Male vs. Female Cardinals: What’s the Difference?

Male vs. female cardinals

It is easy to identify a cardinal with its striking plumage, captivating songs, and courtship displays. However, distinguishing between male and female cardinals can be quite tricky, especially for the untrained eye.

Male cardinals are adorned with striking crimson-red feathers that envelop their bodies and crowns. Conversely, female cardinals exhibit more subdued shades of reddish-brown and gray that dominate their plumages. Moreover, males tend to be louder, bigger, and more territorial than females.

These differences contribute to these captivating avian creatures’ unique beauty and individuality. In this article, you will learn more about these birds’ similarities and differences, so keep reading!

5 Differences Between Male and Female Cardinals

Male and female cardinal perched on a branch

1. Male cardinals have brighter red plumage than females

Male cardinals wear a striking and vibrant shade of scarlet. From the crown of their heads to the tip of their tails, these splendid songbirds are adorned with a rich display of crimson feathers.

However, there’s a special case that stands out in this impressive display — a distinct black chin patch and mask encircling their beak and eyes.

In contrast, the females exhibit a more subtle touch of red within their plumage. They have developed the remarkable ability to blend seamlessly into their surroundings throughout evolution.

2. Male cardinals are louder than females

In the vibrant spring season, the male cardinal, ever vigilant against potential intruders who may try to whisk away a coveted female companion, employs a strategy of powerful vocalization.

That is to let other males know that they are a force to be reckoned with while signaling their availability and eagerness to form a meaningful partnership with the discerning ears of female cardinals.

3. The crest of a female cardinal is smaller

While sharing a similar overall silhouette, female cardinals possess a comparatively smaller crest. The feathers adorning their bodies exhibit a more subdued coloration, lacking the vibrant brilliance found in males.

4. Male cardinals are more territorial than females

During the arrival of spring, male cardinals utilize their melodious songs as a vocal declaration to fellow males that trespassing will not be tolerated.

On the other hand, female cardinals entrust their well-being to the protective instincts of their male counterparts, particularly during the critical period of nest incubation.

This harmonious partnership exemplifies their commitment to safeguarding their nests and underscores the significance of cooperation and support within their avian community.

5. Female cardinals build the nests

A fascinating teamwork unfolds when selecting a nest site within the male cardinal’s territory.

I was able to observe this personally when my aviculturist friend invited me to observe these birds in a conservatory she works in. Unlike other birds, the task of nest-building is solely done by female cardinals.

However, I also noticed the male cardinals eagerly participate by gathering sticks and presenting them to their partner. These offerings are thoughtfully incorporated into the grand design of the nest.

The differences between male and female cardinals highlight the captivating diversity within these iconic birds. Yet, amidst these differences, both share a mutual commitment to ensure the safety of their offspring.

Male Cardinals

Male cardinal on a fallen tree branch

The male cardinal’s remarkable presence captivates both the eye and the ear. In this section, you will learn more about the characteristics of a male cardinal.


The male cardinal’s red plumage places it among the most colorful and widely recognized birds in the United States. This vibrant hue captures the attention of bird enthusiasts across the nation.

This remarkable coloration is a pigment called rhodoxanthin, a carotenoid abundantly found in the bright red berries that cardinals eagerly feast upon.

Beyond their dazzling red plumage, males boast additional distinguishing features. Their black eye mask and throat add a touch of elegance, while the reddish-orange beak complements their overall appearance.

Fun Fact: The brightness of male cardinals’ red feathers is influenced by the quantity of bright red berries they consume.

Size and Weight

On average, adult male cardinals measure 8.7 inches to 9.25 inches long, from the tip of their beaks to the end of their tails. As for weight, they typically range from 1.4 ounces to 1.5 ounces.

Complementing their compact body size is a notable wingspan from 9.8 inches to 12.2 inches, facilitating graceful flight and effortless navigation through the skies.

Nesting and Feeding

The male cardinal showcases his affection by singing softly, lifting his head, and gracefully swaying while eagerly awaiting the response of his intended partner.

When female cardinals join in the melodic exchange, it is a beautiful confirmation of their compatibility. As their relationship deepens, males show gestures of care and nourishment.

By bringing seeds to their mates and engaging in feeding, beak to beak, male cardinals establish a strong bond.

During the nesting phase, males assume the provider role, diligently supplying food to female cardinals as they diligently tend to the essential task of incubating the eggs.

Additionally, males remain vigilant against potential threats. It is also worth noting that both male and female cardinals share similar dietary preferences.

They both delight in a versatile diet that includes a combination of seeds, insects, and berries.

Singing and Calls

The male Cardinal’s distinctive and piercing “chip” call is widely recognized across North America. This spirited musical performance serves a dual purpose.

They ward off intruders and serve as a beautiful courtship display to attract potential mates. The male Cardinal’s song adds a touch of beauty and serenade to the surrounding landscape.

Here is a video of a male Cardinal showcasing his songs:

Northern Cardinal Calling - 4 different calls

Male cardinals possess extraordinary attributes in their plumage, behavior, and dietary preferences. These characteristics contribute to the ecosystem and provide a visual treat to human admirers.

Female Cardinals

Female cardinal looking sideways

Often overshadowed by their male counterparts, these birds possess their unique characteristics as well. The information below will provide deeper insights into the behavior and qualities of the female Cardinal.


Female cardinals don a warm tawny brown hue, delicately complemented by muted red accents on their wings, crest, and tail. They also have a reddish-orange beak and a lighter black mask on their face.

This subtle coloration of female cardinals shows elegance and sophistication. This color also allows them to blend into their surroundings when they sense danger seamlessly.

Size and Weight

The average length of female cardinals spans from 8.2 inches to 8.5 inches, while their weight typically ranges between 1.4 ounces and 1.5 ounces — their wingspan measures from 9.8 inches to 12.2 inches.

This allows them to navigate their surroundings with agility and precision. As shown by their sizes, female cardinals tend to be smaller than male cardinals.

Nesting and Feeding

Female cardinals are courted by their male counterparts in a captivating courtship display. The male’s bright red plumage and melodious songs are charms to win the female’s affection.

Together, they engage in enchanting duets, with their voices blending perfectly. As a sign of devotion, male cardinals demonstrate their care by delicately feeding the females seeds from their beaks.

Once their bond is established, the pair finds a suitable nesting site within the male’s territory. Led by the female, they explore different locations, meticulously considering each one.

In terms of diet, both male and female cardinals enjoy a varied and balanced mix of seeds, insects, and berries. This ensures their nutritional needs are met as they prepare for the arrival of their brood.

Singing and Calls

Cardinals stand apart from other North American songbird species as they offer a unique characteristic: the ability for females to sing. Often, female cardinals can be observed harmonizing with nature’s melodies.

Their captivating songs are crucial in communicating their whereabouts to their mates, enabling them to return with sustenance for their precious chicks.

While the females may not sing with the same assertiveness as their male counterparts, their songs possess an exquisite intricacy, often surpassing the males’ complexity and duration.

Female cardinals possess many captivating characteristics that set them apart in the avian world. These qualities show their strength and adaptability to their environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Male and female cardinal side by side

Do Female Cardinals Sing Like Males?

Female cardinals possess the ability to sing, much like their male counterparts. While the female’s singing may not be as assertive as the male’s, it is no less captivating.

Some female cardinals exhibit a remarkable repertoire of longer and more intricate songs, showcasing their unique vocal abilities.

They use their songs to attract their mates and to ward off intruders. You may even catch these birds chirping in the middle of the night.

Why Are Male and Female Cardinals Different Colors?

The distinct colors observed in male and female cardinals can be attributed to a fascinating phenomenon known as sexual dimorphism, which highlights the contrasting physical traits between genders.

In the case of cardinals, the vivid red plumage of the males is a powerful tool for mating. This vibrant coloration acts as a visual signal, attracting potential mates and establishing their dominance.

Meanwhile, the muted coloration of female cardinals grants them the ability to blend seamlessly into their surroundings, providing effective camouflage during critical stages, such as nest-building and nurturing of their offspring.

Do Male and Female Cardinals Mate for Life?

Male and female cardinals maintain a long-term partnership for multiple breeding seasons. Shared responsibilities, cooperative behaviors, and mutual support characterize this social monogamy.

The pair collaborates during nest-building, raising their young and defending their territory. This enduring partnership ensures successful reproduction and contributes to the stability and resilience of the cardinal population.

So, when you come across male and female cardinals, it is best to take a moment to appreciate the difference between the two genders. Comment below your experience with these birds, and do not hesitate to ask any questions you may have about them!

Leave a Comment

You may also like