What’s the difference between a Male and Female Northern Cardinal? (Pictures and Sounds)

Male Northern Cardinal

The most obvious difference between Male and Female northern cardinals is that only the Male cardinal has striking red feathers while the Female is more brownish.

Cardinals are among the most spectacularly vibrant birds in the world. They are frequently found in much of North America’s states, as well as further south into Central America. Northern Cardinals are famous for their ravishing appearance, as well as their loud song and active presence in the wild, as well as in more built-up, urban environments. Eager individuals that happen to spot one of these magnificent birds may be left wondering whether they’ve come across a male or a female Cardinal. It is, in fact, relatively easy to distinguish between the two according to three key factors:

  • Appearance
  • Behaviour
  • Nesting habits

This article will help you pin-point the main differences between both male and female Northern Cardinals and cover the various characteristics of this species that makes it truly remarkable. Luckily for you, noticing these differences is rather easy, so let’s break them down…


These well-loved birds are largely recognised by their luminous red pigment. They are a favourite amongst birdwatchers, mainly because of their brilliant appearance.

Both genders of Cardinals are similar in size, yet the colouring of these birds is one of the primary ways of identifying between males and females.

It is likely that those red Cardinals you spot are males, as males are known to be far brighter and redder than females. Male Cardinals are primarily responsible for the bird’s given nickname, the Redbird.

Male Northern Cardinal

The red plumage of the male Cardinal is intensely vibrant, whereas females bare a fainter, subtler brown pigment with only some dull red feathers on their underparts. Another significant characteristic of the Cardinal is the dark mask on their faces. Males have notably more prominent, black masks where females have a paler mask, appearing light brown as opposed to black.

There are some similarities in the appearance of both male and female Cardinals. They both have rather large red-orange bills, although males may have some black edging. Both males and females also have very uniquely shaped triangular chests, but the male chest may appear a little larger.


Another useful way to identify between male and female Cardinals is by observing their behaviour. Cardinals are renowned songbirds and both male and female Cardinals can sing, unlike other songbirds.

There are significant differences in their songs, however, that is a big factor in identifying between them.

Male Cardinals have a somewhat sharper, more aggressive projection of song, likely to be a defence mechanism against threat and intimidation from other birds.

Females, however, are much more intentional with their singing, often calling on the males to bring them food. The songs of females are also louder and more rhythmic than males. Can you tell the difference between them?

Male Cardinals are traditionally more aggressive than females, often acting and behaving territorially, defending their juveniles and breeding locations from other birds. Interestingly, the males will confuse their own reflection with intruders and will act aggressively and defensively towards the glass surface. Cardinals often travel in pairs in breeding season, expanding to larger flocks in winter.

They do not migrate, however, meaning that Cardinals can be spotted year-round. Cardinals are known to mate for life and remain in their pairs, which means that if you spot a male a female must be nearby (and vice-versa). The males often do most of the foraging, whilst females are most likely to be nesting, therefore when you spot a Cardinal it is most likely to be a male.


It is helpful to observe the nesting habits of Cardinals in order to help make the distinction between male and female. As mentioned previously, male and female Cardinals mate for life and therefore adapt to particular roles.

Female Cardinals are known to build the nests, whereas males are likely to collect the materials for it. This may also be one of the reasons that you are most likely to see a male Cardinal, as opposed to a female who remains concealed near her nest.

Before building the nest, the female will be accompanied by the male in finding a suitable location for nesting, assessing various locations in shrubs and trees. Females are also responsible for raising and taking care of their eggs and send off the males to search for their food.

If you spot a Cardinal amongst trees and shrubbery, pay attention to its movements.

You might get some insight into what tasks the bird is undertaking, which may help you identify whether it is male or female.


As we know, Northern Cardinals are miraculous birds. Whether they are male, female, or even a combination of both, you can easily identify which it is based on a handful of key characteristics.

The next time you spot a Northern Cardinal, be sure to pay attention to its detailed appearance, as well as it’s behaviour and nesting habits if spotted in the wild. Probability suggests that most likely that when you spot a Cardinal, it is almost always going to be a male.

But less common sightings do show that females and gynandromorphic Cardinals are just as spectacular, proving once again that these birds are truly remarkable creatures.