These brilliantly beautiful birds are easy to identify, especially the males.  They are red all over and it’s very common to see them at feeders, they are hardly shy and especially appreciate sunflower seeds.  Females are mostly brown but have  red-orange coloring along the edges of their wings tips of their tales and in their crests (the little mo-hawk type things on their heads).

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Female Cardinal with good view of her crest, male’s tale visible on the other side of the feeder

Both genders share the black marking on their faces, surrounding their beaks.   They also share the same brightly colored red-orange beaks, but it stands out a lot more on the females. Their short wide beaks are great for seeds, which are their primary food source.

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Backs of female and male cardinals on opposite sides of the bird feeder

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Another comparison of the female (bottom left) and male (upper right)

When they’re not in someone’s backyard, cardinals become harder to find, because of their preference for thick underbrush.  They can still be located by their calls, though, once you become familiar with it.  They have a sharp, bright chirp which can get pretty loud.

These are technically Northern Cardinals, so called because their habitat is primarily in North America.  It goes as far north as the Great Lakes in the Eastern United States, and covers most of the southern United States as well as most of Mexico.  Cardinals are not migratory and thus can be found throughout their range year long.  They also keep the same plumage all year round, not having to conserve energy for long journeys, which is another reason they are easy to identify.

Some other common names by which they’re known are cardinal-grosbeaks and cardinal-buntings, due to their similarities, especially in appearance to these other two families.  All of these families along with many many more, including very common ones like finches and sparrows, all belong to the Order Passeriformes.  Passeriformes, or passerines, as they are sometimes called, is the largest order, making up more than half of all extant birds in the world.  Passerines are sometimes referred to as songbirds, because all the songbirds reside within this order, but there are some families that do not fall in that category.  They can more accurately be called perching birds, because they all share that ability, beginning with their first toe backwards facing and three others that face forward, which is technically called an anisodactyl arrangement (which literally translates into aniso – uneven/unequal and dactyl – foot).   Interestingly enough, the relaxed form of their muscles leave their talons clenched, allowing them to sleep while perched without danger of falling.  Other shared characteristics include, but are not limited to: distinct markings and often coloring, smallish size, varying degrees of vocal abilities, and babies that require a lot of care.  Below is an example of how Cardinals and other passerines perch.

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Easy to see ‘perching toes’ grasping the branch

The only time it is a little difficult to recognize a Cardinal is when it’s a young male and all the red hasn’t come in yet.  Even then, though, the overall size and shape of the bird, especially their long tails, and even the beginning of their crest, as well as the shape and strength of the beak make it fairly easy to identify them.

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Juvenile male Cardinal

I took all of these pictures in Oklahoma on two separate occasions. One time was during the summer, and that’s when I got pictures of (a) young male(s).  Then I went back again for Thanksgiving and didn’t see any with that coloring.  Wouldn’t it be fun to know if some of the adult males I snapped pictures of were the same ones I got as juveniles?

Does it not look like the birds are making the same faces?  As if the birds looked straight at me and were appalled to find me taking pictures of them trying to eat.  I would like to think it was the same little guy.

I wish you luck in all your personal birding adventures!  I hope you can find some Cardinals, they are very exciting to watch!  Good birding to you!

Shana Nealy

P.S. here are a few more of my Cardinal pictures from Oklahoma


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