I don’t know about you, but when I am watching the birds congregating at the various backyard feeders, like the cardinal bird feeders I have set up, I am always curious to know what gender they all are.
How Do You Tell a Male Cardinal From a Female Cardinal?
Compared to other species where it is sometimes very difficult to figure out the gender, Cardinals are incredibly easy to pick out the males from the females.
- As cardinals are principally red and they take their name from Roman Catholic cardinals who wore red robes, if you are looking at a bright red, almost outrageously so, you are looking at a male cardinal.
- They also have a reddish bill and a black mask covering their face.
- Female cardinals, on the other hand are known for their subtler, some would say duller, pale brown coloring with just gentle reddish tips on the crest, tail and their wings. They have the same color of bill and the same black face mask.
Here’s a breakdown of the primary distinctions between male and female cardinals:
|Feature||Male Cardinal||Female Cardinal|
|Color||Bright red||Tan or light brown with hints of red|
|Size||Slightly larger (8.1–9.1 in length)||Slightly smaller (7.9–8.7 in length)|
|Beak Color||Bright orange-red||Orange-brown to gray|
|Face||Large, black extending from eyes to throat||Smaller, more restricted black mask|
|Song||Both sing, but males are typically louder and more frequent singers||Females sing, especially when on the nest, but generally less frequently than males|
|Body Markings||Solid red body||Reddish wings and tail; brownish streaks on body|
|Behavior||More aggressive in defending territory||Less aggressive but will defend the nest|
Singing Ability and Behavior
It makes sense that as cardinals are songbirds, at least one half of the gender divide would be adept at holding a tune.
Cardinals are different many other types of songbirds, as both male and female birds can sing. Despite this shared talent, they have different levels of ability and skill when it comes to singing.
- While male cardinals generally sing in an aggressive fashion to protect their breeding and nesting territory and will attack any intruders with a lot of fury and anger, female cardinals are more tactical with their singing.
- It is thought that females sing and tell males they need more food.
- Female cardinals also have more elaborate songs than males.
- It is thought that a single cardinal could have over 24 different song variations and there are often different songs sung by cardinals from different geographical populations.
Nesting and Feeding
When a male and female cardinal become a breeding pair, they mate for life. Within their relationship, both partners have specific roles and duties.
- Female cardinals do much of the nest building, while male cardinals help supply some of the materials for it.
- Females incubate their eggs, while the males bring food to them
- Males fend off any rivals by singing, and taking defensive action, as noted above
As a final note, after looking at the major differences between male cardinals and female cardinals, there’s one exception we need to discuss.
Can a Bird Be Both Male and Female?
The short answer is yes, birds on some occasions can be both male and female. According to NBC News, a couple, Shirley and Jeffrey Caldwell, they spotted and snapped the strangest cardinal they had ever seen.
What was so strange about this cardinal? Half of its body was red, while the other was tan. Not only that, but the colors were split down the middle. It looked like two birds had been sewn together.
Sound impossible? There is a scientific name for it called “Gynandromorph“.
Let’s explain this in a bit more detail.
Basically, a creature that is half female and half male is referred to by scientists as being a gynandromorph. The interesting thing is there are a number of different animals and birds, including chickens and some insects that are gynandromorphs, but they are not always easy to spot.
Given the aesthetic differences there are between the male cardinals and female cardinals, gynandromorphs are much easier to pick out among cardinals.
So, we now know what they are, how do they become what they are?
Understanding the Biology
In human beings like you and me, male cells have one small Y chromosome and an X chromosome, while female cells have 2 copies of the gene-rich and very large X chromosomes.
With birds it is similar, they have sex chromosomes. However, they act in the exact opposite way as they do in humans. Female cells have a W and Z chromosome, while male birds have 2 gene-rich and very large Z chromosomes.
The very small W chromosome is what remains of the original Z chromosome that has degenerated over the course of time, similarly to what happens with the human Y chromosome.
According to experts if you were to take a sample of the chromosomes present in cells from the mid-line where there is the split in a gynandromorph, you would find a combination of female and male chromosomes.
Before you start thinking that in the current climate it might be a good idea to refer to gynandromorphs as intersex, it’s probably best to avoid it as it is not possible to compare the kind of cell mutations that occur inside birds with anything that occurs inside humans.
To Finish Up
So, the next time you are watching your cardinal bird feeder and think for one moment you are looking at a male cardinal, only discover when you get a better look that it might be a female cardinal. You know what it is.
It’s a gynandromorph and you should consider yourself to be most fortunate, as they are a rare sight to behold.
If, therefore, you have ever come across a gynandromorph cardinal, or any other gynandromorph bird, we’d love to see a picture of it!