white-tipped flight feathers. The bill of White-winged Crossbills is specialized for extracting seeds from conifer cones, with crossed tips that allow them to pry open cone scales.

Habitat and Distribution

White-winged Crossbills are primarily found in northern boreal forests, typically in coniferous habitats. They have a circumpolar distribution, occurring in North America, Europe, and Asia. However, they are rarely seen in North Carolina and are considered vagrants in the state.

Food Sources

White-winged Crossbills have a specialized diet that consists almost exclusively of conifer seeds. They use their crossed bill to extract the seeds from the scales of conifer cones. By inserting their bill between the scales and opening them with a scissor-like motion, they can access the nutritious seeds inside. This feeding strategy helps them exploit the abundant food source provided by coniferous trees.

Conservation Status

White-winged Crossbills have a relatively stable population and are not currently classified as threatened or endangered. However, their populations may be affected by changes in climate, as they rely on specific habitats and food sources. Their vulnerability to habitat loss and changes in conifer forests highlights the importance of conserving these unique habitats and the species that depend on them.

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