If you’re someone who keeps a feeder in their backyard, no other bird will brighten your yard up like the Northern Cardinals. These plumpy granivores are backyard favorites due to their striking plumage, which stays with them all year long, unlike other passerines that molt.
These cardinals are so popular among Americans that they’ve been made the state birds of 7 states within the United States. But is their appearance as unique as the birds themselves? Not quite. You’d be surprised to learn that there are many other red-plumage passerines out there that can easily be confused for the Cardinals.
In today’s article, we’ll talk about eight such birds. Let’s get started!
1. Vermilion Cardinal
Scientific name: Cardinalis phoeniceus
Length: 19 centimeters (7.5 inches)
Lifespan: around 2-3 years
The Vermilion Cardinals are a South American cardinal species found in the semi-arid scrublands of Venezuela and Columbia. Although they belong to the same genus as the Northern Cardinals, they’re more closely related to Pyrrhuloxias (the third species within the genus).
As you can gather from their name, these birds have been attributed with stunning vermilion plumage. Due to sexual dimorphism, only the males are of that color, while the females are mostly dull brown. But both sexes share dark eyes and legs, heavy, grey bills, and red, erect crests.
Vermilion Cardinals are on top of our list of Northern Cardinals’ lookalikes for a good reason. Both birds look almost identical with their red crests and plumage.
Here’s how you can tell them apart:
- Unlike the red bills of Northern Cardinals, Vermilion Cardinals have greyish bills.
- They also lack the black face mask that the Northern Cardinals possess.
2. Flame-colored Tanager
Scientific name: Piranga bidentata
Length: 18-19 centimeters (7 inches)
Body mass: 33-39 grams
Lifespan: around 2-3 years
Formerly referred to as Stripe-backed Tanager, the Flame-colored Tanagers are a medium-sized songbird species found in Central and North America.
The adult sexes of these birds are strongly dimorphic, with the males sporting their namesake flame-like plumage. Their wings and tails are dark, and rumps are yellowish, with tiny brown patches adorning their cheeks.
On the other hand, their female counterparts have dull yellow heads and underbodies, while their backs, wings, and tails are dark olive in shade.
The plumage color of Flame-colored Tanagers matches that of the Northern Cardinals. Both these birds are roughly of the same size as well. However, several physical features distinguish the two.
Flame-colored Tanagers lack both the black face mask and the erect crest of the cardinals. Their bills, though conical and pointed, aren’t red like the latter. Lastly, their dark, white-striped wings are nothing like the cardinals’.
Scientific name: Cardinalis sinuatus
Length: 21 centimeters (8 inches)
Body mass: 24-43 grams
Lifespan: around 8 years
Also referred to as Desert Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias are yet another relative of the Northern Cardinals and share a genus with them. As their name indicates, these songbirds inhabit the mesquite thickets and desert scrubs of North America all year round.
The adult Pyrrhuloxias are sexually dimorphic in their plumage. The males have a grayish-brown plumage with paler undersides. They have a pointed, red-tipped crest, a reddish face mask, and touches of red under their wings and tails. Their female counterparts have a much greyer plumage and lack their face mask.
Both Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinals are of roughly the same size and weight; they also have dark eyes, reddish legs, and similar stout, conical bills.
However, Pyrrhuloxias lack the brilliant red plumage of the Northern Cardinals. Their face masks are red, unlike the black ones of the Cardinals. Lastly, their bills are orange and not red like the latter.
4. Scarlet Tanager
Scientific name: Piranga olivacea
Length: 16-19 centimeters (6.3-7.5 inches)
Body mass: 23-38 grams
Lifespan: around 12 years
While Scarlet Tanagers were once members of the Tanager family, they’ve recently moved to the Cardinal family due to the similarities they bear with other cardinals.
These birds display dimorphism among their adult sexes, with the males harboring a deep red plumage and the females being overall yellowish-brown. However, both sexes possess dark eyes and legs, along with long, bone-colored bills.
While both Scarlet Tanagers and Northern Cardinals possess bright red plumages, that’s where their similarities end.
Here are some major differences between the two:
- Scarlet Tanagers are both smaller and more lightweight than the Cardinals.
- They lack the black face mask that the Cardinals possess.
- Their wings and tails are black, while that of the Cardinals are brownish with red touches.
- Their bills are bone-colored, unlike Cardinals’ red bills, and lack the conical structure of the latter.
5. Vermillion Flycatcher
Scientific name: Pyrocephalus obscurus
Length: 13-14 centimeters (5 inches)
Body mass: 11-14 grams
Lifespan: around 4-5 years
The Vermilion Flycatchers are often considered the most striking members of the Tyrant Flycatcher family. This is because of how their brilliant vermillion plumage stands out among the other rather drab flycatcher species.
The adult sexes of these tiny flycatchers are strongly dimorphic. The males have a red-colored head, chest, and underbody, while their wings, tails, and upper parts are brownish. They also have a brown band running around their faces horizontally, across their eyes.
The female Vermilion Flycatchers, on the other hand, have a pale, almost peach-colored head and undersides with a greyish upperbody.
Although Vermilion Flycatchers share the brilliant red coloration of the Northern Cardinals, the two have nothing else in common. They’re significantly smaller than the Cardinals, have a crestless head, and shorter, thinner, and more pointed bills.
6. Summer Tanager
Scientific name: Piranga rubra
Length: 17 centimeters (6.7 inches)
Body mass: 29 grams
Lifespan: around 5 years
The Summer Tanagers are an American songbird species that breed in North America and winter in Mexico, Central America, and South America. These birds prefer to inhabit oak woodlands and are abundantly found throughout the Southern United States.
Like most tanager species, the adult Summer Tanagers are strongly dimorphic. The males possess an overall bright red plumage with touches of brown on their flight feathers and tails. On the other hand, the females have olive heads, backs, wings, and tails with paler undersides. Both sexes have dark eyes, grey legs, and stout, bone-colored bills.
Due to their overall red plumage of Summer Tanagers, they can easily be mistaken for Northern Cardinals from a distance or in flight. It is upon the closer examination of their faces that you can tell the two apart.
Summer Tanagers lack the crests and face masks of the Cardinals and have bone-colored bills, unlike the red ones of the latter.
7. Hepatic Tanager
Scientific name: Piranga hepatica
Length: 20 centimeters (8 inches)
Body mass: 38 grams
Lifespan: around 5 years
Named after their liver-like plumage color, the Hepatic Tanagers are yet another American songbird species belonging to the cardinal family. Within the United States, you’ll easily spot them in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California.
The adult sexes of Hepatic Tanagers display a significant dimorphism in their plumage but are of the same size. The males have pale, brownish-red plumage, while the females are mainly olive-yellow. Both sexes possess dark eyes, greyish bills and legs, dusky cheeks, and grey flanks.
The red in Hepatic Tanagers’ plumage can resemble that of the Northern Cardinals from a fair distance. However, from up close, the latter appears undeniably brighter. Hepatic Tanagers are also crestless, possess no face mask, and have grey bills.
8. Cedar Waxwing
Scientific name: Bombycilla cedrorum
Length: 15-18 centimeters (6-7 inches)
Body mass: 30 grams
Lifespan: around 7-8 years
Named after the cedar cones that dominate their diet, the Cedar Waxwings are one of the three waxwing species found in North and Central America. They’re also known by other names like Recellet and Canada Robin.
The adults of this species are sexually monomorphic, having identical sizes and plumage. As their name indicates, their overall plumage is smooth and wax-like. While their crested heads and upper bodies are a mix of brown and grey, the bellies and rumps are paler. On their secondary feathers and tails, you’ll notice dark greyish coloration.
They have dark eyes covered with a black eye mask, which has partial white borders. Their bills are dark, short, and pointy-edged.
While the overall coloration of Cedar Waxwings is nothing like that of the Northern Cardinals, the two share other similarities. Both birds have long, erect crests and black areas on their face, which lends them a similar facial expressions.
Cedar Waxwings are also significantly smaller in size than the cardinals.
With this, we’ve reached the bottom of our article. Let’s quickly summarize our learnings before bidding you goodbye.
We began by talking about Northern Cardinals, bright red birds that are dear to most birders of the US. Then, moved on to explore 8 other birds that can pass off as them from a distance and learned about their physical features. We’ve also explored the similarities and differences they share with the cardinals to help you tell them apart.
Is there any other backyard bird that you often mistake for a different species? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll be back with a comprehensive guide to help you.
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