Cardinal vs Oriole: How To Identify These Beautiful Bird Species

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While Cardinals and Orioles might make some think of sports teams, most bird lovers think entirely differently about these two terms. But those new to identifying backyard birds might sometimes get a little confused identifying the different species they might see and struggle to determine which birds they are looking at in their gardens.

Cardinals and orioles are both very colorful songbirds. But there, the similarities essentially end. Cardinals and orioles belong to two different bird families and have few connections beyond the fact that both can be found in North American backyards.

What are Cardinals?

northern cardinal bird

Cardinals is a term that applies broadly to Cardinalidae, birds within a family of new-world endemic passerine birds. It also refers to a specific genus within this family, Cardinalis.

This genus has only one member commonly seen in North America – the Northern cardinal. The desert Cardinal, Cardinalis sinuatus, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, is found only in the southernmost reaches of the southwest United States and northern Mexico. The Vermillion cardinal in the same genus is only found in Colombia and Venezuela.

When used in its broader sense, the term cardinals can be applied not only to the Northern cardinal but also to grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, all related types of passerine birds.

Is an Oriole a Cardinal?

While orioles are also passerine birds, they are not cardinals and do not belong within this group.

North American Cardinalidae:

Northern Cardinal

When people talk about cardinals, the Northern cardinal is the species they usually refer to. It is the state bird of no fewer than seven states and is a common backyard bird across the far south and the eastern half of the United States. The cardinal is a non-migratory species that can be seen year-round in areas where it lives.

The Northern cardinal is a large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. The males are brilliant red, with black masks and throats. The females are pale brown all over with russet tinges in the wings, tail, and crest.

Tanagers

Tanagers can also be included within the broader definition of cardinals, and several species can be seen in the United States.

There is the summer tanager, Piranga rubra. The male is the only entirely red bird in North America, while the female is a mustard yellow hue. This migrating species breeds across much of the southern and eastern United States and is a fairly common sight in summer.

The Scarlet tanager is another bird in this genus. It can also be seen across the eastern United States in summer. The breeding males have blood-red bodies and jet-black wings and tails. The females, juveniles, and males outside the breeding season are yellowish green, with darker wings.

In the western US, one might encounter the Western tanager. The males have red-orange heads, yellow bodies, and coal-black wings, backs, and tails. Females are a duller yellow-green and blackish in hue.

This species ranges farther north than any other tanager, breeding northward to a latitude of 60 degrees—into Canada’s Northwest Territories. However, farther north, they visit for only a couple of months before migrating back south.

There is also the Hepatic tanager found only in the far southwest of the US, which is the northern extent of their range. The males have greyish-brick-red backs and red heads and undersides. The females are yellowish, with olive coloration on top. While juveniles are grayish olive, with buff below, are lightly streaky all over, and duller than the adult females.

Grosbeaks

Another bird within the Cardinalidae family is the grosbeak.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks can be found across eastern and central parts of the US, breeding in the northeast and Canada. These are stocky, medium-sized songbirds with large triangular bills. The males have a distinctive red patch on their breasts, while the females are brown to buff and heavily streaked, with a white eyebrow and a pale bill.

Overlapping with the range of the Rose-breasted grosbeak on the Great Plains, and sometimes hybridizing with them, is the Black-headed grosbeak. This grosbeak breeds across most of the western United States and in parts of southwestern Canada before migrating southward.

These are chunky songbirds with thick, conical bills. The males are rich orange cinnamon hued, with black heads and black and white wings. The females have warm orange or buff on the breast, often with some streaking to the sides.

The Blue grosbeak breeds across much of the United States in summer, excepting the northwest, north, and north-easternmost areas. They migrate south for winter and are widespread but not abundant in these areas. However, their range is expanding.

These birds are stocky, with a very large, triangular bill. Breeding males are easily distinguished, with a stunning brilliant blue hue and chestnut wing bars. Females and juveniles are cinnamon in color, with brown wing bars and non-streaked undersides.

Buntings

Buntings are another group in the broader cardinal family.

The Lazuli bunting, Passerina amoena, is found across much of the western United States in summer, migrating south for winter.

These small, stocky songbirds have cone-shaped bills. The males are brilliant blue above and orangey and white underneath and have white shoulder patches. The females and immature birds are warm brown with blue tints on the wings and tails, a pale, un-streaked cinnamon breast, and buff-colored wing bars.

The Indigo bunting breeds in some of the southwest and most of the eastern half of the US, where they are pretty widespread.

Sparrow-sized songbirds, stocky and with short tails, the males are bright blue overall with a more vibrant blue on their heads. The females are brown, with faint streaking on the breast, white throats, and sometimes blue touches on the wings, tail, or rump.

Painted buntings are fairly common songbirds in the US’s coastal southeast and south-central regions, migrating south in winter.

These stocky, finch-like birds have stubby, thick seed-eating bills. Adult males are unmistakable, with their bright blue heads, green backs, and red rumps and bellies. Females and juveniles are yellow-green with a pale ring around the eye.

The Varied bunting is a Mexican species but can sometimes be seen across the border in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The adult males are red, blue, and purplish overall, and the females are tan with unmarked wings and pale breasts.

What are Orioles?

baltimore oriole bird

New World orioles are a group of birds in the genus Icterus of the blackbird family. There are also orioles in the old world, though these are unrelated. The males of this group are typically orange or yellow with white marking, and the females are typically somewhat duller in hue. These birds are generally slender, with long tails and a pointed bill.

There are 33 species within this genus, of which nine can be found in the United States.

The Baltimore oriole and the Orchard oriole are typically found in Eastern regions, and the Bullock’s oriole and Scott’s oriole are located in the west.

Altamira orioles, Audubon’s orioles, Hooded orioles, and Streak-backed orioles can be found in southern states and Mexico, while the Spot-breasted oriole is found only in Florida.

Baltimore Orioles – The males are bright orange and black, with black wings with white wing bars. The females have yellow undersides and heads, brownish yellow backs, and gray-brown wings.

Orchard Orioles – The males are reddish underneath, with black heads and backs. The females are a greenish yellow all over, darker on the back and paler underneath, with darker wings and white wing bars.

Bullock’s Orioles – The males have bright orange bodies, black and white wings, and black markings on their heads. The females have gray backs and yellowish heads, tails, and chests.

Scott’s Orioles – The males have black heads and backs and bright yellow undersides. The females have olive-brown backs and paler yellow bellies.

Which Birds Look Like Cardinals?

Scarlet tanagers have the same brilliant red coloration as Northern cardinals (and are related) but have black wings and a black tail.

Summer tanagers (also related) also have the brilliant red hue but don’t have the cardinal’s crest and black face patch. They also have longer, straighter bills.

How can you tell a robin from a cardinal?

The songs of a robin and a cardinal can be mistaken for one another. However, these birds are very different in appearance. Robins are bright orange on their chests, with a greyish upper side. The cardinal’s bright red male and yellowish female are very different.

Which Birds Look Like Orioles?

Several birds look superficially like the different orioles and might be mistaken for them.

What bird looks like an Oriole?

With their orangey-yellow coloration, the Western tanager and Black-headed grosbeak are two Cardinalidae that might be mistaken for an oriole, as might several thrushes and warblers, and even the American robin, if not closely observed.

How can you tell a robin from an Oriole?

Orioles that might be mistaken for robins typically have black heads/backs, while robins are far grayer. Orioles also have silver-black beaks, while robins have yellow bills, which can be black-tipped depending on the season.

Looking closely at appearance, behavior, etc., the differences generally become apparent, and identification becomes easier. The more time you spend observing birds in your garden, the easier you will find it to tell different bird species apart, and the more you can learn about the avian visitors who share your space.

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Elizabeth Waddington

Elizabeth Waddington is a conservation, rewilding, organic gardening and sustainability specialist who loves everything nature-related. She loves helping others around the world connect with the wildlife and wonders around them. When not creating wildlife-wise, eco-friendly designs, or writing about the topics that inspire her, she loves spending time watching the birds on and around her own rural property, or heading out on camping or hiking adventures to spot birds and other wildlife in a range of habitats.