16 Birds That Look Like Cardinals [Pictures & Comparisons!]

birds that look like cardinals

As a bird watcher, it can sometimes be difficult to identify different species. Especially, if these birds look similar and you can’t zoom in to get a closer look. Therefore, you need to educate yourself on the similarities and differences to be able to accurately identify the bird that you’re watching and that you may want to photograph.

It’s important to look for specific features that are endemic to one species and not another. When you look at a Northern cardinal, you’ll know that it’s a red bird (at least the male bird is red all over). However, the female bird is different shades of brown and gray but still has the distinctive short orange beak.

There is one feature that sets cardinals apart from many other species of songbird and that is the raised crown. On the male bird, this crown is bright red whereas on the female bird, the crown is more of a tan color with just a touch of red. But, what about when the bird doesn’t have its crown raised. In this instance it can be a little more difficult to distinguish the cardinal from other birds.

To help you out, here are 16 birds that look like cardinals and how to distinguish them from each other.

Major Distinguishing Features

Here’s a quick reference guide that lists all the major features of the birds on this list.

Species Size Face Beak Crown Tail Wings
Cardinal (male) Medium Black Short & Orange Tall & Red Long Red
Cardinal (female) Medium Tan with charcoal mask Short & Orange Tall & Tan Long Tan with red  & black
California Towhee Medium Brown & Gray Light gray None Long Gray & brown
Cedar Waxwing Small Tan with black mask Short & black Tan Short Tan & gray with white and red markings
Flame-colored Tanager Medium Red with brown cheeks Black None Long Black
Hepatic Tanager Small Orange & Tan Gray & Pointed None Short Tan
House Finch Small Tan with red stripes Tan None Short Tan
Phainopepla Medium Black Charcoal Short & Black Long Black
Pine Grosbeak Medium Red Charcoal None Medium Black, white, red
Purple Finch Small White & Tan with red & pink stripes Brown None Short Charcoal, red, pink
Pyrrhuloxia Medium Gray with red mask Yellow Short & thinner Long Gray with red & black
Red-billed Firefinch Small Red Pink None Short Brown
Red Crossbill Medium Orange/red Tan None Short Dark brown with orange
Rose Finch Small Red/orange Brown None Long Brown, pink, red, purple
Scarlet Tanager Small Red Tan & Pointed None Short Black
Summer Tanager Small Red Long & Tan None Medium Red
Tufted Titmouse Medium White & Gray Gray & pointed Short & gray Long Gray
Vermilion Flycatcher Small Red with black mask Black & pointed None Short Black

1. California Towhee

We’ve included this bird on the list because many people believe that it resembles the female cardinal. It’s true that the body shape is similar but the towhee is much more gray and brown while the female cardinal is a buff brown but has patches of red and charcoal.

Another noticeable difference is that the towhee does not have a crown and its beak is light gray. The towhee’s tail is as long as the cardinal’s but it is orange and brown in color.

2. Cedar Waxwing

The cedar waxwing is quite a colorful bird with a black face and a tan crown. It has a yellow chest and belly and a bright yellow tip on the ends of its tail. The beak is short and black. The wings are tan and gray and they have patches of white and red.

3. Flame-Colored Tanager

This bird has the same outstanding red color as the male cardinal, however, it lacks the distinguishing crown and black face mask. It also has a black beak and black wings and tail.

4. Hepatic Tanager

The male hepatic tanager may appear red from a distance but it actually has more orange feathers on the head, chest and belly. The feathers on the back are brown or tan. The lack of a crown also distinguishes the hepatic tanager from the cardinal.

This tanager has a tan patch just under the eye and an orange-red face. It also has a gray beak that is longer and more pointed. Plus, it’s tail is much shorter than that of the cardinal.

5. House Finch

The first thing you’ll notice about the house finch is that it’s considerably smaller than the cardinal. It does have a red head and some other red feathers but these are blended with tan and brown feathers.

The absence of a crown in the house finch also indicates one of the major differences between it and the cardinal. Face-wise, the house finch has more tan with some stripes of red and there’s also the absence of the black face mask.

In addition, the house finch has a tan beak and a much shorter tail. It also has tan wings.

6. Phainopepla

Although the shape and size of the phainopepla is very similar to the cardinal, the coloring is not as the phainopepla is totally black in color. It also has a charcoal beak and a shorter black crown.

7. Pine Grosbeak

Although the pine grosbeak is similar in size to the cardinal, it lacks the bright red crown. It does have a red head, chest and belly. However the wings are a combination of red, white and black.

The beak on the pine grosbeak is charcoal in color and the tip of the tail is black. It also has a shorter tail than the cardinal.

8. Purple Finch

Apart from being smaller than the cardinal, the purple finch does not have the same bright red coloring like the cardinal. It has mainly white and tan feathers with stripes of pink and red. The face of this bird is also quite different in that it has a combination of tan, white, red and pink feathers.

The purple finch also has a smaller beak that is brown in color. Like other finches, this species has a short tail. In addition, the wings are brown, charcoal, pink and red.

9. Pyrrhuloxia

This bird shares a lot of similarities to the female cardinal in that it also has a distinguishing crown and is similar in shape and size. However, there are major differences between the two birds.

The pyrrhuloxia is mostly gray in color but it has patches of red and black. It also has a red face mask while the female cardinal has a charcoal mask. While the cardinal has an orange beak, the pyrrhuloxia has a bright yellow one.

10. Red-Billed Firefinch

Although smaller in size, the red-billed firefinch is somewhat similar in color to the cardinal. It is mostly red but has brown wings and tail. It does not have a crown and its beak is pink in color.

11. Red Crossbill

Although this bird is called a red cross bill, it’s feathers are more of an orange-red color. It also has a brown mask around its eye and a thicker brown beak. Its tail is also shorter than the cardinal’s and it doesn’t have the distinguishing crown.

12. Rose Finch

These birds are sometimes mistaken for cardinals due to their bright colorings. This bird has a red face and head but its remaining feathers are varying shades of red, pink, orange, brown and purple. It also has a brown beak.

13. Scarlet Tanager

Like the cardinal, the scarlet tanager has a lot of bright red plumage. However, this bird does not have an upright crown. Even though this bird has a black ring around its eye, it lacks the black face mask of the cardinal.

This bird has a tan beak that is longer and pointed and it has a much shorter tail than the cardinal. Another distinguishing factor is that the scarlet tanager has black wings and the tail is also black.

14. Summer Tanager

This bird is also totally red in color, just like the male cardinal. However, the summer tanager does not have the same raised crown. It’s also a smaller bird and lacks the black face mask that the cardinal has.

This tanager has a longer tan beak while the cardinal has that distinguishing shorter orange-red beak. You’ll also notice that the summer tanager has quite a short tail while the cardinal’s tail is relatively long.

15. Tufted Titmouse

Because the tufted titmouse has a crown, it is sometimes confused with the female cardinal. However, the crown on the titmouse is gray in color and it also has a longer beak that is also gray in color. It also has a white face, chest and belly and the wing feathers are gray.

16. Vermilion Flycatcher

From a distance, you might mistake this bird for a cardinal because it is also bright red in color and does have a black face mask. However, this flycatcher’s face mask is more of a stripe that runs from the eye around the back of the head.

The flycatcher also has black wings and tail and its tail is much shorter than the cardinals. In addition, the flycatcher has a black beak that is pointed.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting to note that there are 16 species of birds that are similar to cardinals. Some have the same bright red colorings while others also have the tufted crown and can be mistaken for the more subdued colorings of the female cardinal.

One Comment

  1. Linda R Crotzer

    We have bird in our yard. It has been here most of the summer and I cannot find out what it is. The body looks a lot like a female cardinal, but the head is totally black and smooth. Any help in finding out what it is, would be wonderful. It is driving me a little crazy.

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