Birds That Look Similar to Northern Cardinal [Updated 2023]

Cardinal sitting on a tree

The Northern Cardinal has quite a few nicknames like the Common Cardinal or simply Redbird. They are one of three species of Cardinals, and they can easily be mistaken for one another. So, what are different birds that look similar to Northern Cardinal?

Pyrrhuolixa, Tanagers, and Northern Cardinals all belong to the Cardinalidae family, a group of colorful songbirds across the Americas. Similarities include; their size, wingspan, conical beaks, and bright colors. Some examples include the Purple Finch, Phainopepla, and Vermillion Flycatcher. 

Keep reading as we unpack birds that look like a Cardinal but is not and discuss the traits and their relationship with each other. 

Birds That Look Like A Cardinal But Is Not!

There are birds that are strikingly familiar but do not belong to the Cardinalidae family include:

Northern Cardinal vs. Pine Grosbeak [Fringillidae family]

Northern cardinal vs Pine Grosbeak

The Grosbeak belong to the largest North American bird group, the Fringillidae, commonly known as the Finch Family but is also part of the subfamily group called Carduelinae.

The Grosbeak has a thick conical-shaped beak to help crush seeds and twigs for making nests.


These adventurous Grosbeaks can be seen across North America, Canada, and even as far as areas in Argentina.

Physical Characteristics:

The male Pine Grosbeak has a pale-rose tint to its plumage and has dark grey and white wings on the tips.

The female has a light gray body with a pale yellow-olive color splashed over their head and throat. Their wings seem very similar, if not the same, as the male. 

Reaching up to 10-inches in height and creating a wingspan of 13-inches, the Grosbeak weighs in at an average of 2-ounces, making it one of the larger birds on this list. 

Northern Cardinal vs. Purple Finch [Fringillidae family]

Northern Cardinal vs. Purple Finch

Alongside the Grosbeaks, the Purple Finch is part of the large Finch family known as the Fringillidae. 


The Purple Finch love to nest in woodland areas. They are commonly found in the mixed forest regions in Canada and the northeastern regions of the United States. 

Physical Characteristics:

Weighing between 0.6-ounces and 1.1-ounces, they’re one of the smaller birds on this list. They can grow between 4.7-inches to a modest 6.3-inches and have a wingspan that can reach 10.2-inches. 

The male Purple Finch has a very delicate blend of pink and red plumage with slightly spotted feathers on the back and dark feathers at the tips of their wings.

The slightly raised hair on the head of the male Purple Finch creates the illusion of a crest. 

The females have a less exaggerated rise that’s dark brown. Their underbelly is white, and the rest of their bodies is a dirty yellow with brown feathers that create thin stripes down their bodies. 

Northern Cardinal vs. Phainopepla [Ptiliogonatidae family]

Northern Cardinal vs. Phainopepla

The Phainopepla is one of the more popular birds on this list for its elegant crest and for the male’s glossy black plumage.

Those unaware of how the female Phainopeopla looks are probably confused about why a blackbird is on this list. Well, the female Phainopepla looks nothing like the male. 


These birds love the sun as they are found in the central and northern regions of California to the desert’s oasis in Arizona, down to Mexico. 

Physical Characteristics:

Often seen soaring through the skies of the southwest in the States, the Phainopepla weighs an average of 0.85-ounces.

Their elongated crest can grow up to 8-inches in height, with a wingspan stretching up to 11-inches. 

The female Phainopepla has a long, dark tail and a crest that looks like the bird has bed hair.

Both females and males have striking red eyes, and it’s more noticeable against the dark gray plumage of the female. 

Northern Cardinal vs. Vermillion Flycatcher [Tyrannidae family]

Northern Cardinal vs. Vermillion Flycatcher

This little firecracker looks like a lot of fun, doesn’t he? The male Vermillion Flycatcher looks like a combination of a male and female Cardinal, with its plumage being a vibrant reddish-orange.

Instead, its wings are a dark brownish shade. 


These cute little Flycatchers are common in the Southeastern region of the U.S., stretching down across Mexico. Some adventures groups have made their way up North as far as Canada. 

Physical Characteristics:

The female Vermillion Flycatcher is rather dull in contrast to their male counterparts. In fact, they’re often mistaken for another Flycatcher, the Say’s Phoebe.

These tiny birds only reach 5.5-inches in height, producing a wingspan up to 10-inches, and weigh between 0.39-ounces and 0.49-ounces. 

Cardinals That look Similar to Northern Cardinals

Cardinals belong to the genus Cardinalis and part of the family Cardinalidae, which also hosts the Vermillion Cardinal and the Desert Cardinal. Their songbirds that are found in both South and North America

  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
  • Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus)
  • Pyrrhuloxia or Desert Cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus)

Now, before we dive into which birds look like the Northern Cardinal, let’s have a quick glimpse of how a Northern Cardinal actually looks like. 

What a Northern Cardinal Looks Like?

The red-beaked Northern Cardinal is a mid-sized songbird found northeast of the U.S., reaching 9.1-inches in height with a wingspan of 12.2-inches.

With a distinct crest on the head and red beaks, males are crimson red with black covering their faces, while females are fawn with grayish-brown feathers with a reddish tint. 

Northern Cardinal vs.  Pyrrhuloxia, Also Known as the Desert Cardinal

The female Cardinal is commonly misidentified as a Pyrruloxis, an understandable mistake since both are from the same Genus.

Male and female Pyrruxloxis has a red crest and chest, which is surrounded by a grayish-brown color. The tips of their feathers have a reddish tint.


As the name suggests, the ‘Desert Cardinal’ nickname isn’t just based on appearance.

They prefer the drier environments found in the Southwestern regions of the United States, like Arizona and the southern areas of New Mexico.

Physical Characteristics:

They’re slightly smaller than the average Cardinal as they reach up to 8.75-inches in height.

Their wingspan, however, is very similar to the Cardinal, as it stretches to 12-inches.

The songs of Pyrrhuloxias are identical to Cardinals; they’re just not as loud. 

Northern Cardinal vs. Scarlet Tanager 

The Tanager is a beautiful songbird that is part of the Piranga genus and part of the cardinalidae family. 


These birds love the northeastern and midwestern regions of North America during the summer season because of the evergreen forests.

They flock down to South America’s north-western forests during the winter times.

Physical Characteristics:

The male Scarlet Tanager presents a bit of a fearless persona with its stocky red body and black eyes.

The pitch-black wings and tail feathers would immediately signal that this bird wouldn’t be a Cardinal if you saw it in nature.

When they’re in flight, you’ll notice that their tales are shorter and broader than the long tail feathers of the Cardinal. 

Apart from sharing a very similar color plumage, the male Scarlet Tanager has slightly raised feathers on the top of its head.

These raised feathers create a similar illusion to that of the crest of the Northern Cardinal. The female Scarlet Tanager’s plumage has bright yellow-olive color with darker wings.

Northern Cardinal vs. Summer Tanager 

At first sight, they are strikingly familiar. Once your eyes have adjusted, you begin noticing that the male Summer Tanager doesn’t have a black mask of feathers.

An easy way to tell the difference between the Summer Tanager and Northern Cardinal is to look for the Cardinal’s crest because the Tanager doesn’t have one. 


These birds begin their migration with laying their eggs on Mexicans northern border. Some migrate further south while many migrate north alongside the southwestern coast of North America. 

Physical Characteristics:

The female Summer Tanager has a bright yellow-green plumage and chases the sun in the southern side of the United States down to Mexico and South America in the winter seasons. 

These medium-sized songbirds can weigh up to 1-ounces and grow up to 6.7-inches and soars with a wingspan between 11.6-inches and 11.8-inches.

Their beak is more blunted a pale yellow in color than the Northern Cardinal’s triangular shape. Their songs and calls are even similar.

Northern Cardinal vs. Vermillion Cardinal 

The Vermillion Cardinal is one of three Cardinal birds. Even though they look more like the American Cardinal than the Pyrryuloxias, they’re actually closer to the Pyrryuloxias. 


These Cardinals are found only across Colombia and the Venezuelan region as they love the dry savannah of the shrubland region.

Physical Characteristics:

Weighing between 0.8-1.5-ounces, these birds are a bit smaller than the average Northern Cardinal. They reach up to 9.8-inches in height, with a wingspan potentially reaching 11-inches.

The shade of red for these birds is almost scarlet, accompanied by the tough seed-cracking gray beak.

Their crest is also more dramatic than the Northern Cardinal; it nearly takes on a mohawk shape. Otherwise, their beak and body take the same shape as their Northern cousin.


Northern Cardinals and the other members of the family share many traits and features. The Northern Cardinal is the only one with a prominent crest and such vibrant colors.

Knowing these features that distinguish these birds look similar to the Northern Cardinal will, in time, make it easier to tell them apart. 


Donald Bergeson

I have always been fascinated by the skill, strength, and beauty of birds.They help in maintaining a balance of ecological environment. At Best Bird Guide, I share all of my experiences and discoveries that I have got so far and inspire more devoted fans.

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