Do you ever get excited about spotting a Northern Cardinal in the distance, only to later realize it is not a Northern Cardinal at all?
Northern Cardinals are beautiful, widely appreciated songbirds, but there are a number of other songbirds that look a lot like them.
It is easy to misidentify birds when you are out bird watching—and learning the differences between Northern Cardinals and other songbirds is essential if you have taken part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.
You are deciding what kind of birdhouses to put up, or you are deciding what to feed your backyard birds.
What’s Special About the “Northern” Cardinal?
Northern Cardinals are the birds that most of us call “Cardinals.”
There are also Vermillion Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxians, sometimes known as Desert Cardinals.
Adding to the confusion, Scarlet Tanagers have also been recently reclassified as Cardinals.
Adding “Northern” to the name clears up any confusion.
When you correctly identify Northern Cardinals, you can share useful information with other bird fanciers looking for this beautiful bird.
Also read: Cardinal Symbolism and Meaning
Get to Know the Northern Cardinal
Red from crest to knee, except for a black face, a short, thick, yellow beak and brown back feathers, male Northern Cardinals are an unmistakable presence in your backyard and in nature.
The females aren’t quite as prominent in the landscape. They are brownish overall, although they have a red color on their wings and tail.
Both male and female Northern Cardinals have long tail feathers.
You’ll find Northern cardinals across the United States east of the Rockies, and also in southern Arizona. They range into the northern half of Mexico.
Northern Cardinals often sit hunched over. They point their tails straight down.
They forage on the ground for seeds and insects in pairs. They will be larger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin.
Both male and female Northern Cardinals sing, although females only sing while they are sitting in their nests.
Cardinals build their nests in tangles of shrubs and vines.
They spend more of their time in inhabited areas, on the edge of the woods, or in backyards with bird feeders. When you don’t see them, you usually can locate them by their song.
You will mostly find Northern Cardinals across the continental United States east of the Rockies.
However, they are also common across the entire northern half of Mexico and across southern Canada east of the Great Lakes.
Also read: What Does It Mean When You See a Cardinal?
Birds that Look Like Cardinals
Now, let’s get to know some birds that look like Northern Cardinals that have different habits and need different care if you want to keep them in your backyard.
Crested Ant Tanager
From a distance, or through dense foliage, a Crested Ant Tanager can look something like a Northern Cardinal.
You would see a silhouette like a Northern Cardinal, complete with a conical beak, and also a crest of red feathers.
The rest of the Crested Ant Tanager is brick red or reddish brown, not the vibrant red you will see in a Northern Cardinal.
Crested Ant Tanagers feed on army ants in the jungle in Colombia. You won’t encounter them in North America.
A Crested Waxwing has a crest and a mask like a Northern Cardinal, but very different colors.
The wings of a Crested Waxwing are tipped with red, and its tail feathers have tips of yellow.
They are pale yellow on their undersides, with a light brown head that transitions to slate-gray wings.
Both males and females have a white outline around the black mask on their faces. Males have slightly larger chins.
Cedar Waxwings may travel as far north as Nunavut during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, and anywhere from southeast Montana to Massachusetts to Nicaragua and Panama during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter.
They are attracted to the sound of running water. You can attract them to your backyard with water fountains and waterfalls.
Crested waxwings are described by ornithologists as “irruptive,” meaning they sometimes multiply to great numbers just before something causes their population to crash.
Attracting Crested Waxwings to your backyard can sometimes bring you up to 150 birds.
Phainopeplas are often called “Goth cardinals.”
Their shape and size are almost identical to Northern Cardinals, but their coloration is entirely different,
Northern Cardinals have yellow, cone-shaped beaks. Phainopepias have black, pointed beaks.
Female Phainopeplas are grayish-brown. Male Phainopepias are dark black. Both male and female Phainopepias exhibit some unique behaviors:
- Phainopepias imitate the call of the Red-Tailed Hawk to scare competing birds away from their feeding grounds.
- These birds lay eggs twice a year, first in the southwestern deserts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and then in the woodlands of California.
- Phainopepias can eat up to 1,000 mistletoe berries a day. These berries are poisonous for pets and people.
Pine Grosbeaks are one of the largest finches in the world.
They have a faint red color that causes them to be mistaken for Northern Cardinals, when they are viewed from a distance.
You can tell the difference between a Pine Grosbeak and a Northern Cardinal by their beaks.
Pine Grosbeaks have a charcoal-colored beak. Northern Cardinals have an orange-yellow beak.
Also, you can tell the difference between Pine Grosbeaks and Northern Cardinals by their tails. Northern Cardinals have much longer tails.
However, the easiest way to tell the difference between Pine Grosbeaks and Northern Cardinals is by geography.
Pine Grosbeaks mostly live in Russia and Scandinavia. Northern Cardinals are North American bird. Once in a while, a Pine Grosbeak will get blown off course into Canada.
The Pyrrhuloxia (pronounced peer-uh-LOX-ee-a) is often called the “desert cardinal.”
It’s found all over southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, South and West Texas, Baja California Sur, and the northeastern third of Mexico.
It frequents the woodlands that pop up along streams that run through the desert, although it will also wander onto residential lawns when it is not breeding.
Pyrrhuloxians feed on cactus fruits, nightshade fruits, and the insects that live on cacti, but they will also catch aphids, cicadas, cutworms, grasshoppers, stink bugs, and weevils.
You might mistake a Pyrrhuloxia for a Northern Cardinal because of its red breast and chest.
Males also have a red face. Both male and female pyrrhuloxia, however, have mainly brown or gray coloration.
The easiest way to distinguish a pyrrhuloxia from a cardinal is by its bill. Pyrrhuloxias have crooked bills.
The bill of the cardinal makes a straight line to its mouth, while the bill of the pyrrhuloxia is thick, rounded, and off-center.
Red-Crested Cardinals aren’t actually Cardinals. They are Thrushes.
They are commonly called Cardinals because they have a red head and crest like a Northern Cardinal, and a yellow beak like a Northern Cardinal.
Although the rest of their body is white and black like a White and Black Tanager.
Female Red-Crested Cardinals have the same color patterns as males, except their heads are brown, not red.
Red-Crested Cardinals are South American birds. You are likely to never see them in North America. Northern Cardinals don’t range south of the Yucatan peninsula unless they are blown off course by a storm.
Like the northern Cardinal, the Scarlet Tanager is a beautiful bird. It’s a close relative of the Northern Cardinal.
In fact, ornithologists have recently reclassified it as a species of Cardinal.
Male Scarlet Tanagers are stunningly red during the summer breeding season.
You won’t have any trouble spotting them against green foliage.
Their plumage is a darker red than you will see on a male Northern Cardinal, however, and its tail and back feathers are black.
The male Scarlet Tanager loses its red plumage after the breeding season, for a safer flight from its summer home in the northeastern United States to its winter home (that is, its home when it is winter in North America) in the Andes as far south as Bolivia.
Female Scarlet Tanagers have yellowish underparts and are olive-green on top. They do not change their color during the year.
Male Scarlet Tanagers have the same coloration as Female Scarlet Tanagers once breeding season is over.
The easiest way to tell the difference between a Scarlet Tanager and a Northern Cardinal in summer is to look at their wings.
The wings of the Scarlet Tanager are much darker.
If you know you are hosting Scarlet Tanagers, then you can protect them from Cowbirds, Blue Jays, Grackles, and Crows, which often steal their nests.
The Tufted Titmouse is a small gray bird with a voice that echoes.
You will see them at backyard bird feeders and in deciduous forests all over the eastern half of the United States.
They flit through canopies, hang onto the ends of twigs, and make a show out of cracking big seeds with their bills.
Tufted Titmice are mostly great and white. They have peach or rusty coloration down their sides.
When you see them up close, you will notice they are “snub-nosed.” They have a tiny black patch above their beaks.
The Tufted Titmouse is monomorphic. Both males and females look alike.
For that reason, you won’t mistake a Tufted Titmouse for a male cardinal, but you could mistake a Tufted Titmouse for a female cardinal from a distance.
That’s because the female Tufted Titmouse also has a crest on its head.
Vermillion Fly Catcher
There’s a good reason you might confuse a Vermillion Fly Catcher with a Northern Cardinal. Ornithologists classify them both as species of Cardinals.
But there is a good reason you might not confuse a Northern Cardinal for a Vermillion Fly Catcher.
The only places you will ever see Vermillion Fly Catchers are Mexico and South Texas in North America, or Venezuela, Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru in South America.
You can tell the difference between a Vermillion Fly Catcher and a Northern Cardinal by the “mask” the Fly Catcher has across its face.
Females are grayish-brown. Males do not have the intense red color that you find on Northern Cardinals.
There are 16 types of Vermillion Fly Catchers. The kind you may see in Mexico or South Texas has unusually dark black feathers on its back. The males have red underparts. The females are pink.
In addition to their distinctive color, Vermillion Fly Catchers have an unmistakable song.
The Cornell Ornithology Lab describes the male’s song as ching-tink-a-le-tink, with an emphasis on the last syllable.
That’s what you will hear if a Vermillion Fly Catcher is perched nearby. Their song gets longer after they build their nests, as the parents try to keep other birds away.
If you see a Vermillion Fly Catcher, take a picture! These birds are finding their way into Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida. Other bird watchers will want to know!
Frequently Asked Questions About Identifying Northern Cardinals
Q. What is the difference between a Cardinal and a Northern Cardinal?
A. All Northern Cardinals are Cardinals, but not all Cardinals are Northern Cardinals. The Northern Cardinal flies farther north than other Cardinals, sometimes to northern Canada, but does not venture in South America like some other closely related birds. The colors of Northern Cardinal are brighter and more striking that those of other Cardinals.
Q. Where do Cardinals get their name?
A. These red birds reminded settlers in North America of the red vestments worn by Catholic cardinals at home.
Q. Which areas are Northern Cardinals native to?
A. Northern Cardinals normally range from southeastern Canada across the Southeast of the United States, west to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, and south through Mexico to Belize and Guatemala. They have also been introduced to Bermuda and Hawaii.
Q. How many Northern Cardinals are there?
A. The Caring Cardinals website reports that there are an estimated 120 million Northern Cardinals worldwide. They are not endangered.
Q. Which birds are most often seen with Northern Cardinals?
A. You will often see Northern Cardinals foraging for seeds and insects with Goldfinches, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, White-Throated Sparrows, and Pyrrhuloxias.
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