Male vs Female Cardinals: Learn To Spot the Differences

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Northern Cardinals are a beloved bird and a favorite sight in winter when these year-round residents dazzle backyard bird enthusiasts from snow-covered evergreens. The bright red male cardinals are practically synonymous with the holiday season.

But what about female cardinals? Less showy–but we would argue, no less beautiful!–than their male counterparts, female cardinals have their own secrets to share.

In this article, we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions about female cardinals, and talk about the interesting similarities and differences between males and females of this beautiful bird species.

How Rare is it to See a Female Cardinal?

The Northern Cardinal is a common bird throughout the eastern and central United States and Mexico, where it is a year-round resident.

Cardinals are abundant birds, with an estimated population of over 100 million individuals. Male or female, you’ll likely see beautiful cardinals visit your bird feeders often if you live within their range.

Do Female Cardinals Sing?

Female cardinals, unlike many other female birds, do sing! It’s thought that female birds typically don’t sing because it draws the attention of predators to the nest, which is simply too risky.

You’ll hear the most cardinal singing during the spring and summer, although they can sing at any time of year.

Scientists have also identified at least 16 different specific calls that cardinals use for things like defending their territory, warning each other of predators, feeding each other, or encouraging their nestlings.

Do Male and Female Cardinals Mate For Life?

Cardinals can stay together for many years, but they don’t always. One study found that 20 percent of breeding pairs split up during the breeding season, and 10 percent more break it off during the winter.

Why Are Female Cardinals Brown? Why is the Female Cardinal Not Red?

Female cardinals are probably brown to help them blend in with their nesting sites. This difference in coloration gives them an advantage when protecting their eggs and baby cardinals from predators.

Juvenile cardinals, like many baby birds, have plumage to match their mothers for this same reason.

Male adult cardinals, on the other hand, are bright and showy to compete with one another for mates and territory. The brightest male cardinals mate earlier and in more favorable habitats than their more subdued rivals.

Birds can see more colors than humans can, so their bright plumage looks even more dazzling to a bird’s eye than it does to ours. Female birds use this coloration to judge a male’s health and fitness as a sire of their future offspring.

Male cardinals get their coloration from carotenoids in the fruits they feed on, which can be an indicator of their nutrition. So exceptionally bright feathers really do let the females know how strong and healthy they are!

Since female birds are usually the ones doing the choosing, they don’t need to be flashy. So that, combined with the advantages of camouflage, is most likely why female cardinals are brown.

Can a Cardinal Bird be Both Male and Female?

Male vs Female Cardinals

You may have heard of recent sightings of half-male, half-female cardinals in Grand Valley and Erie, Pennsylvania. The two sightings might have been of the same bird. The scientific name for this half-male, half-female phenomenon is bilateral gynandromorphism.

A gynandromorph is an organism that has both male and female characteristics. Bilateral means that the split of those characteristics is on either side, which is why these cardinals have a visible brown, female side split down the middle with a red male side.

Cardinals are not the only species of birds that can be gynandromorphs. For example, this gynandromorph Rose-breasted Grosbeak was also recently sighted. But it’s extremely rare, which is why you’ll see a lot of headlines when a bird like this gynandromorph cardinal is spotted.

What Does it Mean When a Female Cardinal Visits You?

Birds have a long history in spiritual and folk traditions as messengers. Many people see an encounter with a cardinal as a special sign, sometimes as an indication that a departed loved one is visiting.

The name cardinal comes from its bright red color, seen as resembling the robes of Catholic Cardinals, a type of priest.

Sandra Kynes, in her book Bird Magic, relates the folklore of the early European settlers who gave the cardinal this name. They believed that seeing a cardinal flying upwards meant good luck was coming, while seeing it flying downwards meant bad luck.

Bird Magic: Wisdom of the Ancient Goddess for Pagans & Wiccans
  • Kynes, Sandra (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 312 Pages - 08/08/2016 (Publication Date) - Llewellyn Publications (Publisher)

Last update on 2023-02-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

In Animal-Speak, Ted Andrews writes that hearing a female cardinal sing is a sign that you need to listen to your own inner, intuitive voice more closely.

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Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small
  • Andrews, Ted (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 400 Pages - 09/01/2002 (Publication Date) - Llewellyn Publications (Publisher)

Last update on 2023-02-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Berry Sweet

While not as bright or iconic as their male companions, female cardinals are not without their charm. Their perky crests and flashes of orange-red are still distinctive, and the fact that they join the males for duets is a sweet surprise.

Whether in your birding journeys you find male cardinals, females, or both, you’re sure to see why this iconic bird is beloved by so many.

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Stevie Miller

Stevie Miller is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience. Her lifelong passion for birds began young, starting with a citizen science project at her aunt’s bird feeders, followed by a memorable first-time birdwatching trip to Assateague Island. Later, she got the opportunity to help birds directly while working as a veterinary assistant. Now she enjoys frequent time outdoors, traveling extensively to observe the birds, animals, and plants that inspire her writing and artwork.