Robins and cardinals are beloved, colorful songbirds. They are both very territorial birds, which means that if you see one, you usually won’t see the other.
As a result, robins and cardinals are easy to confuse.
But if you look and listen carefully, you can distinguish them. In this article we will tell everything you need to know to recognize robins and cardinals.
Robin vs Cardinal, The Basics
You have probably heard of the food chain Red Robin. Or you have heard these birds called “robin red breast.”
Robins are known for their cheery songs. In American folklore. A visit from a robin is a sign that a departed loved one is spiritually near you.
Cardinals get their name from the brilliant red plumage of the males.
The shade of red in cardinal feathers is the same shade of red worn by Roman Catholic cardinals. Folktales about cardinals also associate them with the presence of the dead.
Both robins and cardinals are most active in the early morning. They both migrate in large numbers. Your yard can be filled with either robins or cardinals in early spring.
The most obvious difference between robins and cardinals is how they sound, not how they look. Robins make cheerful chirps.
Cardinals are better known for the squawking sounds the males make when another bird, like a robin, has invaded their territory.
In the rest of this article, we will explain the differences between robins and cardinals in depth. For right now, here’s a checklist.
Robins don’t really have a “red breast”. Robins have orange feathers on their chests, black heads, and gray feathers on their back.
Cardinals have red feathers and a black mask on their faces.
American robins are large. They have a round body and long legs. They have a long tail, 9 to 11 inches (22.5 to 27.5 cm).
Northern cardinals are smaller. They are mid-sized, a little over 8 to a little over 9 inches (20 to 23 cm).
Robins chirp, but melodiously.
Cardinals make long, slow, melodious songs.
Both robins and cardinals have rounded wings.
Robins have fan-shaped tails.
Cardinals have rounded tails.
Robins fly in large flocks.
Cardinals move around in small family groups but break off into pairs in mating season.
Robins are industrious about searching for food.
They will roost on the berry bushes that feed them. They flock together in the winter.
Cardinals are more sedate.
They will rest under cover plants, but you will see them gathered around your bird feeder.
Where You Will Find Them
Robins are everywhere. You will find them in yards, and also in parks, pastures, fields, pine woods, deciduous woodlands, brush, golf courses, and in forests coming back after storms and fires.
Cardinals are more selective about where they live. You will find cardinals in yards, parks, woodlots, and shrubby forests.
It is not really hard to find significant differences in coloration between robins and cardinals if you take a close look.
Robins have brightly colored feathers on their underparts and chest, but cardinals are brighter. In both species, females have duller colors than males.
This enables them to protect their nests while males lure predators away. Brightly colored feathers on the males of both species enable them to attract females.
From the back, robins have grayish-brown feathers. Their orange feathers are on the chest and below.
When you look up and see a robin in flight, you can see white patches on their bellies and tails.
Females have pale heads that contrast less with the feathers on their backs, so they are less noticeable.
Songs and Sounds
It takes some practice to hear the differences in the songs and chirps of robins and cardinals.
The distinctions are slight, but the time you heard the bird sounds will tell you which bird it is.
You are most likely to hear male robins.
You will hear them when they are trying to defend their mate from other males, or when they are trying to attract a mate.
Cardinals sing with less urgency. Their songs are slow and melodious, unlike the robins that seem very determined to stake their claims to a mate or to territory.
Robins are “chirpier” Cardinals sound like they are singing for singing’s sake. They have similar tones, but different tunes.
Differences in Size and Shape
Robins are bigger than cardinals. They are bigger than all other North American songbirds.
Their chests are permanently thrust out, giving them a rounded silhouette balanced by their long legs. They also have long tails.
There are no other thrushes in North America that are larger than robins, so you can use them as a reference point for identifying other birds.
Length ranges for 8 to 11 inches (20 to 28 cm). Their wingspan is 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm). They weigh around 3 ounces (85 grams).
Cardinals are noticeably smaller than robins, although they are still larger than most other songbirds. They sit in a hunched-over posture.
For cardinals, length is mostly a little more than 8 inches to a little more than 9 inches (20 to 23 cm). They weigh only half as much as robins, just 1.5 to 1.7 ounces (42 to 48 grams).
When you see a large, red bird busy pecking for worms and grubs in your lawn, it’s more likely to be an American robin than a Northern cardinal. Robins are industrious.
They move methodically and quickly.
They will frequently take a fraction of a second just to take up straight with their heads held high to can for predators, like your cat, and for other feeding opportunities.
Robins roost when their tails relaxed. They will flick their tails in a downward motion from time to time.
Robins like to gather in large flocks in the winter, and they congregate 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters) above ground level in trees near berry bushes.
Cardinals will roost much lower in thorny shrubs and trees with multiple trunks. They go out to forage for food on the ground in pairs.
They are regular visitors to bird feeders, but they always make sure there is no immediate danger before they get too close.
Cardinals chirp a loud metallic note to signal to other cardinals that they are satisfied that their location is safe.
Both cardinals and robins often live in groups. Both kinds of birds do a lot of chirping when they first arrive in your yard.
Both robins and cardinals are cautious birds, robins more actively surveilling their surroundings, and cardinals waiting until the coast is clear.
Robins range across most of North America. In the summer, you will find robins on the tundra. They may spend the winter in a southern swamp.
Robins live in yards, on farms, in pastures, in broken woodland, in denser forests, or on golf courses.
You may find scores of robins feeding on grubs and beetles growing in dead and decaying trees after a forest fire.
Cardinals also fly and nest over a wide range, but not in as many places as robins. They are pickier about their food sources.
They prefer low-risk feeding grounds. Robins, on the other hand, are bigger birds and boldly go anywhere they can find at least berry bushes.
Both robins and cardinals like to live near humans who feed them.
Sometimes robins and cardinals even share the same backyard nests, because of the abundance of the conditions both find favorable.
Three Quick Tips for Identifying Robins and Cardinals
If you are new to birdwatching, it’s easier to tell the difference between robins and cardinals by sound than by sight.
Here are three quick tips:
- Robins make sounds with lots of chirps. Cardinals are more melodious.
- Robins are very vocal. Their songs go on and on. Cardinals sing their song and take a break.
- Robins use songs to mark territory and to attract mates. Cardinals only sing love songs.
Can’t hear the difference? Red and yellow pairs of birds are cardinals.
Male cardinals have the iconic red feathers, but their mates have yellowish feathers.
White spots on the belly and under the tail feathers are also identifiers of cardinals.
Frequently Asked Questions About Robins and Cardinals
Q. Why would a robin hover around a cardinal’s nest?
A. When food supplies are short, robins will eat the eggs and hatchlings of other birds.
Sometimes a robin will circle a cardinal’s nest waiting for an opportunity to steal an egg or a baby bird.
Also, robins sometimes scavenge materials for building their own nests from the nests of other birds.
Q. Can you tell robins and cardinal babies apart?
A. Baby robins have yellow skin. When they are first hatched, they don’t have a lot of feathers, so you can see their stomach, liver, and gallbladder through their skin in bright sunlight.
Baby cardinals are born blind and featherless, but they will grow fast enough to leave the nest at the age of 7 to 13 days.
At this point, they are convincing displays of the dinosaur ancestry of birds. They look “prehistoric.” They don’t look like birds.
You will see them outside the nest while their mother is building a second family nest. During this time, the father cardinal feeds them.
Q. What’s the best time to see robins and cardinals?
A. New parents are very busy after their eggs hatch. Both cardinals and robins may make as many as 100 trips a day to bring their babies food.
Robins regurgitate food into their babies’ mouths for the first five days. Then they start breaking earthworms into pieces to feed their young.
A baby robin may eat 14 feet (nearly 5 meters) of earthworms in the first 14 days of its life.
In just two weeks, a baby robin reaches adult size and the parents can go on to taking care of another clutch of eggs.
Cardinals continue to feed their young even after they reach young adulthood. This is the job of the more colorful male cardinal.
Male cardinals may be busy feeding two or more sets of offspring, so they make many appearances in your yard during mating and breeding season in the early summer.
Q. Can you tell the nests of robins and cardinals apart?
A. Both robins and cardinals will build a new nest every time they produce a clutch of eggs, which is normally two or three times a year. Both birds raise their young in spring and early summer.
Robin nests are insulated with mud smeared over soft grass and other soft materials.
They will usually build their first nest of the season in an evergreen, for better cover, and build the second and third nests in deciduous trees after their leaves come out.
Robins usually build their nests 5 to 15 feet (1.5 to 4.5 meters) above the ground in a dense shrub on in a fork between two branches.
The female robin does all the work of building the nest. Robins aren’t afraid of humans and will build their nest under eaves and awnings of houses and apartments.
American robins won’t use a birdhouse, but they will build nests on platforms you provide for them.
Robins lay three to five light blue eggs.
Cardinals male and female share the tasks of building the nest. The female cardinal crushes twigs with her beak, and bends them to build the framework for her nest.
Once the twigs are woven in a cup about 2 to 3 inches (50 to 75 mm) across, cardinals will line the nest with grass, rootlets, and pine needles.
Cardinals lay 3 or 4 white eggs that have a tint of blue, green, or brown. They may have brown, gray, or lavender blotches on the larger end.
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