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Northern Cardinal Male vs. Female: How to Tell the Difference

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Male vs female northern cardinal

To the new bird watcher, the sheer number of species and variations can get pretty overwhelming. Even to the experienced watcher, some species of birds look very similar between males and females. So similar that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from a distance. 

However, If the northern cardinal is the bird you’re looking for, you’re in luck. There are some pretty significant differences in their appearance compared to one another. Once familiar with these differences, you won’t have much trouble picking a male or female out of a crowd of birds.

Visual Differences

Male northern cardinal vs female northern cardinal

Image Credit: (L) TheBirdBird, Pixabay | (R) Shoriful is, Shutterstock

Northern Cardinal Male vs. Female: At a Glance

Male Northern Cardinal
  • Plumage: Bright red
  • Size: 3 to 9.1 inches
  • Distinct Colors: Red and black
  • Singing: Aggressive and loud
Female Northern Cardinal
  • Plumage: Light brown
  • Size: 3 to 9.1 inches
  • Distinct Colors: Brown, gray, yellow
  • Singing: Tactful

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Overview of the Northern Cardinal

cardinal bird perching

Image Credit: Piqsels

The northern cardinal is found in a wide range of places—as far north as southeastern Canada, down through most of the eastern States, and descending as far south as Mexico and South America. In addition, this songbird has been introduced to some places like Bermuda or Hawaii.

At one point, these birds were highly sought-after pets. However, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was instrumental in banning them for sale as caged birds in the United States. Today, if you want to see a cardinal, you’ll have to enjoy them outdoors.

This mid-sized bird mostly feeds on seeds and nuts. However, a large part of its diet also includes insects and fruit during the summer. You’ll be able to find them in many different places like wooded areas, gardens, or wetlands.

Differences Between Northern Cardinals

cardinal birds perching

Image Credit: Bonnie Taylor Barry, Shutterstock

There are around 19 subspecies of cardinal. The northern cardinal—also referred to as redbird, common cardinal, or red cardinal—is named the “northern” variety because it lives the furthest north.

One interesting note is that the northern cardinal being referred to as a redbird or red cardinal isn’t entirely accurate. Their colors are the most significant difference between a male and female northern cardinal.

Appearance

The most striking difference between these two birds is their plumage and overall color. A male cardinal is typically bright red all over, with the exception of its brilliant black throat and face. They also often have some black or dark gray streaks on their wings.

On the other hand, the females have very little red, and the red they do have is rarely as bright or vivid as the male. A female’s primary plumage is light gray with an almost reddish olive hue. Their throat is yellow-brown, and their face is gray. The only red the females typically have on them is some pale red on their wings in flight and a little bit of red with gray on their crest.

male and female northern cardinals

Image Credit: Bonnie Taylor Barry, Shutterstock

Size

Average sizes for northern cardinals are around 8.3 to 9.1 inches long with a wingspan of 9.8 to 12.2 inches. Like many species of animal, male cardinals are typically on the higher end of that size span and females on the smaller.

Behavior

Another tell-tale sign between male and female cardinals is their sounds. In some cases, you’ll be able to tell the sex of the bird before you even see it. As a general rule, male cardinals have a much more aggressive singing, and they are territorial. They perch high in the treetops to warn other male cardinals to stay away. In fact, the male cardinal is so territorial that it will fight its own reflection if it sees itself in water or a mirror.

Regarding nesting behavior, male and female cardinals have different roles. The male is responsible for finding material for the nest and bringing back food—which they often feed beak-to-beak with the female. While the male is out gathering, the female will build the nest and hatch the eggs. Then both parents partake in feeding the babies.

northern cardinal landed on a wood

Image Credit: JackBulmer, Pixabay

Closing Thoughts

Some say if you listen very closely, the songs sound different between males and females. However, the most realistic way you can tell the difference between the two is by their noticeable color and size differences.

Even though you can’t keep these cardinals as pets anymore, there’s no reason that you can’t enjoy them in the wild or encourage them to visit your yard by putting out their favorite seeds in a suitable feeder.


Featured Image Credit: (Left) FotoRequest, Shutterstock (Right) Bonnie Taylor Barry, Shutterstock

About the Author Shea Cummings

Shea Cummings is a passionate content writer who believes that the power of words is immeasurable. He leverages years of experience in various trades such as carpentry, photography, and electrical to bring his articles to life. His goal is to provide his readers with information that delights and informs. When he's not writing you can find him spending time in the outdoors or playing some Minecraft on the Xbox with his wife and two sons.

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