What Does a Female Cardinal Look Like? (Hint: She’s not Red)

Author: Tammy Poppie
Updated:
Female cardinal with a backdrop of snow

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What Does a Female Cardinal Look Like? (Hint: She’s not Red)

Author: Tammy Poppie
Updated:
Female cardinal with a backdrop of snow

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

What does a female cardinal look like? You spotted a bird in your yard and wondered Is that a female cardinal.? Stick with me and you’ll learn about the female cardinal colors that are uniquely her own. No other bird looks like her and she looks completely different than her male counterpart – you know, that red guy ????.

I wondered why the female cardinal colors were so different than the male cardinal’s while other wild bird species’ genders are not. Sure, the males and females of other species are a bit different but not to the degree that cardinals are.

So I dug into the research to uncover the specific colors of the female cardinal, and how she compares to the male cardinal as well as the juvenile cardinal. Gary Ritchison is my favorite expert on cardinals. He wrote a book Wild Bird Guides: Northern Cardinal that I love to get lost in while discovering new things about my favorite species – the cardinal. I hope you enjoy learning what Gary has taught me.

What does the female cardinal look like?

The female cardinal is primarily buff-brown in color and has a dark red crown, wings, and tail. Her eyes are dark brown, her face mask and throat are charcoal, her beak is orange and her legs & feet are a dark flesh color.

Female cardinal view from back
Female cardinal. Photo by Bobby Glenn Lanier.

Why is the female cardinal brown and not red like the male?

Physiologically, female cardinals are browner and less red because they have fewer carotenoid pigments in their bodies than males. That’s just how the two genders were designed.

Carotenoids enable the bird’s body to deposit red (vs brown) into its feathers and are derived from the birds’ diet. With more carotenoids in his system, the male is able to display more vibrate red feathers. A lot more red feathers!

Evolutionary biology explains why female northern cardinals are brown and not bright red like their male counterparts. The brighter plumage of the male cardinal was chosen by evolution as the best way to attract mates.

This extra color intensity sends a signal that says “I’m healthy and attractive.” When rivals in competition can easily be picked out, there is definitely an advantage when it comes to mating success.

Female cardinals do not need such bold displays in order to outshine potential suitors; they simply blend in with their environment, using visual camouflage from predators so they can safely look after eggs or fledglings without being noticed by other birds or animals.

There’s even a term for this coloration difference between genders of the same species – sexual dimorphism.

The Female Cardinal vs Other Female Cardinals

female cardinal perched on a branch
Female cardinal. Photo by Cheryl Anne.

There are also subtle color variations between female cardinals. Some have more red feathers, especially on the breast, face, and sides. Scientists don’t know why this is the case but speculate it may be related to their diet. 

Female cardinals with more red feathers may consume more carotenoid-rich foods such as wild grapes, dogwood fruits, blackberries, and raspberries.

The female cardinal’s Appearance when puffed up

female cardinal fluffing feathers
Female cardinal fluffing feathers to stay warm. Image by Sherry Leikin from Pixabay

Have you ever wondered what a female cardinal looks like in winter?

The female cardinal’s coloration in winter remains buffy-brown with tinges of red – the same as any other time of the year.

However, when the temps drop and winds get blustery, she will puff up her feathers to stay warm. The overall look is pretty astonishing!

The birds fluff their feathers creating pockets of trapped body heat. It’s a matter of survival. The more they fluff, the warmer they are.

She looks 4x her regular size all rolly polly and fluffy but still stunning!

The female cardinal’s Appearance When Molting (Missing feathers)

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Female northern cardinal molting. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

The first time I saw a female cardinal molting I thought it was sick. I mean REALLY sick. Feathers were missing on her head and sometimes feathers were missing all over. I thought to myself “that ain’t right!”. ????

The fact is, the female cardinal was going through a natural phase called molting. In fact, all wild birds go through a molting phase each year at the end of the breeding season.

During molting the bird loses its old feathers and they’re replaced with new ones. When we see the female cardinal looking like she belongs in a horror flick, she’s just lost the old feathers but hasn’t yet grown back the new feathers.

Mother nature isn’t all bad though. She only allows the bird to lose sections of feathers at a time and grow them back before losing the next section of feathers. This allows her to be able to fly at any given point in the molting process.

The Female Cardinal’s Appearance vs Juvenile Cardinals

Female juvenile northern cardinal perched on a fence
Female juvenile northern cardinal. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Juvenile cardinals, both male and female, look a lot like the female cardinal until they’ve reached the end of their first year in which the baby cardinal hatched.

By December of each year, the juvenile cardinals will have lost their initial set of feathers and be replaced with adult feathers. Buff-brown for the female cardinals and red for the males.

During this time the juvenile cardinal’s beaks will also turn from a brownish black color to orange.

Would You Like More Cardinals to Visit Your Yard?

You can start by making sure your yard is inviting and friendly for cardinals. Download my FREE guide & checklist How to Create a Cardinal-Friendly Yard and you’ll have families of cardinals coming to visit year-round.

Birds that look like the female cardinal, But Are Not

Although she has her own unique look, there are at least three other bird species that look a lot like the female cardinal. They include:

  1. Pyrrhuloxia
  2. California Towhee
  3. Cedar Waxwing

Let’s check them out.

1. Female Cardinal vs Pyrrhuloxia

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

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.

2. Female Cardinal vs California Towhee

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.

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

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

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.

3. female cardinal vs cedar waxwing

Some people think the cedar waxwing resembles the female cardinal. In this case, there are more differences than there are similarities.

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Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Mike Carmo.
Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.

In fact, the only thing the two birds have in common is parts of their body are a brown color. Every other elements of the birds are very different.

The table below the photos details the differences between the female cardinal and cedar waxwing colors and overall appearance.

AttributeCedar WaxwingCardinal
BeakBlackOrange
BodyGray back, brown face & neckBuff tan with patches of red and charcoal
CrownShort and thinTall and full 
TailShort with yellow tipLong and red tan with red highlights
BellyYellowBuff-brown
WingsGray with red and black Tan with red and black
MaskBlack around eyes (like a bandit)Black around beak

FAQ

Can a female cardinal be red?

No. The female cardinal is not physiologically equipped to deposit enough red into her feathers to be an all-red bird like her male counterpart.

Is the red cardinal male or female?

The red cardinal with an all-red body is male.

Can a cardinal be both male and female?

Yes, a northern cardinal can be both male and female! These rare birds, known as bilateral gynandromorphs, can possess features from both sexes on the same side of their bodies. 

Due to a genetic mutation, one side may be brown with red patches like a female cardinal, while the opposite side can show all the features of a male in all his bright red glory. This bird is extremely rare but when it makes its presence known, people take notice! 

Conclusion

While the female cardinal may not get the same oohs and aahs as the male cardinal, she has her own unique coloration which is beautiful in its own way.

In my opinion, the female cardinal is more breathtaking because she has a range of colors that pop when you see her in your yard.

Happy 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

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