Cardinal vs. Red Bird: How To Tell Them Apart

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A Northern Cardinal is sometimes referred to as a redbird. But not all cardinals are red, and not all red birds are cardinals. Learning more about cardinals and other red birds can help you better identify different species of birds that you might encounter where you live.

Are Cardinals Always Red?

Cardinal

Cardinal 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 US 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 cardinal can also be applied to the Northern cardinal and grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, all related types of passerine birds.

Are All Northern Cardinals Red?

The most familiar cardinal, often simply called the cardinal, is the Northern cardinal. Adult males of this species are indeed bright red. This makes them easy to spot.

However, even in this species, not all adult cardinals are red. The bright red hue is only on adult males. Female cardinals and juveniles are pale brown with russet tinges on the wings, tail, and crest.

Are Other Cardinals Always Red?

The answer remains the same if we think about cardinals in the broader sense of the term. While some other species are red, this coloration typically only applies to adult males.

So while we may often think about cardinals as red birds, many other cardinals are not red at all.

What Cardinals are Red?

The most common red cardinal is the Northern cardinal. But other species in the Cardinalidae family are sometimes red in hue.

Male Summer tanagers of the species Piranga rubra are also red. These are the only completely red bird found in North America. This migrating species breeds and nests across much of the southern and eastern United States and is a fairly common sight in the summer months.

They have the same brilliant red hue as Northern cardinals but do not have the crest and black face patch present on adult male Northern cardinals. They also have longer and straighter bills.

The Scarlet tanager is another bird in this genus. It can also be seen across the eastern United States in summer. Breeding males have blood-red bodies and jet-black wings and tails.

These look similar to Northern cardinals but note that they have black wings and black tails.

In the western United States, there is also the Western tanager. They are not primarily red, but the males have red-orange heads, yellow bodies, and coal-black wings.

Male Hepatic tanagers in the far southwestern United States have grayish-brick-red backs and red heads and undersides.

They are smaller than the Northern cardinal, with more orangey color, and don’t have crest feathers like the Northern cardinal.

Rose-breasted grosbeak males found in eastern and central parts of the United States have distinctive red patches on their breasts.

But while these members of the broader cardinal family all have some red coloration on the adult males, as with the Northern cardinal, the females and juveniles often have no red coloration at all.

Are Cardinals Red Jays?

Since Northern cardinals look very similar in shape, form, and size to Blue jays, but with different colors, some people believe that these birds are related. But while cardinals and Blue jays may look similar except for hue, they are unrelated. Cardinals are not red jays.

Are Red Birds Always Cardinals?

Red bird

If you see a flash of red in your garden or when out birdwatching, you may immediately think that you’ve seen a cardinal. But not all red birds are cardinals.

So a flash of red glimpsed through the undergrowth or out of the corner of your eye does not always mean that one of the cardinals mentioned above is about.

What is the Difference Between a Red Robin and a Cardinal?

The songs of a Red 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 grayish upper side. The cardinal’s bright red male and yellowish female are very different.

Also, the Red robin is large and round-bodied, while the cardinal has a mid-sized body. The Red robin has a fan-shaped tail and a small yellow beak, while the cardinal has a rounded tail and a cone-shaped beak and black mask.

Which Other Birds Are Red But Not Cardinals?

Pine Grosbeak

The male Pine grosbeak has a body around the same size as the male Northern cardinal with some bright red coloration. But the Pine grosbeak does not have the Northern cardinal’s crown and has a red face rather than a black one. It also has a gray rather than an orange beak. This grosbeak also lacks entirely red wings.

Vermillion Flycatcher

The vermillion flycatcher might be mistaken for a cardinal from a distance because it is vivid red with a black mask. Unlike the Northern cardinal, the black face color is striped, extending backward from the eye. The flycatcher also has black wings and a black tail which is much shorter than the Northern cardinal’s. It also has a pointed black beak.

Red Crossbill

Like the American robin, the Red crossbill is more orange than red in hue. But its color could be confused with the cardinals in poor light or from a distance. This bird has a larger brownish beak and a brown area around each eye.

House Finch

A small flash or red in western north America might also be a male House finch, which has a red head and some red feathers scattered among the brown. However, the finch is much smaller, does not have a crown, and has mottled, brown/tan wings.

Cassin’s Finch

In western North America, you might spot the raspberry red head of this finch. But the red coloration of the body and wings is not like the Northern cardinal.

Purple Finch

Male Purple finches also have some raspberry red on their heads, breasts, backs, and rumps. But they are streaky brown elsewhere. They are found in Canada and the northeastern United States.

Red-Faced Warbler

In small areas of Arizona and New Mexico, a glimpse of red might also mean a sighting of the pretty Red-faced warbler – the male has a red face with a black cap extending over the top of the head and down behind the eyes.

Woodpecker

A flash of red might also mean that you have caught a glimpse of one of the woodpeckers native to the United States. There is the Red-headed woodpecker, the Red-bellied woodpecker, and the Piliated woodpecker, along with the Red-naped sapsucker and Red-breasted sapsucker.

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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.