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Types Of Cardinals: 4 Birds Even The Pope Would Love To See


Cardinals are some of the most gorgeous birds! They have striking bright red feathers that are sure to turn heads. Not to mention, they are also known for their elaborate songs, making it easy to detect their presence in a specific location. 


When you see a cardinal, it is not always easy to identify what type it is. While there are only four main types, their variations can make it difficult to differentiate similar species. 

Learn more about the different types of cardinals. Read on and find out the different species that you will find! 

Four Types Of Cardinals 

1. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 

Northern Cardinal

Of the four species, we’ll discuss on this list, northern cardinals are the most popular. You might have seen it even in holiday cards and artwork featuring them. It is a popular target of bird watchers because of its striking beauty. 

The northern cardinal is the state bird of seven eastern states – Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. 

Physical Appearance 

A male northern cardinal is almost unmistakable. It is a bright red bird with a black bib and pointed red head crest. Females, on the other hand, are pale brown 


If you want to see a northern cardinal in the wild, some of the best places to check are overgrown fields, forest edges, marshy thickets, and desert washes. They like dense shrubs, foliage, and vines. 


It is also common to see northern cardinals in backyards. You can attract them in a bird feeder with suet, safflower seeds, and black oil sunflower seeds. At times, they can also eat insects as sources of protein, including beetles and crickets. 


Aside from the colors that make this bird a stunning sight, you can also detect the presence of a northern cardinal by listening to its calls. They have whistling calls, which last two to four seconds. Females are more cheerful when they are whistling while males sound aggressive. 

2. Desert Cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus) 

Desert Cardinal

The desert cardinal is not as common as its northern cousin, the northern cardinal. 

Physical Appearance 

It also has a thick beak, stout body, and stunning crest. The main difference is the color. Desert cardinals are soft gray throughout the body with red accents on the crest, belly, face, and wing tips. It also has a red breast.


With its name, you will already have an idea of where the desert cardinal lives. It is almost exclusively found in the desert. They are common in dry plains and arid canyons in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It is one of the only two species in the United States and Northern Mexico.


The desert cardinal is a ground forager. They are granivorous, so they eat mostly seeds that they pick up on the ground. 


More than its bright color, the desert cardinal is also identifiable through its song. Males can learn more than 30 songs, which it uses to communicate to others, such as for marking their territory.  

Especially during the breeding season, desert cardinals are territorial. They will sing aggressively to defend their nests and warn attackers. 

3. Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus) 

Vermilion Cardinal

It is an uncommon cardinal, so its sightings are rare. Habitat loss is also a problem, making them more elusive. 

Physical Appearance

Brighter than their northern cousins, vermilion cardinals have vibrant scarlet bodies that are sure to grab attention. It is also known for its striking crest that looks like a classic mohawk. 


Their distribution is limited to northeastern Colombia and northern Venezuela. It is found in the top part of South America. 

Tropical and subtropical forests are preferred by these birds. These cardinals live in forest clearings and brushlands. 


When a vermilion cardinal sings, it makes continuous metallic chips. It also has a whistled call similar to a northern cardinal. 

The best time to see the vermilion cardinal is in the early mornings. Male cardinals will pose and sing as they try to attract females. 

4. Red-Crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronate) 

Red-Crested Cardinal

Technically speaking, the red-crested cardinal is not from the Cardinalidae family. It is a tanager, but it is also commonly referred to as a cardinal.  

Physical Appearance 

The name of this cardinal is a reference to its red crest, which is one of its defining characteristics. Unlike northern cardinals, males and females have similar colors. Both sexes have white breasts and gray backs. 


It is seldom that you will find these cardinal birds in the United States. They are more common in Central America and South America. They are most common in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. 

The preferred habitats of these birds are semi-open areas with trees and shrubs. They are frequent in parks and backyards. 


These birds are omnivores. Their diet consists of a mix of plants, berries, seeds, and insects. 

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Frequently Asked Questions 

What birds look like cardinals but are not? 

Some of the birds that can be easily mistaken for cardinals are scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, black-headed grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting, and lazuli bunting. They are all from the Cardinalidae family, so it is not surprising that they share many similar physical features. 

What do cardinals eat? 

Safflower seeds, sunflower seeds, and other types of seeds are some of the favorite foods of cardinal birds. They have strong bills that will allow them to crack seeds easily. They also eat berries, including their seeds. They often discard the pulp. While up to 75% of the diet of cardinals is plant material, they also consume insects in the summer

What eats cardinal birds? 

Domestic cats are some of the largest threats. These predatory mammals have the biggest impact on cardinal populations. Birds like sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and barred owls are also common predators. Many predators will eat even their eggs and the young ones. 

What are the different colors of cardinals? 

The colors vary depending on the species. Red is the most common color, with many of them bright enough to be easily identifiable. Male and female cardinals have different colors, with females often being brown instead of red.  Although rare, other cardinals can experience a genetic plumage variation known as xanthochroism. It results in a bright yellow plumage. 

Where can you find cardinals? 

They have a varied distribution range. They are common in the central and eastern United States, such as Maine, Texas, and Minnesota. You can also find them in southeastern Canada and Mexico. They are common in places with trees, but you can also find them even in private backyards. Rare species are found in South America. 

Why are cardinals red? 

The red coloration of a male cardinal is because of carotenoids. The pigments in their plumage are metabolic precursors of their diet. They are from plant-based items, which comprise most of the cardinals' diet. Aside from their colors, carotenoids also prevent cellular damage and boost the immune system. 

Do cardinals mate for life? 

Yes, cardinal birds mate for life. They are monogamous, so you will see them in the same pairs. Others will mate only for a year or longer. 


Cardinals are beautiful songbirds. Three species are considered true cardinals belonging to the genus Cardinalis – northern cardinal, vermilion cardinal, and desert cardinal. On the other hand, the red-crested cardinal does not belong to the genus Cardinalis but is also often referred to as a cardinal. 

Have you seen a cardinal? Is there anything you would like to share about these red birds? Leave a comment below. 

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