Monday, March 16, 2020

What do Northern Cardinals look like?

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are medium-sized songbirds. The are common in woodlands and towns throughout the entire eastern United States. They are found west to South Dakota and Texas. They also live in the desert of Arizona and south through Mexico. They are common feeder birds where they occur.

This page is a supplement to the main page on attracting Northern Cardinals. That page leads to other in-depth pages on topics including where cardinals can be found and their habitat, their courtship and nesting, and what they eat in the wild and in backyard feeders.

This page discusses the identification of Northern Cardinals. We will look at the size and shape, plumage, songs and calls, and flight style of this bird.

Some people call any red bird a cardinal. So, we'll look at other similar species and how to tell them apart.

Photo of Male Northern Cardinal on metal bird feeder
Male Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Cardinal identification, in general

Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds. They have full ample tails. Wings are short. The head is fairly large. The bill is very large and conical. The signature mark of both males and females is a large pointed crest of feathers on the hind crown.

Cardinals were recently removed from the family of finches and sparrows and put into their own family, the Cardinalidae.

Confusingly, some (but not all) birds with grosbeak, bunting, and tanager in their names are included in the cardinal family. The backyard birds in the United States that are in the cardinal family include Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, as well as Western, Summer, and Scarlet Tanagers. There are a few others too.

In many ways cardinals behave as sparrows. In fact, without it's crest, cardinals have the general shape of towhees.

There are 3 species of cardinals. The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) we discuss here. In Columbia and Venezuela is a very similar all-red crested bird, the Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus). Finally, in the desert Southwest lives the Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus).

Want some more confusion? There is a bird called the Red-crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronata) in South America. It is white and gray with a red crest and thick bill. This bird has been introduced into Hawaii and is very common there. It is in the true Tanager family, Thraupidae. According to scientists it is not closely related to the true cardinals.

Photo of female Northern Cardinal on branch
Female Northern Cardinal
Image by JackBulmer from Pixabay

Northern Cardinal identification

Northern Cardinals are about 8-3/4 inches long, bill tip to tail tip. The wing span is about 12 inches. They average about 45 grams in weight.


Eastern males are deep red throughout with black feathers around the reddish bill. Some males are a bit duller colored. The crest can be raised and lowered at will. The photo of the male cardinal at the top of the page is typical of the adult.

Male Northern Cardinals in the Arizona desert are brighter red, perhaps a bit more orange-red than maroon-red. The crest is longer and thinner than eastern birds. The bill is more curved on the upper ridge (the culmen). Finally, there is less black above the bill and on the throat.

Females (see photo above) have the same crested cardinal shape. Their body feathers are grayish-olive, browner above. The wings and tail and crest are often edged in red. The bill is red. They show a hint of the male's black feather patch around the bill.

Adults keep their same color plumage year round. They don't have a different breeding and non-breeding plumage as some birds do.

Once young birds are fledged from the nest they have feathers similar in coloration to the female. Young birds, however, have a gray bill and less-developed crest to tell them apart.

Flight style

Cardinals have broad rounded wings and a long broad tail in flight. Flight is rather slow and direct. The flight path undulates up-and-down as the bird repeats several quick wing flaps with a brief close-winged pause.

Cardinals generally don't fly far at a time. When they fly they often stay low to the ground.

The red in the wing and tail of the female cardinal really shows up in flight. The male, of course, is shockingly red, flying or not.

Several song variations of male Northern Cardinals are on this short video.


You may wonder: "What do Northern Cardinals sound like?" Well, they give fairly loud repeated whistled phrases. The song isn't very complex. They repeat whistled whoit-whoit-whoit... or cheer-cheer-cheer... or birdy-birdy-birdy... calls strung together into songs. (Play the video above)

Both sexes sing, sometimes dueting.

They also give a high-pitched chip call, also interpreted as "teet" or "tik."

Similar species

Some people call any bright red bird a cardinal. Here are some other birds that might cause confusion.


Photo of Pyrrhuloxia on rock wall
CC by 2.0 uploaded by berichard
In the desert Southwest lives the "desert cardinal," the Pyrrhuloxia. It is a pale gray bird with red patches on crest, throat, chest, wings, and tail. The thick yellow bill is strongly curved on its upper ridge.

With a poor view, one may mistake a female Cardinal for a Pyrrhuloxia, or vice-versa.

Pyrrhuloxias and Northern Cardinals may be found together in Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southeastern Texas. The Pyrrhuloxia usually likes drier desert scrub; the Northern Cardinal riparian corridors and residential backyards.

Summer Tanager

Photo of male Summer Tanager in cottonwood tree
Summer Tanager
Photo by Greg Gillson
The male Summer Tanager is about the same size and color as a male cardinal. Tanagers have a slightly longer bill that isn't nearly as thick at the base. The Summer Tanager has a yellow or pale bill. Summer Tanagers have longer wings and shorter tail, giving them a different shape. They do not have crests.

Females are greenish yellow. First year male Summer Tanagers are similar to females but with large blotches or red on the body. They don't become all-red until they are 2 years old.

Summer Tanagers breed in the Southeast and Southwest United States. They migrate south in winter; a few may be found in southernmost Florida and Texas then.

Scarlet Tanager

Photo of male Scarlet Tanager in tree with yellow blooms
Scarlet Tanager
Public domain. USF&WS
Male Scarlet Tanagers are bright red with black wings and tail. Females and males in winter are greenish above, yellowish below, with dark wings and tail. They do not have crests.

Scarlet Tanagers breed in the Midwest, Northeast, and northern parts of the Southeast. They migrate south in winter completely out of the United States.

House Finch

Photo of male House Finch on twig
Male House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
The House Finch is the common red-headed backyard feeder bird throughout the United States. They are much smaller than cardinals. Females are brownish striped. They spend more time in the trees than on the ground. They do not have crests.

Purple Finch is similar to House Finch and more confined to the northern conifer forests and towns in that habitat.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Photo of male Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher
Photo by Greg Gillson
This small but brilliantly red male flycatcher with black back, wings and tail does not feed on the ground. It sits in low tree branches or fence lines near water in the desert lands bordering Mexico. In winter it wanders a bit, but not too far north, California to Alabama. During this time it frequents baseball fields and golf courses.

It doesn't really have a crest, but it does have raised crown feathers above a thin black mask. The bill is short, flat, black. It sits with upright posture and flies out to grab flying insects, then returns to its perch. It does not hop on the ground. It does not eat seeds. It does not visit bird feeders.

Return to the Overview page on Northern Cardinals

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