What Does a Juvenile Cardinal Look Like?
& Interesting FAQs

Wondering why the juvenile Cardinals look nothing like the magnificent cardinal everyone talks about? Read to find out what they actually look like!

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David A. Swanson

October 04, 2022

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What’s This Post About?

Cardinals are common throughout North America. However, what makes them stand out is not their number but their beautiful crimson-colored plumage. Due to their gorgeous plumage, cardinals are amongst the most identifiable birds you’ll encounter. The same, however, cannot be said about juvenile cardinals.

Unlike their adult versions, juvenile cardinals do not have a striking plumage that would set them apart. This is not uncommon in birds. Most young birds have a dull and dark plumage that transitions into pretty colors as they mature.

The initial phase of the cardinal is a brown-grey tint. They keep their brown hue as fledglings but develop a distinctive crest on top of their heads. The red and tawny colors of the male and female adult cardinals’ feathers will develop much later as the birds mature.


What Does A Juvenile Cardinal Look Like?

Cardinals have varied colors depending on their gender and age group.

Cardinals may be famous for their breathtaking red appearance, but the lesser-known fact is that not all cardinals are entirely red.

Female cardinals have a dull yellow body with a red crest and beak. Interestingly juvenile cardinals look very similar to adult female cardinals, with a few exceptions.


Both male and female juvenile cardinals have a tan or brownish hue like the adult female. However, you will still be able to find tiny differences to identify a male or female, young cardinal.

A young female cardinal, for example, will not have a reddish highlight on them while the male juvenile will.

You may wonder if the juvenile cardinals resemble the adult female cardinal so much; how do we tell them apart. Check the beak of a baby bird to differentiate between the two.

A baby cardinal’s beak will be black rather than the brilliant orange beak that both adults have. It can be either very dark, or it can be lighter and tannish. However, it will not be orange.

Cardinals in their early stages have scruffy feathers and a developing crest which gives them a ruffled look. As the juvenile bird will mature, the female ones will change the beak color while the male chicks will develop the magnificent red color the bird is famous for.

Some Interesting FAQs


The cardinal’s bright crimson color is often the center of attention for most bird lovers. It does not even migrate in winters, becoming ever more distinct amidst the white snow.

Unfortunately, the attention a mature male cardinal gets leaves the juvenile cardinals very unpopular. Nevertheless, there is a lot to know about juvenile cardinals, and here are some interesting questions answered for you.

1. Why do juvenile and female cardinals have a less striking appearance?

Although it may not seem just that female and juvenile northern cardinals have less vivid feathers than males, it fulfills a practical function.

The less visible they are, the simpler it is for them to stay hidden during the brooding phase. A predator will not pursue a female or young if they are not visible.

2. When do juvenile cardinals start to change color?

After the young cardinal is born, the very first shedding happens in the fall. After that, both male and newborn female cardinals take on their mother’s coloration until the first molting, which is a tan to brown body with spots of orange and pale crimson on the wings and tail.

As mentioned before, the male juvenile birds will start to turn red while the female ones would outgrow their scruffy look. Cardinals molt in late summer or early fall. However, their beak transforms from black to orange by the end of December.

3. When do juvenile cardinals leave their nest?


After hatching, the young Cardinals depart the nest in around 9-11 days. When young cardinals leave the nest, they still look like their mother except for the brown beak. That is to say, they have a light brown body with orange streaking, slight red accents on the plumage and tail, and a brown beak.

If they have a crest, it is usually not very large and lies flat at this point.

After leaving the nest, young cardinals stay with their parents on the ground for roughly 40 days. Juvenile cardinals born earlier in the season leave their parents even sooner, fearing that they may be kicked out of the area by their parents.

4. What do baby cardinals look like right after hatching?

Cardinal hatchlings are entirely naked at this point, with only a few spots of grey down below. They have their eyes shut and are curled up in fetal postures. The nestlings begin to acquire feathers less than a week later.

5. What do cardinal eggs look like?

Cardinal eggs hatch after the female cardinal has been nursing them for 12-13 days. Cardinal eggs may be found in a wide range of colors and patterns.

One batch of eggs will be of the same hue, yet colors vary from brood to brood and cardinal pair to pair. The following are some of the potential egg color combinations:

  • Grey or brown specks on a light gray background
  • Grey or brown marks on a light green background
  • White with brown or gray speckles

6. Can you put displaced juvenile cardinals back in their nest?


If you see a baby cardinal on the ground, evaluate the situation and the cardinal’s expected age before you make a move. If the baby seems small to have voluntarily left the nest, you may place it back into the nest. It is a myth that the parents will abandon it due to the human touch.

If, however, it seems that the bird is on the ground voluntarily, do not approach it. You should let a healthy fledgling alone if it has just left the nest and looks to be healthy, undamaged, and not in imminent threat.

Returning juveniles to their nest isn’t a good idea because they are probably still honing their survival abilities.

You can return a fledgling to its nest if it looks ill, wounded, or in imminent danger. Danger can mean cats or dogs in the vicinity. It’s also a good idea to contact your local wildlife rehabilitation center if a baby cardinal is sick or wounded.

7. When do juvenile cardinals learn to fly?


A newborn cardinal fledges approximately 7-13 days after hatching. After that, it takes its maiden flight sitting on the edge of its nest or on the limb holding the nest.

This first stage might take an hour or more, and it is usually done late in the morning. The rest of the nest’s juvenile cardinals also usually depart within an hour, although it might take up to 24 hours.

The first flight attempt, however, does not mean the cardinals are ready to fly. The process takes a bit longer. It may take up to ten days for the fledgling to fly for extended periods. It’s a succession of short flights as short as four feet before that.

The fledgling continues to practice flying over the following week to ten days while its flight feathers grow, finally allowing them to fly solo.

8. What do juvenile cardinals eat?


After the eggs hatch, the male cardinal continues to gather meals for the young and the mother. The mother will also leave the nestlings from time to time to feed herself and even gather food for the babies.

The food given to the juvenile cardinals by the parents usually consists of bugs and seeds. Common seeds are sunflower seeds and white milo seeds. Common bugs are beetles and grasshoppers.

Cardinals, however, appear to forego their typical seed-based diet while gathering food for their fledgling. This might be due to a preference for the increased protein content of small insects and young spiders, or it could simply result from easy access to the season’s harvest.

Despite their preference for the ground, cardinals will consume split corn, nuts, and berries from a suspended bird feeder. Cardinals are mostly granivorous birds, although they have a sweet palate when berries are in season and may hunt on tiny insects, spiders, and crustaceans.

9. How to identify a baby bird as a cardinal?


Juvenile cardinals have a minimal resemblance to adult cardinals. However, the nest’s structure, the coloration of the eggs, the development of feathers, the beak and mouth, and, of course, the activity of adult birds nearby may all be used to identify them.

Cardinals build their nests in the forks of branches under thick vegetation. A cardinal’s nest is built of fine twigs, leaves, grapevine bark, and a lining made out of grass, rootlets, and hair.

It is approximately 4 inches broad, 2 to 3 inches tall, and has a 3-inch internal diameter. The average height of a nest is 3 to 10 feet off the ground.


The eggs of the Cardinals are smooth and shiny. They are dotted with brown, purple, or gray specks ranging from white to light blue or green.  The eggs are around 1 inch in length and 3/4 inch in width, and cardinals lay eggs in batches of two to five.

You may also identify the cardinal by its appearance. Unfortunately, a baby cardinal cannot be identified through the striking red plumage a mature cardinal has.

Instead, you can identify it by comparing it to the adult female version. Juvenile birds look exactly like mature females except for the beak, which is black in the young.


Keep Reading!

The vibrant hue and characteristic crest of the Cardinals make them immediately identifiable. Even though the female of the species has a more subdued coloration, her size and form are reasonably comparable to the male. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their children.

Cardinal babies are initially gray and bare, and their parents’ sharp crest is missing. With time all juvenile cardinals, irrespective of their gender, start looking like their mother – yellowish-brown minus the orange beak.

As the birds grow older, they begin to develop the vivid crimson they are famous for! Now that you know all about juvenile cardinals, read about 14 interesting and big differences between Cardinals and Blue Jays.

Cardinals Vs Blue Jays: 14 Interesting & Big Differences

Curious to know what sets the cardinals and the blue jays apart? The two birds vary in their appearance, feed, and behavior.

David A. Swanson Picture

By David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David 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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David A. Swanson Picture

David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David 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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