9 Birds That Look Like Cardinals (With Side-by-Side Photos)

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.

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 a crown 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 but several inches. 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, followed by photos and explanations for their differences and similarities.

The 9 Birds that look like cardinals:

  1. Summer Tanager
  2. Hepatic Tanager
  3. Scarlet Tanager
  4. Pine Grosbeak
  5. House Finch
  6. Purple Finch
  7. California Towhee
  8. Phainopepla
  9. Pyrrhuloxia

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 northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

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 listed in the table below.

AttributeSummer TanagerCardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceRedBlack
BeakTanOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailMediumLong

2. Hepatic Tanager vs. Cardinal

Male hepatic tanager
Male hepatic tanager.
Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

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 are noted in the table below.

AttributeHepatic Tanager (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceTan & RedBlack
BeakGrayOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShortLong
WingsTanRed

3. Scarlet Tanager vs. Cardinal

Scarlet tanager
Male scarlet tanager. Photo by Cheryl Anne.
Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

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 are noted in the table below.

AttributeScarlet Tanager (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceRedBlack
BeakTanOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShortLong
WingsBlackRed

4. Pine Grosbeak vs Cardinal

Male pine grosbeak
Male pine grosbeak. Photo by Janet Jarzynski.
Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

The male pine grosbeak has similarities to the male cardinal as well but of course, there are some visible differences. The table below the photos highlights those differences.

AttributePine Grosbeak (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceRedBlack
BeakCharcoalOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailMedium with black tipLong all red
WingsBlack & White, some RedRed

5. House Finch vs. Cardinal

Male house finch
Male house finch. Photo by Kathleen Balsamo.
Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

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

AttributeHouse Finch (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceTan with stripes of redBlack
BeakTanOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShort and tanLong and red
WingsTanRed

6. Purple Finch vs. Cardinal

Male purple house finch
Male purple house finch. Photo by Chris Harris.
Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

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 are highlighted in the table below.

AttributePurple Finch (Male)Cardinal (Male)
SizeSmallMedium
FaceWhite and tan with stripes of red and pinkBlack
BeakBrownOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailShortLong
WingsRed, pink, charcoalRed

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 two are highlighted in the table below the pictures.

AttributeCalifornia TowheeCardinal (Female)
SizeMediumMedium
FaceGray/brownBlack
BeakLight grayOrange
CrownNoneTall
TailLong brown/orangeLong red
WingsGray/brownRed

9. Phainopepla vs. Cardinal

Male phainopepla
Male phainopepla. Photo by Keith Spangle.
Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

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 are highlighted in the table below.

AttributePhainopeplaCardinal
BeakCharcoalOrange
CrownSmall and blackTall and red
TailLong and blackLong and red
WingsBlackRed

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 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 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 faces are different as well – Pyrrhuloxia has red mask and the cardinal charcoal.

The body of the pyrrhuloxia is also a bit more slender than the cardinal. Additional visible differences are highlighted in the table below the pictures.

AttributePyrrhuloxiaCardinal
BeakYellowOrange
BodyLight gray patches of red and blackBuff tan with patches of red and charcoal
CrownShort and thinTall and full
TailLong and black mostly redLong and red tan with red highlights
WingsGray with red and blackTan with red and black

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 to 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 are’t too many lovely ladies like her out there (my favoriate bird by the way). Still, if a California towhee is in your area and you spot on, 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!

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Tammy Poppie

More than 20 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her back yard (and repel others). In her free time, she can be found in nature kayaking, hiking, and biking always hoping to see a bird in the wild.