The Differences Between Red Robins and Cardinals

There is no denying the fact that birds come in all different colors that can be thought of. There are birds that come in neutral colors, such as greys, browns, tawny, and every shade in between these. There are birds that come in greens, blues, yellows, and all shades between these as well.

Of course, there are birds that stand out with such a bright red that you cannot miss them when they are flying by. The most common bird that people think of when they think of a red bird is the cardinal.

However, there are other red birds out there, such as the robin. If you are curious to know which red bird you saw in your yard, you will want to know some of the basic differences between robins and cardinals.

What Makes the Red Robin and the Cardinal Different?

While in the quick seconds that one of these birds passes by you they can look similar, the truth is that robins and cardinals are considerably different. Robins are larger and often have more grey and black in their coloration than cardinals do. They have different songs, habitats, and behaviors. In fact, aside from the red coloration, these birds couldn’t be more different.

There are many points to consider when comparing the red robin vs cardinal, but to fully understand what makes these two birds so different, you are going to have to have a firm understanding of each bird. After all, if you have only ever seen them passing by your window, you may not know much else about either bird aside from its vivid colors.

The Basics of the Cardinal


The most common cardinal that people think of when they hear the word is the northern cardinal. These cardinals are known for their orange beaks, black masks, and crested heads. Males are a vivid red and females are sandy with red tinges around the wings, tail, and crest. Both males and females are roughly the same size.

The northern cardinal, as the name would suggest, is found across the northeastern board, but its habitat extends down through Mexico and as far west as Texas, with pockets of cardinals found in Arizona. They are not a migratory species and can be found year-round, but are most visible in the winter when their bright colors stand out against the dull browns of dead trees and the blank white of snowfall.

Cardinals prefer to forage in low bushes and occasionally in low tree branches. Despite this, they love birdfeeders and will often flock to enjoy the seeds that they can get from them. More often than not, you will see cardinals hiding in shrubbery.

The Basics of the Red Robin



The red robin, otherwise known as the American robin, is a small bird with an immediately recognizable pattern. These birds sport grey-black coats extending from their head down to their wings and tail feathers. Their underside, extending from slightly below their yellow beaks to between its legs, can range from copper to burnt sienna. Robins often have tinges of white around the eyes and on the underside of the tail feathers.

As the name would suggest, these birds are found all throughout the continent of North America and in some parts of Central America. It is found year-round within most of the contiguous 48 states and some parts of Mexico. It may sometimes migrate to warmer locations including southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and Texas in addition to Mexico. During the spring seasons, some of them migrate throughout Canada and Alaska.

Similar to cardinals, these birds are foragers, but instead of enjoying the protection that bushes and low trees provide, the robin enjoys open fields. They feast on worms and insects before berries, though in the wintertime, berries can account for 60% of their diet.

Comparing Appearances

When you consider the appearance of both birds, it is easy to see that there actually aren’t many similarities between them aside from sporting colors vaguely close to red and having black feathers somewhere on their bodies. Even when looking at their sizes, there’s quite a few comparisons to make.

Starting with the size and shape of the bird, robins are somewhat larger than cardinals, having a rounded body with long legs and a long tail, with their entire body spanning up to 11 inches. Cardinals, on the other hand, are fairly mid-sized birds with a taller body that reaches up to nine inches in height. A robin’s tail is fan-shaped while cardinals often have crested heads.

By coloration, the two are very different. Male cardinals have an incredibly bright red coloration with a small black mask around their eyes and beak. Male robins have a dark-grey coat covering all but their underside, which is closer to dark orange in color rather than a vivid red. Female cardinals are tawny with tinges of red on the wings and tail. Female robins are light grey with a lightened underside.

Comparing Habitats

The common habitat of these birds is even more telling in terms of how different they are. For one, cardinals are only found in about half of the United States compared to the abundance of the robin, which is found all across the country and spends its breeding season in Canada. Even in areas where their habitats overlap, where they choose to nest is also vastly different.

Cardinals, preferring shrubbery overall, will typically make their nest in some of the denser shrubs where they can be hidden and protected from predators, rarely placed higher than 10 feet off the ground. Their nests are cup-shaped and are commonly made of twigs, grass, weeds, bark, leaves, and lined with hair and fine grass.

Robins, for comparison, will choose much higher places to make their nests. At the lowest point, their nests can be found five feet off the ground, and at the highest point they can be found 25 feet off the ground, rarely being found above 70 feet. In addition to trees, they will build nests in houses, bridges, and anywhere else they can find a comfortable place. They craft their cup-shaped nests from grass, twigs, and other debris, but shape the nest with mud before making a lining from fine grass as well.

Comparing Diets

The overall diet of these two birds is fairly different too. This makes sense, given the fact that robins are found all over the continent while cardinals are only in a relatively confined area. As such, robins need to have a broad range of foods they can eat, while cardinals can get away with being pickier eaters.

Speaking of what cardinals eat, their diets consist predominantly of seeds, especially because they enjoy hanging around feeders. When seeds are unavailable, they will opt for insects and berries instead. They prefer to keep the majority of their diet as plant matter, though they make sure that their young eat predominantly bugs to help them grow.

Robins, on the other hand, are the inverse. Robins generally prefer to feed on insects and invertebrates when they can, which is generally in the spring through the end of summer. When these foods are no longer available due to the change in season, they shift their preferences to fruits, specifically berries. They will feed their young mostly insects as well.

Comparing Lives

This is one area where these birds are relatively similar. They have similar lifespans with robins having a lifespan of two years in the wild and cardinals having a lifespan of three years. During this time, both birds have similar incubation times and they become fledglings at similar rates. This may be due to the fact that both birds are close in size and capability. It may just be a coincidence.

Cardinals will lay between two and five eggs, which can range from being off-white to being pale blues or greens with brown, grey, or purple markings. When laid, females will incubate the eggs for about 12 to 13 days before the father returns and both parents work to feed the young children.

About 11 days after hatching, the young are considered fledglings and the father provides food while the mother begins preparing another nest. Cardinals will have two to three broods a year, rarely four.

Robins are pretty similar, laying an average of four eggs, though they have been known to lay up to seven. The female incubates the laid eggs for 12 to 14 days before both parents take turns feeding the young. At about 15 days after hatching, the young are considered fledglings and much like the cardinal, the father will continue to provide for the birds while the mother begins a new nest. Robins will have two broods a year, rarely three.

The Takeaway

There are few birds out there that are as recognizable as the cardinal and the robin. Despite the fact that these birds are some of the only birds with red coloration, this is where most of their similarities end. These birds have different body shapes, different diets, different habitats, and different song habits.

They have similar lifespans and a similar process of raising their young, but aside from this, these birds are considerably different creatures. When you know the facts about these birds, it becomes easier than ever to tell them apart.