Facts About the Female Cardinal (With Pictures!)

Two female cardinals in the same frame

Female cardinals are sometimes overlooked in favor of their flashier male counterparts, but one shouldn’t underestimate the beauty of their understated appearance.

Female cardinals are indeed fascinating creatures and equally deserving of attention and admiration. They have their own unique allure and bring something special to the world of birds.

This article will take a look at the female cardinal in greater detail and highlight the extraordinary traits that make them a crucial component of the avian world, from nesting and raising their young to supporting their partner.

What Does a Female Cardinal Look Like?

Female cardinal perched on the fence

The female cardinal is mostly tan or buff in color with a dark red crest, wings, and tail. It has dark brown eyes, a charcoal face mask and throat, an orange beak, and dark flesh-colored legs and feet.

The female cardinal has a charming beauty of its own despite lacking the male’s striking red plumage. They are naturally less red and more brown than males because they have fewer pigments called carotenoids.

There are also subtle color differences among female cardinals. Redder feathers can be seen on some of their breasts, cheeks, and sides.

Female cardinals with more red feathers likely eat more foods high in carotenoids, like wild grapes, dogwood fruits, blackberries, and raspberries.

Though not as visually striking as the male’s, the female cardinal’s understated beauty and subtle coloration reflect its distinctive and vital function in the world of cardinals.

Differences Between Male and Female Cardinals

Male and female cardinals differ noticeably from one another, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of these birds.

The differences between male and female cardinals will be explored in this section, from their remarkable colors to the subtle nuances and behaviors that identify each sex.

1. Plumage

One of the most remarkable things about cardinals is the striking sexual dimorphism between the sexes, especially in terms of plumage.

The male cardinal’s bright red plumage stands out among the rest of the flock. The crest, wings, tail, and even the face of these birds display a vibrant crimson color.

Their vivid red color serves a dual purpose of luring potential mates and marking territory during territorial disputes.

On the contrary, the plumage of female cardinals is more muted, with their feathers generally being brown, tan, and gray.

In addition, their outer wings, tail, and crest feature brownish-red or muted red patches, though these are less prominent than in males.

The female’s muted coloration provides valuable advantages in survival, as it aids in camouflage while nesting and offers enhanced protection against potential predators.

Besides highlighting the unique beauty of each gender, the distinctive features of their plumage are vital to the birds’ ability to thrive and reproduce in their natural environment.

2. Size and Weight

Although the differences are not very noticeable, male and female cardinals differ in height and weight. In comparison to female cardinals, males are often stockier and larger overall.

The length of a male cardinal, from beak to tail, is normally between 8 and 9 inches. They typically have a weight of 1.5 to 1.8 ounces.

Their bigger size and weight contribute to their sturdier appearance and give them a slightly more imposing presence.

On the other hand, female cardinals tend to be smaller, measuring just around 7 to 8 inches in length and weighing only about 1.3 to 1.5 ounces

The size and build of female cardinals are similar to those of males, though they are a little smaller and lighter.

3. Nesting and Feeding

There are clear gender differences in the roles that male and female cardinals play during the nesting and feeding processes.

The female cardinal is responsible for the majority of the nest’s construction. However, the male contributes to helping build the nest by bringing in nest materials.

During the breeding period, the male cardinal engages in courtship feeding by providing food to the female to ensure its health and ability to produce eggs.

Once the eggs are laid, the male also takes on the responsibility of feeding the female while it incubates the eggs, which takes about 11 to 13 days.

Additionally, the male sings and takes defensive measures to keep intruders away from the nesting area.

After the eggs hatch, both the male and female cardinals take turns feeding the chicks, with the male often taking on a more prominent role.

These distinct responsibilities show the collaborative nature of adult cardinals, who work together to ensure the survival of their young during nesting.

4. Singing and Calls

Both male and female cardinals have distinctive vocalization patterns. Males are stereotypically recognized for their boisterous singing, which serves a number of functions.

They sing loudly and aggressively to protect their territories and attract prospective partners.

On the other hand, female cardinals sing in a softer voice and less frequently than their male counterparts. When they do sing, it is mainly to signal to the male that they are hungry and need to be fed.

When compared to males, females are more strategic and purposeful in their use of song. During incubation and brooding, they may also sing to the male to let it know they need food.

Moreover, both male and female cardinals may sing to alert others of potential dangers from predators like eagles, owls, falcons, snakes, and squirrels, among other wildlife.

Overall, the differences in singing and calls between male and female cardinals reflect their unique roles in territorial defense, courtship, and communication.

Do Female Cardinals Sing?

Female cardinal perched on a tree branch

It’s a common misconception that only male birds can sing, yet female cardinals also have beautiful singing voices.

Both genders break into song to establish territories, though males normally do so more frequently, louder, and from higher perches.

Female cardinals may not be as well-known for their singing, but they nonetheless make a number of distinct sounds. The majority of their songs are shorter and simpler, with quiet, high-pitched whistles or trills.

These vocalizations serve a variety of functions, including keeping in touch with their male partners, communicating with their young, or warning others of potential danger.

Can a Cardinal Be Both Male and Female?

Despite being extremely uncommon, there have been a few cases of cardinals being both male and female.

Upon further research, this condition is called bilateral gynandromorphism and is a fascinating phenomenon observed in certain bird species, where individuals exhibit characteristics from both sexes on their bodies.

In the case of cardinals, I found out that this genetic mutation can cause one side to be brown with red patches like females, while the other side displays all the traits of males with their bright red colors.

Bilateral gynandromorph cardinals are an exceptionally rare occurrence, with such sightings being incredibly infrequent.

To put its rarity into perspective, there have been merely five officially documented sightings of this unique bird in a span of over 40 years.

Watch the following video to witness this extremely rare bird in all its beauty:

Exclusive Video Reveals Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal | Nat Geo Wild

Birds That Look Like Female Cardinals

Pyrrhuloxia side view

With their vivid red plumage and melodic songs, male cardinals frequently steal the show, but several other bird species look remarkably like the more subdued female cardinals.

These birds have a special allure all their own, with an array of colors that range from pastel to earth tones, allowing them to easily blend in with their natural surroundings.

Here are some of the birds that resemble female cardinals:

1. Pyrrhuloxia

Like female cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias tend to have a muted, earthy color scheme. Due to their similarity to female cardinals, they are frequently misidentified. In fact, they are occasionally referred to as Desert Cardinals.

These birds’ grayish-brown feathers, with their faint reddish overtones, are reminiscent of the soft tones of female cardinals’ plumage. One method to tell a Pyrrhuloxia apart from a cardinal is by looking at its crooked bill. 

Unlike a cardinal’s bill, which is thin and pointed, this one is thick and rounded, with an opening that doesn’t run in a straight line from beak to head.

2. Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse can easily be mistaken for a female cardinal because of its similar plumage and distinctive crest. Gray and white are the predominant colors in the plumage of Tufted Titmice. 

Their undersides are streaked with a rusty or peachy hue. These tiny birds can be seen all year round in the eastern half of the United States.

3. Cedar Waxwing

The Cedar Waxwing has a subtle, refined beauty similar to that of female cardinals. 

From a distance, it can be easily mistaken for a female cardinal due to its soft brown plumage, elegant crest, and streaks of red on the wings. In fact, these birds are even listed as red birds that are not cardinals.

Moreover, it also exhibits a masked and enigmatic appearance due to the black pattern that resembles a mask around its eyes.

4. Red Crossbill

The Red Crossbill is an interesting and captivating bird that looks something like a female cardinal. Red Crossbills are primarily distributed in Canada and the western portion of the United States. 

Females can be any shade of brown or olive green, while males are a pale brick red. The male Red Crossbill, with its reddish-brown coloring, can easily be mistaken for a female cardinal. 

But unlike female cardinals, Red Crossbills don’t have a crest, and their bodies are noticeably less stocky.

5. Chipping Sparrow

The female cardinal and the Chipping Sparrow may not look alike at first glance, yet there are some striking parallels between the two. 

The Chipping Sparrow and the female cardinal are characterized by plumage with various earthy tones. Both birds have a mottled appearance, with gray, brown, and olive all present. 

Another thing they have in common is a rusty or reddish crown on their head, though the cardinal’s crown is much more vibrant and noticeable.

Although these birds are not replicas of the female cardinal, they do share some features and attributes that make them fascinating counterparts.

These birds are all beautiful in their own ways, whether it’s because of their distinctive plumage, unique behaviors, or lovely melodies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Female cardinal standing on a tree stump

What Does It Mean When You See a Female Cardinal?

Seeing a female cardinal is a good omen that something good is on the horizon for you. It is said that the appearance of a female cardinal indicates good fortune and the realization of your dreams.

Another interpretation is that a female cardinal is a spiritual messenger from your departed loved ones, reassuring you that they can sense your love and are never far away.

Do Female Cardinals Have Red?

While female cardinals have red on their bodies, their coloring is much more muted than that of males. 

These birds often have faint red highlights on their wings, tails, and crests, but the location and intensity of these highlights can vary widely across individuals.

Are Female Cardinals Pink?

Female cardinals are not pink. While their plumage can sometimes have red undertones, they usually have reddish-brown or pale-brown coloring instead.

Their overall appearance is mostly made up of a mixture of brown, tan, and gray feathers.

Do Female Cardinals Change Colors?

Unlike several other bird species, female cardinals do not change colors. 

They keep a similar appearance throughout the year, with rusty-brown or mellow-red patches on their wings, tails, and crest accentuating their brown, tan, and gray plumage.

Are Female Cardinals Aggressive?

Like many other bird species, female cardinals can become aggressive when threatened. Female cardinals aren’t as aggressive as males, although they can still be territorial when protecting their nests and offspring.

This hostility is mostly directed at other birds, such as competing females or possible threats to their nesting area.

When threatened by other birds, female cardinals may chase them away, display aggressive postures, make loud noises, or even physically attack them.

What do you think of this magnificent bird? Feel free to share your thoughts about the female cardinal below. Also, if you have any questions about any of these birds’ characteristics, feel free to ask!

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