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Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.

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Keys to identification Help

Finches
Finches
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Northern Cardinal is a fairly large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. Cardinals often sit with a hunched-over posture and with the tail pointed straight down.

  • Color Pattern

    Male cardinals are brilliant red all over, with a reddish bill and black face immediately around the bill. Females are pale brown overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. They have the same black face and red-orange bill.

  • Behavior

    Northern Cardinals tend to sit low in shrubs and trees or forage on or near the ground, often in pairs. They are common at bird feeders but may be inconspicuous away from them, at least until you learn their loud, metallic chip note.

  • Habitat

    Look for Northern Cardinals in inhabited areas such as backyards, parks, woodlots, and shrubby forest edges. Northern Cardinals nest in dense tangles of shrubs and vines.

Range Map Help

Northern Cardinal Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Male

    Northern Cardinal

    Male
    • Bright red overall
    • Black mask and throat
    • Red crest
    • Large, thick red bill
    • © Ed Schneider, White Creek, Tennessee, December 2008
  • Female

    Northern Cardinal

    Female
    • Dull brown overall
    • Dull red wings and tail
    • Reddish crest
    • Bright red bill
    • © maia bird, December 2008
  • Male

    Northern Cardinal

    Male
    • Large, thick red bill
    • Long tail
    • © Will Sweet, Sharon, Massachusetts, December 2008
  • Female

    Northern Cardinal

    Female
    • Red wings, tail, and crest
    • © Will Sweet, Sharon, Massachusetts, December 2008
  • Male

    Northern Cardinal

    Male
    • Long red crest
    • Black mask and throat
    • Thick red bill
    • © Judy Howle, December 2008
  • Immature male

    Northern Cardinal

    Immature male
    • Red feathers molting in give mottled appearance
    • Immature males show variable amount of red, and may have bare patches
    • © Jeff Hurd, December 2008
  • Juvenile

    Northern Cardinal

    Juvenile
    • Diffuse red on brown background
    • Dusky bill
    • © Raymond Belhumeur, December 2008
  • Juvenile

    Northern Cardinal

    Juvenile
    • Red wings and tail, diffuse red elsewhere
    • Dusky bill
    • © Lisa Barker, December 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Summer Tanager

    Adult male
    • Similar to male Northern Cardinal
    • No crest, red face
    • Longer, gray bill
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, May 2006
  • Adult male

    Vermilion Flycatcher

    Adult male
    • Similar to adult male Northern Cardinal
    • Lacks long crest
    • Dark gray nape and upperparts
    • Dark mask mostly behind eye, throat and crown red
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, February 2009
  • Adult male breeding

    Scarlet Tanager

    Adult male breeding
    • Similar to male Northern Cardinal
    • Black wings
    • No crest, red face
    • Smaller, gray bill
    • Shorter, black tail
    • © quietriver250, Iowa, May 2008
  • Adult female

    Pyrrhuloxia

    Adult female
    • Similar to female or immature Northern Cardinal
    • Long, thin, red crest
    • Rounded, dusky bill
    • Red face
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, February 2009
  • Adult male (right)

    Pyrrhuloxia

    Adult male (right)
    • Similar to the female Northern Cardinal (left)
    • Grayer overall with red face, crest, wings, and tail
    • Stout, rounded, yellow bill
    • Female cardinal has less rounded, more triangular bill; is brown rather than gray
    • © Joan Gellatly, Portal, Arizona, March 2009
  • Adult female

    Phainopepla

    Adult female
    • Similar to female and immature Northern Cardinal
    • Dark gray overall with ragged crest
    • Wings with white edging
    • Thin, black bill
    • © Desert Vu, Clark Co., Nevada, January 2009
  • Adult male

    Pyrrhuloxia

    Adult male
    • Similar to female Northern Cardinal
    • Long, thin, red crest
    • Rounded yellowish or dusky bill
    • Clean gray overall with red stripe down belly and on wings and tail
    • Red face
    • © Tripp Davenport, Uvalde County, Texas, January 2009
  • Adult male

    Pyrrhuloxia

    Adult male
    • Similar to female Northern Cardinal
    • Rounded yellowish or dusky bill
    • Clean gray overall with red stripe down belly and on wings and tail
    • Ranges overlap in southwestern U.S.
    • © Sam Wilson, Tucson, Arizona, February 2007

Similar Species

Pyrrhuloxias are grayer than female Northern Cardinals and have a more rounded, yellow bill without the black face. Female Phainopeplas lack any redness to their plumage and have much more slender bills. Male Scarlet Tanagers have jet-black wings. Male Summer Tanagers lack the male cardinal's crest and have a longer, straighter bill. Canyon, California and Abert's towhees lack the female cardinal's reddish tinges as well as its crest.

Backyard Tips

Nearly any bird feeder you put out ought to attract Northern Cardinals (as long as you live within their range), but they particularly seem to use sunflower seeds. Leave undergrowth in your backyard or around the edges, and you may have cardinals nesting on your property.

Find This Bird

The brilliant red of a male Northern Cardinal calls attention to itself when males are around. You can also find cardinals by getting a sense of the warm, red-tinged brown of females – a pattern you can learn to identify in flight. Away from backyards, cardinals are still common but inconspicuous owing to their affinity for dense tangles. Listen for their piercing chip notes to find where they are hiding.

Get Involved

Keep track of Northern Cardinals at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Q & A: Why is a cardinal attacking my window?

The Northern Cardinal is a focal species for NestWatch. Learn how to find nests and report your observations.

Enhance your yard for cardinals and other birds. Visit our web pages on attracting and feeding birds

You Might Also Like

You can identify cardinals and many other birds just from their size and shape. Watch our Inside Birding video series and learn how—right from your computer.

Have you seen a bald cardinal? Read our web page on bald-headed birds.

Northern Cardinal from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)

Find in-depth information on cardinals and other hundreds of other birds for as little as $5 in The Birds of North America Online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union

eBird Occurrence Maps, Northern Cardinal