Bird Facts

How to Identify Female Cardinal at Your Feeder

Male-vs-Female-Cardinal
What does a female cardinal look like? Female cardinals are less showy than males but just as beautiful, with their own secrets to share.

You found a bird in your bird feeder and wondered if it was a female cardinal? Follow along, and you'll discover the distinctive colors unique to females. No other bird looks quite like her, and she appears completely different from her male counterpart – you know, that red guy. 

In this article, we'll answer some of the most common questions about female cardinals and explore the intriguing differences and similarities between these beautiful birds' males and females.Female cardinal

What Does a Female Cardinal Look Like?

A female cardinal, unlike her male counterpart, has more subdued plumage. She typically has a warm tan or brownish-gray back, breast, and sides, which helps her blend into her surroundings while nesting. Her wings, tail, and crest are orange-red, and she has a black mask around her eyes. Female cardinals also share a thick, reddish-orange bill with males. Overall, female cardinals have a more subtle and camouflaged appearance compared to the bright red plumage of adult male cardinals. Juvenile female cardinals may resemble adult females with gray or black bills and less vibrant coloration.

Just after fledging, juvenile male and female cardinals look similar. Both resemble duller versions of adult females, with gray or black bills, shorter crests, and a lack of the reddish-orange highlights seen in adult females.a Female Cardinal

In fact, cardinals are fairly common, especially in areas where the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is found. The northern cardinal is one of the most abundant and widespread bird species in North America.

Male cardinals are usually more noticeable for their bright red plumage, while female cardinals have a more low-key, more camouflaged coloring and therefore appear less conspicuous. They are often found in backyards, parks, forests, and a variety of other habitats. So while they may not be as colorful as the males, they are by no means rare.

 

Why Are Female Cardinals Brown Not Red?

Female cardinals are likely brown to help them blend in with their nesting sites. This difference in coloration provides them with an advantage when protecting their eggs and baby cardinals from predators.Why Are Female Cardinals Brown

Similarly, juvenile cardinals, like many baby birds, have plumage that matches their mothers for the same reason.

On the other hand, adult male cardinals are bright and showy to compete with each other for mates and territory. The brightest male cardinals mate earlier and in more favorable habitats than their more subdued rivals.

Birds can perceive more colors than humans, so their bright plumage appears even more dazzling to a bird’s eye than it does to ours. Female birds use this coloration to assess a male’s health and fitness as a potential sire of their future offspring.

Male cardinals acquire their coloration from carotenoids in the fruits they feed on, which can be an indicator of their nutrition. So exceptionally bright feathers really do communicate to females how strong and healthy they are!

Since female birds are usually the ones making the choice, they don’t need to be flashy. So, combined with the advantages of camouflage, this is likely why female cardinals are brown.

 

Males and Females Working Together

Male and female cardinals work together to select and defend the territories where they'll nest and raise their young. They display to each other during courtship, performing a variety of twisting, swaying, and chest-puffing movements. Although males help choose where the nest will be built, females handle the actual nest construction and incubate the eggs.Males and Females Working TogetherMale cardinals feed females when courting them and again when the female is incubating and can't forage for herself. To request food, the female cardinal begs the same way a young bird would, opening her bill and fluttering her wings.

 

Do Male and Female Cardinals Mate For Life?

Cardinals can stay together for many years, but they don’t always. One study found that 20 percent of breeding pairs split up during the breeding season, and 10 percent more break it off during the winter.

 

Can a Cardinal Bird be Both Male and Female?

Cardinals rarely exhibit a unique condition known as "bilateral hermaphroditism," which makes them half male and half female. This means they have red feathers on one side of their body (male) and tan feathers on the other (female). The phenomenon has also been observed in other birds, butterflies and crustaceans.bilateral gynandromorph

Biologists have proposed two theories to explain this phenomenon. It can be caused by the fusion of two separate embryos (one male, one female) during development, or by the female producing an egg with two copies of the sex chromosomes that is fertilized by two different sperm.

Androgynous cardinals are very rare, but if you're lucky enough to spot one, it's a remarkable sight. In Pennsylvania, a bird exhibiting this condition was found twice in 2019 and 2021, most likely the same bird. While these unique birds may be sterile, observations of courtship behavior raise interesting questions about their reproductive potential.

 

Which birds look like female cardinals?

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.

 

Female Cardinal Vs Pyrrhuloxia

Female Cardinal Vs PyrrhuloxiaMale pyrrhuloxia

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.

 

Female Cardinal Vs California Towhee

Female Cardinal Vs California TowheeCalifornia 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.

Female Cardinal Vs Cedar Waxwing

Female Cardinal Vs Cedar WaxwingCedar Waxwing

Some people think the cedar waxwing resembles the female cardinal. In fact, the only thing the two birds have in common is parts of their body are a brown color. Every other element of the birds are very different.

 

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!

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