Male vs Female Cardinal: All Their Key Differences

Cardinals are among the most recognizable and captivating birds found in North America. As you explore the world of these amazing creatures, you’ll notice that there are clear differences between male and female cardinals. Learning to identify and appreciate these distinctions can deepen your understanding and appreciation for these beautiful birds.

Male and female cardinals can be distinguished by their strikingly different coloration. The males boast vibrant red plumage, whereas the females display pale brown feathers with warm reddish tinges in their crest, wings, and tail. Beyond their appearance, these birds also exhibit behavioral differences that can be observed in their habitat and daily interactions.

Key Takeaways:

  • Male and female cardinals have distinct coloration, with males being red and females being pale brown with reddish accents.
  • Cardinals exhibit unique behaviors, such as singing, based on their gender roles.
  • These birds’ habitats, threats, and interactions with humans provide further insight into their lives and characteristics.

Physical Characteristics of Cardinals

General Appearance

The male and female Northern Cardinals have noticeable differences in their appearance. Males have a vibrant red plumage covering their body, while females are mostly pale brown, with warm reddish tinges in their crest, wings, and tail. Both genders display reddish bills and a black face mask surrounding the bill area.

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Size and Weight

Female cardinals are generally slightly smaller in size compared to their male counterparts. They can weigh between 1.5 to 1.7 ounces, with a length ranging from 8.3 to 9.1 inches and a wingspan varying from 9.8 to 12.2 inches. While both male and female cardinals share these size ranges, females tend to lean more towards the lower end of these measurements.

Unique Traits

These birds exhibit traits that make them stand out among other species. Besides their distinct red or pale brown colors, both male and female cardinals have a prominent crest, which adds to their unique appearance. Additionally, their red-orange bills draw further attention to their already striking features.

The black mask found on the face of both genders adds contrast to their overall appearance. In males, it accentuates the bright red plumage, while in females, it complements their brownish tones. Another distinguishing factor in cardinals is their sexually dimorphic characteristics, creating a significant contrast between the striking red of the males and the more subtle, earthy tones of the females.

Male vs Female Cardinal

Color Differences

Male and female cardinals have quite distinct coloration. While male cardinals display a vibrant red plumage, female cardinals mainly exhibit pale brown feathers with warm reddish tinges in the crest, wings, and tail. This striking difference helps you easily differentiate between the two sexes.

Male vs Female Cardinal Size

There is a small difference in size between male and female cardinals. Males can reach up to 9.25 inches in height and weigh up to 1.7 ounces. On the other hand, females usually measure around 8.5 inches and weigh approximately 1.5 ounces.

Other Physical Differences

Aside from the color and size, both male and female cardinals share some similar physical features. They both possess reddish bills and a black face surrounding the bills. There are three types of cardinals, each with distinctive male and female appearances. These common traits make it relatively simple to identify a cardinal, regardless of its gender.

Behavior Differences

In terms of behavior, male cardinals are known to be more aggressive when defending their breeding and nesting territories. They will often attack any intruders with fury and force. On the other hand, female cardinals are more tactical and careful with their actions, especially while nesting.

Vocal Differences

The way male and female cardinals sing exhibits differences as well. Male cardinals tend to sing loudly and aggressively to guard their territories. Females, however, sing with more subtlety. They use their song to communicate with the males, often informing them if more food is needed. This characteristic helps establish a harmonious relationship between the pair.

Now that you’re familiar with the key differences between male and female cardinals, you’ll have an easier time identifying and appreciating these beautiful birds in their natural environment.

Cardinal Behavior

Feeding Behaviors

When it comes to feeding, cardinals have a diverse diet that consists of seeds, fruits, insects, and nuts. As a cardinal enthusiast, you should be aware that they are not picky eaters and will forage on the ground, in bushes, or on trees in search of food. When feeding on seeds, cardinals tend to hold them with their feet and crack them open with their powerful beaks.

Breeding and Nesting Patterns

Cardinals are monogamous birds and are famous for mating for life. During the breeding season, it is common to see male cardinals perform courtship rituals, such as singing complex songs and offering food to their potential mates.

Once a pair is formed, the female takes charge of nest construction. She builds the nest using materials like twigs, grass, and leaves. She then lines it with softer materials like moss, hair, or plant fibers for added comfort. Cardinals typically build their nests in dense shrubs or low tree branches, around 3 to 10 feet above the ground.

In a single breeding season, cardinals raise 2-3 broods, with each brood consisting of 2-5 eggs. The female is responsible for incubating the eggs while the male brings her food. It takes about 12-13 days for the eggs to hatch, and both parents cooperate in feeding and taking care of their hatchlings.

Territorial Actions

Both male and female cardinals defend their territory, but they exhibit different behaviors in doing so. Male cardinals are known for being aggressive when protecting their breeding and nesting sites. They may flare their crest and attack intruders with great fury.

On the other hand, female cardinals employ a more strategic approach. Female cardinals sing to communicate with their mates, indicating the need for more food and to alert them of threats. These beautiful birds also use duets, synchronized songs, and call and response patterns to strengthen their bond and coordinate their defense.

By learning about cardinal behavior, you can better understand and appreciate these remarkable birds and the important role they play in their ecosystem.

Cardinal Habitat

Cardinals are mostly found across North America, ranging from southern Canada to the eastern and central United States, extending as far south as Mexico and parts of Central America, including Venezuela. Their preferred habitats include woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and wetlands.

In these environments, you’ll notice that cardinals are quite adaptable and thrive in areas with dense vegetation, perfect for nesting and finding food. They are especially fond of the edge habitats, where different types of vegetation meet. This offers them a variety of food sources, including seeds, fruits, insects, and small invertebrates.

You might also spot cardinals in your own backyard if you reside within their range. They tend to be regular visitors to bird feeders, particularly if you provide them with sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and peanuts. Cardinals are not migratory birds, so they’ll be present throughout the year in suitable habitats.

While you’re observing cardinals, make note of their preferences for nesting sites. They typically construct nests in dense shrubs, small trees, or even thickets, usually within 3 to 10 feet above the ground. By providing a welcoming habitat with suitable nesting spots, you can encourage these beautiful birds to settle in your area.

Threats and Predation

When it comes to threats and predation, Northern Cardinals have their fair share of predators. A primary predator of cardinals is the domestic cat. Both male and female cardinals respond to the presence of these predators by giving a short alarm call. They may also fly towards the predator in an attempt to frighten them away. However, they do not typically engage in aggressive mob attacks against their predators.

During the mating season, male cardinals might display aggressive behavior towards not only predators but also other male birds that they perceive as a threat. They may charge at their rivals without hesitation, sometimes even flying into glass windows, mistaking their reflection for another male.

It is important to note that despite this aggressive behavior during the mating period, cardinals are generally not considered an aggressive bird species throughout the year. They may become territorial during the breeding season, and they will defend their territory against other cardinals who approach too closely. However, this aggressive behavior does not usually extend to humans unless they approach the cardinals’ nesting area or territory during those critical periods.

To sum up, predators of Northern Cardinals include common domestic cats and, in some cases, other cardinals when defending their territory during the breeding season. As a whole, these birds are not considered to be an aggressive species, and their aggressive actions are mainly limited to specific periods, such as the mating and breeding seasons.

Juvenile Cardinals

When it comes to juvenile cardinals, it’s essential to understand how they differ from adult cardinals, particularly in their appearance. Both male and female juvenile cardinals have a tan or brownish hue, similar to the adult female. Yet, there are a few subtle differences that can help you identify whether the young cardinal is male or female. For instance, a young female cardinal will not have any reddish highlights, whereas a male juvenile will display them (*).

As juvenile cardinals grow older, their plumage begins to molt, and they start resembling their adult counterparts. For example, the Northern cardinal adults have distinctive features; the males showcase bright red plumage, while the females have a muted coloration (*). In contrast, juvenile Vermillion cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, and Red-crested cardinals appear different from Northern cardinals but gradually transform as they grow and molt (*).

Juvenile cardinals, like adult ones, are also known for their prominent crest and contrasting black face mask markings, which are usually more pronounced in adult males (*). It is worth noting that the behavior of cardinals can differ between males and females, too. While male cardinals sing aggressively to protect their nesting territory, female cardinals use a more tactful approach in their singing (*).

When watching juvenile cardinals, always keep in mind these characteristics to help you better identify and appreciate these beautiful birds as they grow and develop. Their distinct features, colors, and behaviors make them a fascinating subject for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Cardinals and Human Interaction

As a bird enthusiast, you might be curious about how cardinals interact with humans. Cardinals, like most birds, can coexist peacefully with people, especially when you provide bird feeders in your yard. They are not typically aggressive; however, during mating and breeding seasons, male cardinals might display some aggression to protect their territories and females.

While observing these beautiful birds, you’ll notice the striking differences between male and female cardinals. The male cardinal is bright red, often attracting attention with its vibrant plumage, while the female is a duller shade of brown. Both males and females have their unique roles in the avian world, and they prove to be complementary partners.

When providing bird feeders for cardinals, ensure you offer seeds rich in carotenoids, as these assist in maintaining their vibrant colors. Moreover, being mindful of your feeder’s placement prevents them from feeling threatened and ultimately provides a safe environment for them.

In terms of symbolism, there is an intriguing connection between cardinals and Catholicism. Catholic cardinals, the high-ranking officials in the church, wear vibrant red vestments, which happen to be the same color as male cardinals. This connection has inspired many people, reflecting the vivid beauty and significance of these birds.

By creating a welcoming environment and respecting their boundaries, you can appreciate the magnificent presence of cardinals in your own backyard. So, go ahead and set up a bird feeder, enjoy these beautiful creatures, and marvel at their exquisite colors and fascinating habits.


Why are female cardinals not red?

Female cardinals are not red because they have evolved to have a tawny brown color with muted red accents. This coloration helps them blend into their environment, providing them with better camouflage when guarding their nests. The males, on the other hand, have vibrant red plumage, which serves as an attraction to potential mates.

Do both male and female cardinals sing?

Yes, both male and female cardinals sing. Male cardinals tend to sing louder and more frequently during the breeding season, while female cardinals sing less often. Their songs are softer and more elaborate, as they use their singing to communicate with their mates, for example, when they need more food.

Do cardinals mate for life?

Cardinals are known for their strong pair bonds, and they often mate for life. They can be seen feeding each other and engaging in affectionate behaviors throughout the year, not just during the breeding season. Once a pair of cardinals has established a territory, they will usually stay together to raise multiple broods in the same area.

How do I attract cardinals to my yard?

To attract cardinals to your yard, provide an attractive habitat for them. This includes:

  • Offering food sources such as sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and other types of birdseed in a tray or tube feeder
  • Providing water sources like birdbaths or water features
  • Planting native trees and shrubs that provide shelter, nesting sites, and natural food sources like berries and insects

Remember to clean your bird feeders and birdbaths regularly to maintain a healthy environment for the cardinals.

What kind of trees do cardinals nest in?

Cardinals tend to nest in dense bushes, deciduous trees, or evergreen trees. They prefer to build their nests between 3 to 10 feet above the ground, using a combination of twigs, bark, grasses, and leaves. Some favorite nesting locations include honeysuckle, dogwood, spruce, and holly. Providing suitable trees and shrubs in your yard can make it more appealing to cardinals and encourage them to nest nearby.

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