Cardinal Vs Red Bird - 7 Ways
to Help You Identify Them!

Wondering whether the red bird you saw was a cardinal? There are multiple red yet unique species out there; read to identify that uniqueness!

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Iñigo Navarro

June 06, 2021


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What’s This Post About?

Whether or not you recognize the bird you just saw, birdwatching itself is a divine experience. There are more birds than you, and I could ever count or learn about anyways.

Cardinals, however, are one of the most common birds in America. Not being able to identify one might even be considered a crime.

After all, it is the bird of seven states: Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

To identify a cardinal from red birds, you can explore seven ways, including their color, size, and shape, behavior, feed priorities, reproduction, sounds, and migration. While other red birds may look similar to Cardinals, however, you would be able to distinguish a cardinal using these seven ways.

wild cardinal birds

Is A Red Bird the Same as A Cardinal?

The question may be simplistic, but the answer lies within the context. The cardinal is also known as redbird, common cardinal, red cardinal, or just cardinal. This is because of how distinct the red in a cardinal is. If the question implies whether every red bird is a cardinal, the answer is no.

Most people tend to associate the color red with the northern cardinal. Even though it is its most striking feature, there are so many other unique things about it.

Continue to read below to help you identify a cardinal. The next time you see a red blur, you will be able to differentiate.

Are All Red Birds Cardinals?

Look at cardinals as a subsection of red birds. Male cardinals are red birds, but every red bird cannot be a cardinal.

Any of numerous unrelated birds with red plumage, including the cardinal, can be a redbird. Think of the red here as an adjective and not a noun.

What Other Red Birds Are There Other Than Cardinals?

There are numerous red birds other than cardinals. This is why you will not always be able to identify a cardinal based on mere color. You will have to dig deeper into patterns and shades and other behavioral differences that cardinals have from other red birds.

Some of the common red birds that you may have seen around are

  1. House Finch

  2. Purple Finch

  3. Cassin’s Finch

  4. Vermilion Flycatcher

  5. Summer Tanager

  6. Red-headed woodpecker

  7. Pyrrhuloxia

  8. Red Crossbill

  9. Pine Grosbeak

  10. Scarlet Tanager

  11. Red-breasted Sapsucker

  12. Common Redpoll

The closest to a northern cardinal is a summer tanager. It also has a very striking red body. Can we still differentiate, though? The answer lies in specifications.

Unlike mature male Summer Tanagers, who are red with a longer, thinner beak, male Northern Cardinals have a tall, pointed crest, black feathers around the face, and a hefty, triangular, reddish beak.

a summer tanager

The next closest species is the scarlet tanager. It has a bright red body from head to rump, just like cardinals. The difference is that a scarlet tanager has jet black wings and a tail while all the black a cardinal has is around its beak.

a scarlet tanager

Now, if you look into a house finch, it is also considered red. However, it has a pale redhead, neck, and belly. The entire back and wings are both brown.

While the bird may overall be considered red, generally, if you observe, you will find each bird as unique.

a house finch

Are All Cardinals Red?

Even if you talk about northern cardinals especially, not all of them are red. The female and juvenile cardinals do not have the beautiful red body of a male cardinal. Other than that, other cardinals are distinguished mainly by their colors.

A juvenile cardinal resembles a female northern cardinal. As it matures, it develops the coloration of its respective gender.

The female has an olive-colored body with red hints in places. Research suggests that it is this way so it can camouflage into nature.

a female cardinal bird

Many birds fall into the cardinal family. Not all of them are red, and even if they are, you will be able to find sufficient differences to distinguish between them.

Did You Know?

Cardinals have a total of 19 subspecies.

Other cardinals that you may have commonly heard about are:

  • Vermilion Cardinal
  • Desert Cardinal
  • Red-crested Cardinal

The vermilion cardinal, just like the northern cardinal, has a prominently red body. It differs from the northern cardinal because it has a grey bill and a very spiky crest. They are commonly found in Venezuela and Columbia.

a vermilion cardinal bird

The pyrrhuloxia, sometimes known as the desert cardinal, is a medium-sized North American songbird found in the Southwest and Northern Mexico. It has a grey body with specific red markings around the face and crest.

a pyrrhuloxia bird

As the name suggests, the red-crested cardinal has a red crest with a white belly and black back. Just like the northern cardinal is native to America, the red-crested is widespread in Brazil. It is, however, seen visit the United States occasionally.

a red crested cardinal

7 Ways to Help You Identify a Cardinal

1. Color/Pattern

Despite being red overall, the cardinal still has various markings and specifications that make it stand out!

Let’s start with the feature that takes everyone’s breath away. The northern cardinal’s vibrant red color is unmatched.

The vermillion color generally dominates the body, but some specific markings will help you identify whether the bird you saw is a cardinal or any other red bird.

The first thing that you can look for is the black color around the beak of the bird. This black color surrounds the bill of the cardinal and extends till the eyes and down to the throat. It gives the impression of the bird wearing a black mask. This is easy to locate!

a close up of a cardinal

Next, you can look for subtle differences that you would overlook if you weren’t aware of them already.

You may think that the cardinal is entirely red. While it’s true, it’s not as simple as it sounds. The shades of red vary throughout the body.

The red color is the brightest around the cardinals’ ears, cheeks, and breasts. So the area that extends from the black mask has a brighter red than the rest of the body. The color becomes darker but duller at the back and wings.

Cardinals have a solid red bill, and this is also something that you will not find in every red bird out there. They also have pinkish-brown feet, but that will probably be something impossible to notice.

a cardinal on a feeder

2. Size/Shape

Not that you can match the exact size of the birds you see flying, this is just to give you an approximate idea of what you should be looking for.

Length Weight Wingspan
8.3-9.1 in (21-23 cm) 1.5-1.7 oz (42-48 g) 9.8-12.2 in (25-31 cm)

Did You Know?

Male cardinals are longer than female cardinals on average.

Imagine the bird being the size somewhere in between a robin and a sparrow to make things simpler. There are two prominent features that you can keep an eye out for in terms of size and shape:

  • The bill, while strong, is comparatively shorter than other birds and is cone-shaped.

  • The crest is large and visible

3. Behavior

Some behavioral features are distinct. If you see your bird doing any of this, it is most likely to be a cardinal.

The first question that you may have is where you will most likely find cardinals. Northern Cardinals like to forage on vegetation or perch low among bushes and branches.

The movement on the ground will look like it’s hopping. You may also find them taking short flights to other branches when looking for food.

a cardinal on ground

You will also notice that cardinals are found in pairs. This is common for adult cardinals and around the breeding season.

Both the male and female work together to raise their broods until they get independent. The juveniles often stay in groups, especially immediately after they have been chased away by their parents.

The adults, though found in pairs, do not appreciate the company of other pair cardinals. They see it as a competition for food and location.

If you see a bird fighting its reflection in the mirror, it will surely be a cardinal. These birds are highly territorial and protective.

Cardinals are self-maintaining birds that will often be seen bathing in water, even in winter. They also file or harden their bills by rubbing against hard surfaces.

4. Feed

a cardinal feeding

The northern cardinal’s diet consists mostly of weed seeds and berries. It is a ground feeder that forages for food by hopping between trees or shrubs on the ground. It also eats snails and insects, such as beetles, cicadas, and grasshoppers.

Did You Know?

The young cardinal is mainly fed on insects.

Other typical foods include:

  • corn (maize)
  • oats
  • sunflower seeds
  • elm tree blooms and bark
  • Maple sap from sapsucker holes.

Pro-Tip

If you want the cardinal to come to you, putting out sunflower seeds on the feeder is recommended.

5. Reproduction

As mentioned before, cardinals will be found in pairs, especially near the breeding season. Here you may also get a chance to witness beak-to-beak feeding, which gives the impression of a kiss to the watchers.

Cardinals are very particular about where they choose to reproduce. If unhappy with their decision or fearful of any attack, they will relocate.

The location that they use may also help you decipher it with other red birds. They choose trees or well-hidden shrubs over 3 to 10 inches from the ground.

an adult with a baby cardinal

Cardinals can also be identified through their eggs. Like birds themselves, their reproductive products have distinct features too.

You will find 2-5 eggs in cardinal nests. That, however, is quite normal. The size of the eggs is roughly 26 mm by 19 mm (1.02 in x 0.75 in). The surface of the shell is smooth and somewhat gleaming.

What you need to look for is the color and possible streaks on them. The eggs should be somewhere between pale blue and greenish-white. They will have grey, brown or purple marks on them.

6. Sounds

If you hear a 'what cheer, cheer, cheer,' sound, be prepared to see a bright crimson cardinal around.

Both genders sing distinct whistled song rhythms that are constantly repeated before being changed. If you listen carefully, you will be able to identify the patterns that cardinals follow.

a male female cardinal pair

There are three common chirps associated with cardinals. You can verbally describe them as

  • what cheer, cheer, cheer
  • cheer, cheer, what what what what;
  • and birdie, birdie, birdie

This method of identification is especially helpful if the bird is hiding amidst dense coverage. You might not always get time to notice physical features; keeping an ear open for these chirps will aid in differentiating.

While incubating and brooding, females sing from the nest, usually in response to their nearby mate’s chip calls or songs. These songs and vocal exchanges range in length from simple to complex.

The female’s song from the nest appears to tell the partner about when to bring food to the nest.

Just like their songs, their calls are also distinct but used by both genders alike. The most common ‘chip call’ has been identified for you below.

This will help you decipher between other calls as you would know the context these calls are used by cardinals.

  • As a response to invasion by competitor cardinals for feed or location

  • In reaction to realizing the predation threat

  • To let the young know that the mother is approaching

  • Indicate transportation of food

  • Parents chasing away the young brood

Did You Know?

There are 16 different calls that the cardinals use.

a red cardinal

7. Migration

Cardinals do not migrate and can be spotted throughout the year.

Unlike most birds, cardinals are non-migratory. So if you see a bird off-season that resembles your idea of a cardinal, it is most likely one.

Due to their distinctive red plumage, Northern Cardinals are easy to spot and study as they forage and play in the cold.

Even the most delicately colored females may be seen darting through the trees, their light brown wings adorned with stunning red accents.

a cardinal in snow

Another thing that can help you differentiate between an average red bird and a cardinal is the timing of when they are visible mostly. Cardinals look for a feed at dusk and dawn.

One theory is that they have a bright red body that becomes less apparent as the day progresses. It is thought to be darker than red.

This protects them from predators who may easily spot them from afar during daylight hours. Some predators aren’t even active this early in the morning, so that’s a plus.

Another rationale for the schedules is that there is less competition in the early hours of the day. The other birds are more likely to forage early in the morning and return home before dark.

Cardinals frequently build their nests near human settlements. As a result, they may feed late without needing to defend their position.

a cardinal feeder

Keep Reading!

While there are many red birds out there, they each have their way of making themselves distinctive. Even though the northern cardinal is famous for its red color, not every red bird is a cardinal. In fact, there are color variations found within the cardinals as well.

To identify a cardinal, you can look for specific patterns, their feed, size, and behaviors as mentioned. This can be easier if you know about other red birds found in the country.

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Iñigo Navarro Picture

By Iñigo Navarro

Bird Watching USA

My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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Iñigo Navarro Picture

Iñigo Navarro

Bird Watching USA

My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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