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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That … Flash of Red?

What Is That … Flash of Red?


Red is one of the more easily spotted avian colours being flashed about at the cottage, except in the fall when some leaves turn red.  While there are many shades of red displayed by the assorted species of birds, this article focuses on those with scarlet/ruby red plumage. (We will talk about  other reddish-coloured birds in subsequent articles.)  The extent and positioning of red plumage varies and can include the body (all over), or only the breast; the head; the throat; or the wings.  Red colouration is most often displayed by the males but there are exceptions.

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) has recently become a common year-round resident in our area.  They can grow to be 20 centimetres in length and weigh up to 45 grams.  The male is bright red all over while the female has a buff-coloured body with reddish wings and tail.  Both the males and females have a distinctive pointed crest on their heads, a black face and a heavy, reddish-coloured triangular bill.  They are found in brushy habitats, often on the edges of woodlands, where they feed on seasonally available seeds, fruits, grains and insects.  Males can often be heard and spotted high up in trees proclaiming their territory, as shown in the picture below.


Another year-round resident is the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).  As we noted in our March 12, 2016 woodpecker article the pileated is the largest woodpecker at the cottage, and has the greatest amount of red plumage, of our resident woodpeckers.  Both the male and female have a pointed red crest on the top of their heads.  In addition, the males have a red stripe on their cheeks.  They can most easily be spotted by listening for the loud, deep sounds they make when drilling for insects in dead and dying trees.  This photograph is of a young male pileated woodpecker.


The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a seasonal visitor at the cottage.  It is slighter smaller than the cardinal, growing to 18 centimetres in length and weighing up to 29 grams.  Scarlet tanagers are usually found in mature deciduous forests where they feed mainly on leaf-eating insects and larvae.  The male’s breeding plumage is bright red all over except for its black wings and tail.  The females tend to be olive-yellow all over except for grey-black wings and tail.  This male was photographed while announcing his presence near the top of a white pine.


Another seasonal flasher of red plumage is the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  Both the male and female have an iridescent green head, back and tail, a white front and long thin black bill.  In addition, the male has a ruby-red throat.  This is the only hummingbird found in our region.  It is a very small bird, measuring 9 centimeters in length and weighing up to 3.2 grams.  They are common in and along the edges of woodlands where flowers are abundant.  Flower nectar is their principle source of food, which they supplement with protein by catching small flying insects like mosquitoes. We love any bird that eats mosquitoes.  At our cottage they congregate and aggressively compete for sugar water from our hummingbird feeders and nectar from our flower beds and planters.  This male (lower bird) is showing off for a female (upper bird).


The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a common seasonal resident of wet, marshy areas.  We have several patches of marsh on the bay, so we have many red-winged blackbirds.  It grows to a length of 24 centimetres and weighs up to 52 grams.  The male is black all over with a distinctive red shoulder patch, bordered with light yellow at the lower edge of the patch, which is most visible when the bird is flying.  The female has a brown streaked buff body with brown wings and tail.  They feed on seeds and a variety of insects as evidenced in this photo of a male feeding at the water’s edge.


Some of the sources we relied on for preparing this article included The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, Jeffrey Domm’s Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds and Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies.


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