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Gray Bird with Red Head in Pennsylvania

Have you spotted a gray bird with a red head somewhere in Pennsylvania? Can’t figure out what species this could be?

A bird with a red head grabs your attention, and the good news is that a bird with this coloring can be one of the easy species to identify.

Most birds with a red head are passerine birds – the songbirds that might visit your garden or you come by in the woods. One exception is the Redhead duck that has a red-brown head and partially gray body.

One of the most obvious birds with a vibrant red head in PA is the Red-headed Woodpecker. Juvenile Red-headed Woodpeckers are gray-ish in color, however they do not have a red head. Adult birds do have a red head, but their body plumage is white and black – so unless the light was very poor or the bird was very far away, the Red-headed Woodpecker is probably not the gray bird with red head you saw in Pennsylvania.

That takes us to the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Another woodpecker with a red head (but more of an orange tone compared to the Red-headed Woodpecker) and the red colour only runs in a stripe through then middle of the head from the beak to the nape – unlike the Red-headed Woodpecker which is entirely red. The body of the Red-bellied Woodpecker is barred and could, from a distance, be seen as a gray like color.

Two very red species in PA are the Scarlet Tanager and Northern Cardinal, but these are highly unlikely to be mistaken for having a gray body.

The widespread House Finch male has red coloring throughout the head and down to the breast and abdomen. When viewed from the back, the bird can appear gray. An adult male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is a likely candidate for your red headed gray bird seen in PA.

The Purple Finch is far more colored throughout including on the back, unlike the House Finch, which makes it a more unlikely candidate for your ID.

Finally, we have the Common Redpoll to consider. This bird has a small amount of red on the top of the head, and some mottled red feathers throughout the breast. Viewed from behind, the Common Redpoll could be described as gray in color.

So which bird species is the most likely ID for the mystery grey bird with a red head that you’ve seen in Pennsylvania? The three most likely candidates are:

1. House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The House Finch is the species that comes as close to meeting this description as possible. If you viewed this bird from the back, it can appear gray and the vibrant red head is unmistakable.

Adult male House Finch at a bird feeder

2. Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

This bird could easily be described as having a red head and a gray body, especially if your sighting was of the back of the bird.

Common Redpoll bird on the ground

3. Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

The most unlikely of the three because this woodpecker isn’t what we’d call gray, but it certainly has a red head.

Red-headed Woodpecker bird