9 Birds That Look Like Cardinals But Are Not (With Side-by-Side Photos)

Inside: Photos and descriptions of birds that look like cardinals but are not. This includes birds in the US or Canada that look like male cardinals as well as female cardinals.

People frequently mistake the male northern cardinal, in all his brilliant red glory, with other red birds. This is understandable, especially for new birders. That’s okay. The more birds you are able to see and identify the better you’ll become at knowing the true cardinals vs. the look-a-likes.

In this article I’ll present 9 different birds that look like cardinals because they are either (a) red birds like the male cardinal, (b) buff/tan like the female cardinal, or (c) have similar visual attributes as the cardinal.

This article includes side-by-side photos of the cardinal and its look-alike counterpart along with details highlighting the differences between the two and range maps to further help with identification.

As it relates to red birds, the primary difference between a red bird and the male cardinal is the crown. The male cardinal is the only red bird with raised crown feathers that stands full and tall.

Another difference between a red bird and the male cardinal is their size. Most of the other red birds that look like male cardinals are smaller by several inches – which is significant when you’re talking about birds! The only exception is the pine grosbeak which is about the same size as the male cardinal.

Here are the nine birds that look like cardinals but are not – followed by photos and explanations for their differences and similarities.

The 9 Birds that look like cardinals but are NOT, include:

  1. Summer Tanagers
  2. Hepatic Tanagers
  3. Scarlet Tanagers
  4. Pine Grosbeaks
  5. House Finches
  6. Purple Finches
  7. California Towhees
  8. Phainopeplas
  9. Pyrrhuloxias

By the way, when I refer to “cardinal” I’m speaking of the northern cardinal. Cardinal is just easier to say and write. Plus, many people don’t even know its name was changed to northern cardinal back in the 80s.

Nine Birds That Look Like Cardinals

1. Summer Tanager vs. Cardinal

Summer tanager
Male summer tanager. Photo by Renee Kramer.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The male summer tanager looks a lot like the male northern cardinal for obvious reasons – they’re both red. They’re also in the same family – Cardinalidae – so it stands to reason they look similar. However, there are notable differences.

  • The summer tanager does not have a crown while the male cardinal has tall, red crown feathers.
  • The summer tanager is small while the male cardinal is medium-sized.
  • The summer tanager has an all-red face while the male cardinal has a black mask.
  • The summer tanager has a long, tan beak while the male cardinal has a shorter, orange beak.
  • The summer tanager has a medium-sized tail while the male cardinal has a long tail.
AttributeSummer TanagerCardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceRedBlack
BeakLong & TanShort & Orange
CrownNoneTall
TailMediumLong

Summer Tanager & Cardinal Range Maps

The summer tanager and northern cardinal range overlap but only when the summer tanager is migrating or breeding. Depending on where you live in their range, you may have both inhabit your area – at least during a period of time.

Summer tanager range map
Summer tanager range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

2. Hepatic Tanager vs. Cardinal

Male hepatic tanager
Male hepatic tanager.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The male hepatic tanager also has red on parts of its body but not as much as the male northern cardinal. Also, the red is more of an orange/red shade along with areas of tan and brown. The two birds share the same family – Cardinalidae. Additional differences include:

  • The hepatic tanager is small while the male cardinal is medium-sized.
  • The hepatic tanager does not have a crown while the male cardinal has tall, red crown feathers.
  • The hepatic tanager has a tan and red face while the male cardinal has a black mask.
  • The hepatic tanager has a pointy gray beak while the male cardinal has a shorter, orange beak.
  • The hepatic tanager has tan wings while the male cardinal has red wings.
  • The hepatic tanager has a short tail while the male cardinal has a long tail.
AttributeHepatic Tanager (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceTan & RedBlack
BeakGray pointyOrange short
CrownNoneTall
TailShortLong
WingsTanRed

Hepatic Tanager & Cardinal Range Maps

The hepatic tanager and northern cardinal range barely overlap so unless you live in Arizona or New Mexico, you’re unlikely to have both inhabit your area.

Hepatic tanager range map.
Hepatic tanager range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

3. Scarlet Tanager vs. Cardinal

Scarlet tanager
Male scarlet tanager. Photo by Cheryl Anne.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The male scarlet tanager is probably the closest resemblance to the male northern cardinal in terms of brightness of red and amount of red. The scarlet tanager is another bird that shares the Cardinalidae family with the northern cardinal. Additional differences include:

  • The scarlet tanager does not have a crown while the male cardinal has tall red crown feathers.
  • The scarlet tanager is small while the male cardinal is medium-sized.
  • The scarlet tanager has a red face while the male cardinal has a black mask on his face.
  • The scarlet tanager has a tan pointy beak while the male cardinal’s beak is short and orange.
  • The scarlet tanager has a short wide tail while the male cardinal has a long narrow tail.
  • The scarlet tanager has black wings while the male cardinal has red wings.
AttributeScarlet Tanager (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceRedBlack
BeakTanOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShortLong
WingsBlackRed

Scarlet Tanager & Cardinal Range Maps

The scarlet tanager and northern cardinal range overlap but only when the scarlet tanager is migrating or breeding. Depending on where you live in their range, you may have both inhabit your area – at least during a period of time.

Scarlet tanager range map.
Scarlet tanager range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

4. Pine Grosbeak vs Cardinal

Male pine grosbeak
Male pine grosbeak. Photo by Janet Jarzynski.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The male pine grosbeak has similarities to the male cardinal such as similar body sizes but there are also numerous visible differences including:

  • The pine grosbeak does not have a crown while the male cardinal has tall read crown features.
  • The pine grosbeak has a red face while the male cardinal has a black face.
  • The pine grosbeak has a charcoal beak while the male cardinal has an orange beak.
  • The pine grosbeak has a medium-sized tail with black tip while the male cardinal has a long tail that is all red.
  • The pine grosbeak has black, white and red wings while the male cardinal has all red wings.
AttributePine Grosbeak (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceRedBlack
BeakCharcoalOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailMedium with black tipLong all red
WingsBlack & White, some RedRed

Pine Grosbeak & Cardinal Range Maps

The pine grosbeak and northern cardinal range have very little overlap (northern and eastern US) so unless you live in those regions, you’re unlikely to have both inhabit your area.

Pine Grosbeak range map.
Pine Grosbeak range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

5. House Finch vs. Cardinal

Male house finch
Male house finch. Photo by Kathleen Balsamo.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The male house finch does have areas of red like the male cardinal but is primarily tan/brown in color. More noticeable differences include:

  • The house finch is small while the male cardinal is a medium-sized bird.
  • The house finch has no crown while the male cardinal has tall red crown feathers.
  • The house finch has a tan face with stripes of red while the male cardinal has a black face.
  • The house finch has a tan beak while the male cardinal has an orange beak.
  • The house finch has a short, tan fail while the male cardinal’s tail is long and red.
  • The house finch has tan wings while the male cardinal’s tail is red.
AttributeHouse Finch (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceTan with stripes of redBlack
BeakTanOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShort and tanLong and red
WingsTanRed

House Finch & Cardinal Range Maps

The house finch and cardinal ranges have some overlap so if you live in the midwest to the eastern US, there’s a good chance both species could inhabit your area.

House finch range map.
House finch range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

6. Purple Finch vs. Cardinal

Male purple house finch
Male purple house finch. Photo by Chris Harris.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The male purple finch actually resembles the house finch (above) more than the male cardinal. Many people think it resembles the cardinal so I included it on the list.

  • The purple finch is primarily white/tan with stripes of red and pink. Additional visible differences from the male cardinal include:
  • The purple house finch is small while the male cardinal is a medium-sized bird.
  • The purple house finch has a white and tan face with stripes of red and pink while the male cardinal has a black face.
  • The purple house finch has a brown beak while the male cardinal’s beak is orange.
  • The purple house finch has a short tail while the male cardinal has a long tail.
  • The purple house finch has red, pink, and charcoal wings while the male cardinal’s wings are red.
AttributePurple Finch (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceWhite and tan with stripes of red and pinkBlack
BeakBrownOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShort Long
WingsRed, pink, charcoalRed

Purple Finch & Cardinal Range Maps

The purple finch and cardinal ranges have some overlap so there’s a good chance both species could inhabit your area. If you live in the northeast your chances are greater since both birds live year-round in that region.

Purple finch range map.
Purple finch range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

7. California Towhee vs. Cardinal

California towhee bird
California towhee.
Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.

The California towhee shows a mild resemblance to the female northern cardinal – primarily in the body shape. The California towhee, male or female, is mostly gray/brown and the female cardinal is a soft, buff-brown with shades of red and charcoal here and there.

Additional visible differences between the California towhee and the female cardinal include:

  • The California towee has a grayish/brown face while the female cardinal’s face is buff/tan with a charcoal mask.
  • The California towee has a light gray beak while the female cardinal’s beak is orange.
  • The California towee does not have a crown while the female cardinal has tall tan and red crown feathers.
  • The California towee has a long brown & orange tail while the female cardinal’s tail is red.
  • The California towee has grayish/brown wings while the female cardinal’s wings are red.
AttributeCalifornia TowheeCardinal (Female)
SizeMediumMedium
FaceGray/brownBuff/tan with charcoal mask
BeakLight grayOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailLong brown/orangeLong red
WingsGray/brownRed

California Towhee & Cardinal Range Maps

The California towhee and cardinal ranges overlap in a very slim area – Baja California, in Mexico. If you live in this region you could see both species.

California towhee range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

9. Phainopepla vs. Cardinal

Male phainopepla
Male phainopepla. Photo by Keith Spangle.
male cardinal on platform feeder
Male cardinal.

The phainopepla is commonly referred to as the “black cardinal” as it somewhat resembles the cardinal. There’s no question there are similarities in the shape, size, and face color, but the overall color could not be more different.

The phainopepla is varying shades of black while the male cardinal is red and the female mostly buff-brown.

The body of the phainopepla is also a bit more slender than the cardinal. Additional visible differences include:

  • The phainopepla has a charcoal beak while the male cardinal’s beak is orange.
  • The phainopepla has a small black crown while the male cardinal has tall red crown feathers.
  • The phainopepla has a black tail while the male cardinal’s tail is red.
  • The phainopepla has black wings while them ale cardinal’s wings are red.
AttributePhainopeplaCardinal
BeakCharcoalOrange
CrownSmall and blackTall and red
TailLong and black Long and red
WingsBlackRed

Phainopepla & Cardinal Range Maps

The phainopepla and cardinal ranges overlap a bit in the southwestern part of the US and into Mexico. If you live in this area you may see both species – but only during the phainopepla’s breeding season which is typically spring/summer.

Phainopepla range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

9. Pyrrhuloxia vs Cardinal (Female)

Male pyrrhuloxia
Male pyrrhuloxia. Photo by Kitsie Johnson.
Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.

The pyrrhuloxia (also known as the desert cardinal) has a very close look to the female cardinal – they have the same body shape & size, and both have crowns. I guess you would expect this since they’re both in the Cardinalidae family!

Some noticeable differences between the pyrrhuloxia and the female cardinal are the cardinal’s crown is noticeably fuller, taller, and a different color. (The photo above is of the male but the female Pyrrhuloxia is very similar).

  • The pyrrhuloxia is primarily gray with patches of red and black whereas the female cardinal is buff tan with areas of red and charcoal.
  • The pyrrhuloxia’s face has a red mask while the female cardinal’s mask is charcoal.
  • The body of the pyrrhuloxia is more slender than the female cardinal.
  • The pyrrhuloxia has a yellow beak while the female cardinal’s beak is orange.
  • The pyrrhuloxia’s tail is gray with red while the female cardinal’s is tan with red. Both are relatively long tails.
  • The pyrrhuloxia has gray wings with red and black while the female cardinal’s wings are tan with red and black.
AttributePyrrhuloxiaCardinal
BeakYellowOrange
BodyLight gray patches of red and blackBuff tan with patches of red and charcoal
CrownShort and thinTall and full
TailGray with red Tan with red tan
WingsGray with red and black Tan with red and black

Pyrrhuloxia & Cardinal Range Maps

The pyrrhuloxia and northern cardinal ranges have some overlaps in the southwest region. Within this area residents could see both species.

Pyrrhuloxia bird range map
Pyrrhuloxia range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.
Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

Bookmark this article so you can quickly pull it open the next time you see a red bird. Pay attention to the differences between the red birds and the male northern cardinal and you should be able to easily confirm if it’s a male cardinal or not.

As far as the female cardinal, there aren’t too many lovely ladies like her out there (she’s my all-time favorite bird by the way). Still, if a California towhee is in your area and you spot one, notice how it could resemble the female cardinal. The key is to notice the unique attributes – crown height and color, face color, tail size and color, and wing color.

If you want to attract more northern cardinals to your yard so you can practice your identification skills, check out my article How to Attract Northern Cardinals.

Happy Backyard Birding!

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers. Read more about Tammy