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

Author: Tammy Poppie
Updated:
Reviewed by:
3 birds that look like cardinals

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

Author: Tammy Poppie
Updated:
Reviewed by:
3 birds that look like cardinals

This post contains affiliate links, and we will be compensated if you buy after clicking on our links.

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 7 different birds that look like male cardinals because they are either red birds like the male cardinal or have visual attributes similar to the cardinal. Soon you’ll see side-by-side photos of the imposter bird and the male northern cardinal and the differences will become crystal clear.

The 7 Birds that look like cardinals are:

  1. Summer Tanagers
  2. Hepatic Tanagers
  3. Scarlet Tanagers
  4. Pine Grosbeaks
  5. House Finches
  6. Purple Finches
  7. Phainopeplas

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.

7 Birds That Look Like Cardinals

1. Male Cardinal vs Summer Tanager

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

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. Male Cardinal vs Hepatic Tanager

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

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. Male Cardinal vs Scarlet Tanager

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

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. Male Cardinal vs Pine Grosbeak

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

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. Male Cardinal vs House Finch

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

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. Male Cardinal vs Purple Finch

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

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. Cardinal vs Phainopepla

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 the male cardinal’s wings are red.
AttributePhainopeplaCardinal
BeakCharcoalOrange
CrownSmall and blackTall and red
TailLong and black Long and red
WingsBlackRed

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.

Conclusion

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 bird (or black in the case of the phainopepla) and the male northern cardinal and you should be able to easily confirm if it’s a male cardinal or not.

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