If you spot a bird with a red breast in the wild, in your garden or on a walk through the park, you might automatically think it’s a robin. But in fact while the American Robin does in fact have that striking orange-red breast, and is the third most popular bird in the United States, there are several other possibilities – maybe you’ve even seen something quite rare!
So today we’re going to look at eleven of those possibilities, eleven birds with red chests which you might have seen – in the air, on a branch, even at your feeder or birdbath – with a picture and some basic information about each one, so that you can know exactly what you saw, and maybe learn a little about it as well.
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What Was that Bird I Just Saw?
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You will notice that some of the birds on our list will have clear and distinct red breasts, with differently colored bellies, throats and heads, while some will have red chests throats and heads, and still others will have red all through their bodies, though typically with at least somewhat contrasting wings.
This is because a lot of times you may notice some particular characteristic – a red breast, for instance – and really key on and remember just that, to the point that you don’t notice or remember other details.
And while a lot of traditional birders might say that, as one example, a Northern Cardinal (which is pretty much all red, with darker wings and a black throat) is not really a “red-breasted” bird, really how are you supposed to know that? You saw a flash of red, and may or may not be expert enough to make such distinctions, but you still want to know what it was.
11 Birds With Red Chest
1. American Robin
Let’s start out with what might be the most likely possibility – the very common American Robin (scientific name Turdus migratorius).
A very familiar bird, known for its early arrival – often still in winter – its blue eggs and its sprightly way of hopping across lawns in search of worms, the American Robin is also known for the orangish-red breast and body, which contrasts so strikingly against the gray-black wings. There is less visual differentiation between males and females than with other birds, although females tend to have lighter orangish chests and more brownish wings.
The American Robin can be found all across North America, from the east to the west coasts, and from the northern extremes of Alaska and Canada down into central mexico. They tend to migrate south during the winter, but might also stay in one area all year long. They can be seen frequently in populated areas, in backyards and neighborhoods, but also like wilder areas like coniferous forests, open woodlands and agricultural fields.
American Robins will build nests at least 5-6 feet off the ground, usually in trees, but sometimes in houses and barns or other structures. They eat berries, insects and earthworms, and though it has long been thought that they listen for worms moving underground when the birds cock their heads, it is much more likely that they are in fact trying to spot the worms visually.
2. Northern Cardinal
Another very common bird, especially in the eastern United States and Mexico, and even up into southern Canada, the Northern Cardinal (scientific name Cardinalis cardinalis) can also be found all throughout Hawaii. They don’t migrate, and so you can see them in these areas all year long, and unlike some other birds they will stay as bright and strikingly red in the winter as in summer.
While I are really concentrating on birds with a fairly distinct red breast, which contrasts with the wings and back, the Northern Cardinal is mostly red, with a black ring around the beak. I include this beautiful bird, though, because the breast is somewhat brighter, and so it could be thought of as a red breasted bird – and, of course, because they are so common and easy to spot. The female is almost the opposite, with a more grayish brown breast and brighter, redder wings.
The Northern Cardinal loves dense bushes, where the female often builds the nest, but they can be found everywhere from forests to open areas, parks and even backyards. They don’t often come to bird feeders, but have been known to make an exception for sunflower seeds. They normally eat seeds, berries, all kinds of insects and even snails.
3. Baltimore Oriole
A small red-breasted bird, the Baltimore Oriole (scientific name Icterus galbula) is another quite common sight, although recently their numbers have been declining. They are mostly seen in the midwest and the east of the United States and Canada, and will migrate at the end of summer slightly south, into the southern states, eastern and southern Mexico, Central America and even northern South America.
With a rich and beautiful whistle, the Baltimore Oriole is a sure sign of approaching spring. The males have a flame red body and tail, with white striped black wings and a black head. The females are duller, with a more yellowish breast and belly and more brown-gray wings, and their heads are the same color as their chest. Interestingly, the female Baltimore Oriole will get darker and more orange-red with each molt, and older females are often mistaken for males.
Baltimore Orioles mainly eat insects, which they find on tree branches and in bushes or sometimes catch mid-air. They also love fruit and nectar, and can be attracted to normal bird and hummingbird feeders. In the west, the Baltimore Orioles’ equivalent is the Bullock’s Oriole, which is more yellow but very similar in appearance and behavior, and with which Baltimore Orioles may sometimes breed in common areas.
4. House Finch
Originally a bird of the western United States, almost exclusively west of the Rocky Mountains, the House Finch (scientific name Haemorhous mexicanus) was introduced to the east, where it flourished and quickly established itself from the eastern seaboard to the midwest, and from southwestern Canada to the north of Florida. They were also brought into Oahu around 150 years ago, and are a cheerful regular sight all throughout Hawaii.
The House Finch is almost exclusively vegetarian, eating only a very few insects, and is one of the only birds in the world to feed its young only plant foods – a very rare occurrence! They love sunflower seeds, and will gladly come to your backyard feeder – just be careful, because once they’ve discovered your generosity they can come in huge flocks!
The male House Finch has a head, throat, upper chest and rump of pinkish-red, or sometimes more orange or yellow, and the females and immature males are grayish brown, with little or no red coloring. The red comes from diet, and the females will want to mate with the reddest males, perhaps because they are the most successful feeders, and thus good providers.
5. Barn Swallow
Surely one of the most commonly sighted red-breasted birds, the Barn Swallow (Scientific name Hirundo rustica) is beautiful to see from the front, with its orange chest and belly, but absolutely spectacular from above, with an amazing shade of almost pearlescent blue across its back and on top of its head, rich gray wings and a bright white tail stripe.
Barn Swallows are widespread throughout the United States and Canada, and can be seen in every state and province during the spring and summer. They can be found in a wide range of open areas, and are regular residents of rural areas – in fact, as their name might indicate, they usually build their nests in barns or other human-made structures.
You can often see Barn Swallows around mud puddles or wetlands, or near open water, swooping down to pick up mud and grass for their nests. They also fly quite low for foraging, catching insects in mid-air. But spotting them is really not a difficult task, as they are abundant and classified as of least concern – even though their decreasing population through poaching was one of the reasons for both the enactment of the Migratory Bird Treaty and the founding of the Audubon Society more than a century ago.
6. Vermilion Flycatcher
Seen in the extreme southwest of the United States – especially southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, the Vermillion Flycatcher (scientific name Pyrocephalus rubinus) may also be spotted in winter in the coastal areas of the south, and is also seen throughout Mexico, Central and South America year round.
The male’s bright red head, chest and belly, and the distinctive black band across its eye, make it quite a beautiful sighting, and the female is also quite lovely, with similar white wing tips, a more subtle pinkish red on its belly which goes white at the throat, and no band on its eyes.
The Vermillion Flycatcher will, as its name suggests, catch insects mid-air, although it might also fall to the ground to forage. The female will build a nest at least two meters up in tree branches, and the male will perform a showy ritual to mark the territory, including flying high, puffing out its brilliant feathers and continuously singing, then suddenly swooping down to the perch.
7. Painted Bunting
During summer breeding, the colorful Painted Bunting (scientific name Passerina ciris can be found in the central southern states, especially Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and will migrate to the east to find wintering grounds in southern Florida, as well as tropical Cuba, southern Mexico and Central America.
Though you might definitely identify this bird as red-breasted, the Painted Bunting is just as distinctive in its bright blue head, green shoulders, red belly and rump, and in fact looks like a true tropical bird in its elaborate color combination. The female is altogether less colorful, with a lovely muted gray-green body and darker green wings.
Painted Buntings feed on seeds and insects, and sometimes will come to bird feeders. You might see them in briar patches, thorny tangles and thickets and along swamp waters, and though they tend to stay hidden in dense foliage, the male’s bright coloring can make spotting them a bit easier, and their fights over nesting territory can also make them quite conspicuous.
8. Red Crossbill
A denizen of coniferous forests, the Red Crossbill (scientific name Loxia curvirostra) is typically seen in mountainous regions of the United States, including the Rockies and the northwest, and throughout southern Canada, but can be found almost anywhere when scarcity of conifer seeds forces them to go beyond their range.
While the Red Crossbill may look fairly normal and unremarkable, with its muted red chest, head and belly, and its equally drap brown wings, the bill really sets it apart. With crossing tips, it is specially designed to break open pine cones to expose the enclosed seeds, and is really quite a sight. The female lacks the red coloration, with a more yellowish body and similarly brown wings.
There are many different varieties of Crossbills, and some debate as to whether they are different types or different species, although the different varieties rarely interbreed, suggesting species divisions. They have variously shaped bills, to accommodate different types of pine cones, and correspondingly different calls and songs, though their breeding and feeding behaviors tend to be quite similar, as do their general appearance.
9. Red-Breasted Sapsucker
Ranging up and down the Pacific states, in Canada as far north as the Alaskan border, and barely into northern Baja California to the south, the Red Breasted Sapsucker (scientific name Sphyrapicus ruber) is a wonderful sighting, with its bright red chest and head. The female is very similar to the male in coloration, if somewhat smaller.
They prefer deciduous trees, which they drill into to feed off of the sap, but they will also eat insects on the trees, or even swoop to catch them mid-air, and will eat berries and fruits in all seasons if they are available.
A remarkable looking bird in every way, with a long beak ideal for drilling into bark, a bright white spot at the top of the break, subtle light green hints on the belly and distinctivewhite rump and wing markings, the Red Breasted Sapsucker can be seen mostly in woodlands – especially aspen and alder in coniferous forests. They can be attracted to back yards, especially with suet feeders, but be careful, as some people have complained that their drilling can damage trees, decrease their fruit yield and even kill them.
10. Painted Redstart
The Painted Redstart (Scientific name Myioborus pictus) may be a bit difficult to see in the United States – it only appears in parts of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, and only then during breeding season – but once you see one you’ll never forget it.
The red chest and belly of the Redstart is much more, well, red than almost any other bird on our list of red-chested birds – really, vividly bright true red! And in contrast to the jet black head, wings and tail and the brilliant white rump and stripes the male is quite a sight! The female is similarly vivid, but usually markedly smaller in size.
The Painted Redstart will build nests on the ground, under rocks or boulders or, more frequently, sheltered by oak or pine trees. They prefer mountainous terrain, above 5,000 feet, and so in the US at least it would be quite rare to see them in open land. They are quite special in that not only is the female as colorful as the male, but she can sing just as beautifully, and they often form duets when mating.
11. Scarlet Tanager
The last bird in our guide to red-chested birds you might have sighted is the lovely Scarlet Tanager (scientific name Piranga olivacea). And yes, if you know this bird you may rightly object that it isn’t really a red-chested bird so much as a red bird with black wings – the head, chest, belly and back are all brilliant red, with contrasting dark gray and black wings. Still, if you see one flying, or at a certain angle, it is easy to remember the bright red chest against the dark feathers.
Still fairly common in the summer throughout the northeastern United States, the Scarlet Tanager is decreasing in number and somewhat threatened by loss of habitat – largely because of fragmented forests. They love deciduous forests, especially oak, maple and beech, but they tend to forage in high branches, making sightings somewhat difficult despite their brilliant colors.
Both parents will feed the young Scarlet Tanager, but only the mother incubates. IInterestingly enough, the Brown-headed Cowbird will often play a trick on nesting Tanagers – replacing one of their eggs with one of hers when they are not watching, which imposter the Tanager will incubate and even raise as their own.
Bonus Section: How To Better Identify Birds
To be sure, this is a lengthy topic, worthy of its own article, series of articles or even a whole book – people have been bird watching their entire lives, and still, almost every day, finding new methods and tricks for better seeing and identifying birds.
Nonetheless I want to spend a couple of minutes here in closing to talk about a very few of the most important basic ideas, definitely aimed at beginning birders and meant to be as useful as possible – in this limited space – in helping you better see, describe and identify birds.
Get Good Gear
If you are using old, dirty or damaged binoculars, or a pair that just isn’t that good, it can really hamper your ability to clearly and accurately see, and thus identify, birds.
High quality binoculars don’t need to be expensive (though of course some of them are!), and even a modest pair of binoculars that has the optimal magnification for bird watching, great sharpness, brightness and color accuracy, can be a real game changer – more so than pretty much any other factor.
- Speaking of magnification, it might seem that the more magnification the better – if you can really see the bird close up, as big as possible, you’ll see everything more clearly, right?
But in fact high-power binoculars can make initial spotting of a bird nearly impossible, because they have a very narrow effective width, or “field of view” – and at the end of the day quality of optics will reveal far more than magnification ever could.
I recommend 8X magnification, especially for people just getting started – they offer tons of advantages, including lower weight and smaller size, easier initial spotting and plenty of magnification, and often a much brighter overall picture.
Here are a very few of our favorite low-priced binoculars, which would make wonderful choices for a beginner, but are fine enough quality that you can use them for many years – in fact, despite some pretty spectacular and uber-pricey alternatives, you may never feel the need to upgrade!
Celestron UpClose G2 8×40 Binoculars – probably the least expensive binoculars on the market that any birder would love to have, and an almost unbelievable combination of ultra-high quality optics and build and extremely affordable price.
Nikon ProStaff 8×42 Binoculars – substantially more expensive than the Celestrons but still under a hundred dollars, these Nikon are a truly superb pair of binoculars, doing full justice to the legendary Nikon name – our top recommendation in affordable binoculars for birding.
Backlighting is Bad
If we see a bird with a pale red breast and grayish green wings, but it is strongly backlit when we see it – say we’re looking towards the sun – it might well appear instead as a bird with a dark red chest and jet black wings.
And so when we see pictures, on the web or in a book, we may not be able to accurately match them with what we see.
Of course it isn’t always possible to change your angle of view, and sometimes we only have an instant to see and to note, but it is something to keep in mind.
All the Details
There is no reason to limit yourself to just noting, remembering or writing down only the visual appearance of a bird. This may be the main and first thing we notice, and the thing we most frequently use to find birds in books or on the web – or even when discussing our sightings with friends – but including other details – bird songs and calls, behavior, nest appearance and location, time of day and time of season, your location and anything else you can think of can make a huge difference, and make accurate identification so much more quick and easy.
Use a Guide
No, not some sherpa-looking dude you met at the coffee shop on the way to your mountain hike, but rather a book that has a clear, complete and fully updated list of all the birds – either in the United States or North America, or in your particular region. There should be clear and accurate pictures, apt and important details of all kinds and a layout and structure which makes finding a particular bird fast and easy.
I highly recommend The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America – the best overall bird guide in print today – and the wonderful series of Stan Tekiela’s Bird Identification Guides – for our money the best regional bird guides you can get.
Concision with Precision
With Google searches, use as much information as possible. Yes, this does go against some common Google wisdom, which says that simpler and more concise search phrases – “red bird” rather than “that red that I saw yesterday” will focus and improve your results.
But if you can still be concise when using the internet to try to identify a bird you saw, but add some important details, it can make a huge difference.
For example, instead of saying “fluorescent green bird I saw on Monday that swooped down and tried to steal my shar pei” you might want to use only the relevant words, but also some important facts – “fluorescent green bird Phoenix Arizona June noon.”
Of course the concision rule is still more important overall than the extra facts, so maybe “fluorescent green bird arizona” is even better/ Besides, if you use the time and season data, you may get all kinds of search results wondering why you are crazy enough to be outside in Phoenix at midday in the summer! And indeed, if it is 120 degrees and you’re out in it, that fluorescent green bird you see may actually be a Toyota.
But seriously, facts about location, time of year, time of day and similar identifiers might really focus your search, and bring you from a few hundred possibilities down to just a few. This is true with the internet, and also with any other search resources you might use.
As a final note, it also can be more helpful – in remembering what you saw, and in finding and identifying it later, to notice and note more visual information – that is, not just a red-chested bird, but a black and white bird with red chest, a red chested and red throated bird, a gray bird with a red chest, a bird with a red belly and chest, a bird with green or blue or white accents, or any other additional visual data – size, shape, distinctive markings and cetera.
Keep a Log
Since you might want to start noticing and using more details to identify your birds – not just visual descriptions, but sounds, behavior, times and location, and more – you also probably want to keep a bird watching log so you can remember all of that stuff.
Eeither a premade journal with little sections for all of the pertinent details (I like the Bird Journal Notebook by Thomas Fligt) or a nice blank birding book (our favorite is the SohoSpark Vegan Faux Leather Lined Blank Bird Journal).