What the Female Cardinal Looks Like (+ her Many Looks)

You spotted a bird in your yard and wonder Is that a female cardinal? What DOES a female cardinal look like anyway? 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 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, how she compares to the male cardinal as well as the juvenile cardinal. Gary Ritchison is my favorite expert on cardinals. He wrote a bookWild 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, has a dark red crown, wings, and tail. Her eyes are dark brown, her face mask and throat are charcoal, the beak is orange and her legs & feet are a dark flesh color.

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

In the wild bird world, species in which males and females differ in coloration is referred to as “dichromatic”. Cardinals are dichromatic.

The male and female cardinals are the same size (7.5 – 8.5” long) and weight (1.4 – 1.8 oz). Both genders have orange beaks, dark brown eyes, and dark flesh-colored legs and feet. That’s where their similarities end.

The biggest coloration difference between the male and the female cardinal is the body color. The female cardinal is primarily buff-brown and the male cardinal is primarily bright red. 

Additional color variations between the female and male cardinal are evident in the crown, face mask, throat, wings, and tail as shown in the illustrations below. 

what a female cardinal looks like
Unique color attributes of the female cardinal compared to the male cardinal.
male cardinal colors
Unique color attributes of the male cardinal compared to the female cardinal.

OK, enough about the male cardinal. This article is dedicated to the female 😉

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 Look when puffed up

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

Have you ever seen a female cardinal all puffed up? She looks 4x her regular size all rolly polly and fluffy. There’s a reason for this.

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

The female cardinal’s Look 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 Sounds

Female Cardinal Call

Female Cardinal Song

Enjoy this lovely video of the female cardinal singing & calling!


The Female Cardinal’s Look 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 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 to the orange color of an adult.

The Female Cardinal’s Look Vs. other Bird species

Although she has unique coloring, there are several different bird species that look a lot like the female cardinal. Let’s check them out.

female cardinal vs pyrrhuloxia

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!

Male pyrrhuloxia
Male pyrrhuloxia. Photo by Kitsie Johnson.

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). 

Additional differences are detailed in the table below. 

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
MaskRedCharcoal
WingsGray with red and black Tan with red and black

female cardinal vs cedar waxwing

Well, I don’t see the resemblance but I suppose if you’re squinting the female cardinal may resemble the cedar waxwing.

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

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

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!

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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.