When it comes to birdwatching, there’s a good chance that you would be able to identify a male cardinal as soon as it came into sight. Cardinals are recognized all across the country for their bright red appearance and are considered a beloved sight at birdfeeders. With that being said, what a lot of people do not realize is that there are more birds out there that have this type of coloring than the cardinal.
From birds that share the same distinct shade of red to birds that more closely resemble the female cardinal, it can be easy to get your birds confused. As such, it is important to learn the differences between cardinals and species that it is commonly confused with.
The Characteristic Features of the Cardinal
Most people are able to identify cardinals by their coloration, but this is only truly applicable to the male cardinal, who is the one with the iconic bright red feathers. Thankfully, there are other traits that cardinals display that set them apart from the birds around them. These range from the crest on their heads, to the dark markings around their bright orange beaks, to simply their habitat.
Let’s start with the appearance of the cardinal. Aside from the male’s red feathers, cardinals will generally have a crested head. In females, this crest may have fringes of red in it, but it will usually match their tawny color. Females will usually have tinges of red on their crest, wings, and tail feathers, with the rest of their colors blending in with tree bark. The dark markings around their eyes and beak will be much more faded, but still evident upon inspection.
It is also important to consider the location of the cardinal. The common cardinal that people think of is known as the Northern Cardinal, with a species name of Cardinalis cardinalis. They are found across the eastern United States and reaching into the Midwest and Mexico, with pockets of them being found in southern Arizona. If you see a bright red bird outside of this region, chances are that it is not the cardinal you are used to.
Common Red Birds
More often than not, when people see a bird that looks like a cardinal but is not, they are identifying the red colors that male cardinals sport. While bright red is a somewhat uncommon color in nature, it is common enough that there are several other birds out there that sport these colors in addition to the northern cardinal.
Two examples of this are scarlet tanagers and summer tanagers. Both of these birds share similar body shapes, being a little bit more stout than the cardinal. However, the summer tanager boasts a body that is entirely red whereas scarlet tanagers will have black wings and a black-tipped tail, setting it apart from the northern cardinal. Scarlet tanagers are commonly found in the northeastern United States, not extending nearly as far south as cardinals do.
Other birds to consider include the hepatic tanager, which resembles the summer tanager but with more speckles of brown in its colors and is found in the southwestern United States, the vermillion flycatcher, which also resembles the scarlet tanager but has markings around its eyes and is smaller in size, and the red crossbill, a finch whose reds are often ruddier than male cardinals but are too red to be females and are found on the western board of the country rather than the eastern.
One bird that is incredibly easy to confuse with a male cardinal is the summer tanager. Its cousins, the scarlet tanager and the hepatic tanager, have already been mentioned here, but what really sets the summer tanager apart is the fact that it doesn’t have black wings. Instead, its body is entirely the same shade of bright red as the male cardinal, with very slightly browner wings that end in dark tips.
With this similar coloring, it is easy to confuse the two birds at a mere glance. However, there are several differences that should be considered. For one, tanagers have rounded heads that do not sport the crests that both male and female cardinals have. Their beaks are also smaller and not orange in color. And finally, because their bodies are entirely red, they do not have the black markings surrounding their eyes and beak the way that a mask would.
There are some other differences that may be harder to spot, such as the fact that their wingtips are more rounded and that they are shorter in size than the cardinal, but the above are the most obviously different features that summer tanagers sport when compared to the cardinal.
Considering the Female Cardinal
The next consideration that you will want to make is the female cardinal. It can be a little bit more difficult to distinguish these birds from others, given the fact that they do not have as distinct coloring. The coloration of a female cardinal can range anywhere from tawny to fawn to sandy, but no matter which word is chosen, it is generally understood that they are a light brown in color.
Some female cardinals will sport patches of red, commonly around the crest, wings, and tail. This can look similar to a juvenile male cardinal, especially given the size of the bird. Aside from this, female cardinals share the same bodily characteristics as male cardinals do. This includes the shape of their bodies, the height and color of their beak, and the familiar crest.
While there are plenty of birds out there with brown colors, there are very few that have the same shape as the cardinal does, aside from one species of bird known as pyrrhuloxia. These birds share the same family as cardinals do with their scientific name being Cardinalis sinuatus, but there are some features that set them apart.
This bird, sometimes referred to as the desert cardinal, closely resembles the female cardinal. To be more specific, the male pyrrhuloxia resembles a female northern cardinal, although the female pyrrhuloxia is often distinct enough to tell apart. This is mainly due to the fact that male pyrrhuloxia have red coloration around their crest, eyes, wings, tail, and legs whereas the female bird is often more grey in color than brown.
It can be hard to tell the difference, but there are two key factors that can help you. For one, the pyrrhuloxia does not sport the same black mask around the beak and eyes. This means that if you can get close enough to examine the bird’s face, you can determine that while it is closely related to the common cardinal, it is its own species.
Lastly, there is the habitat to consider. Known as the desert cardinal, this bird is most commonly found throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States, almost at a direct opposite to where northern cardinals prefer to be found. There may be some species overlap in Mexico, but chances are that if you are on the eastern or western coast, this fact alone will determine which bird you see.
When all is said and done, there are still quite a few birds out there that resemble the cardinal in some way. There are crested birds, birds with orange beaks, and birds that have bright red feathers. There are very few birds that have all of these traits, but do not live up to the name of being a cardinal.
By making sure that you remember to look at the details of the bird you have found, especially the shape of its body and whether or not it has a crest, and remembering where northern cardinals are commonly found, you can feel confident knowing that you will be able to name the bird that you have found, even if it isn’t a cardinal.