Birds in the Cardinal Family – Types of Cardinals




Types of Cardinals

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Cardinals, with their vibrant hues and melodic tunes, have long captivated birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. While many instantly picture the iconic bright red Northern Cardinal, the world of cardinals is more diverse and colorful than one might initially think.

Delve into the fascinating variety of cardinal species that grace our planet.

Cardinal Family

The cardinal family, scientifically known as Cardinalidae, consists of passerine birds found in North and South America. These birds are primarily medium-sized and known for their vibrant colors, strong bills, and melodious songs.

The Northern Cardinal, with its bright red coloration and distinct crest, is undeniably the most iconic member of this family and common in eastern North America. Its unmistakable presence has not only drawn the admiration of birdwatchers but has also led to its significant role in various cultural contexts.

Cardinals Found in North America

Common NameScientific NameDescription
Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalisMale has brilliant red plumage with a distinct crest. Females are pale brown with reddish highlights.
PyrrhuloxiaCardinalis sinuatusResembles the Northern Cardinal but has more gray coloration and a red face mask. Found in the southwestern U.S.
Black-headed GrosbeakPheucticus melanocephalusFound in the western U.S. with males having a black head, orange breast, and white spots on black wings.
Rose-breasted GrosbeakPheucticus ludovicianusMales have a black head, white body, and a rose-colored patch on their breast.
Blue GrosbeakPasserina caeruleaMales are vibrant blue with a black face and wings. Females are brown.
Indigo BuntingPasserina cyaneaMales are bright blue while females are light brown. Common in the eastern and central U.S.
Painted BuntingPasserina cirisMales have bright colors: blue head, green back, and red underparts. Females are greenish-yellow.
DickcisselSpiza americanaResembles a small meadowlark. Primarily found in the central U.S. in grasslands.
Lazuli BuntingPasserina amoenaMales have a bright blue head, white belly, and rust-colored breast. Found in the western U.S.
Varied BuntingPasserina versicolorMales have a blend of purple, blue, and crimson. Mostly found in the southernmost parts of the U.S. and more commonly in Mexico.

Cardinals Found Elsewhere

Common NameScientific NameDescription
Red-cowled CardinalParoaria dominicanaFound in Brazil and Argentina, known for its bright red hood.
Yellow-billed CardinalParoaria capitataPredominantly black with a red head and a noticeable yellow bill. Found in southern Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and northern Argentina.
Masked CardinalParoaria nigrogenisNative to Trinidad, Colombia, and Venezuela. Distinct black face mask and bright red plumage.
Crimson-fronted CardinalParoaria baeriFound in Brazil, it has a white body, red head, and a distinct crimson patch on its forehead.
Red-capped CardinalParoaria gularisNative to northern South America, has a red head, white underparts, and gray wings and back.
Ultramarine GrosbeakCyanoloxia brissoniiFound in South America, males are primarily blue while females are brown.
Golden-billed SaltatorSaltator aurantiirostrisDistributed across much of South America, known for its robust build and its bright golden-yellow bill.
Thick-billed SaltatorSaltator maxillosusNative to South America, recognized by its stout bill and striped head pattern.
Black-winged SaltatorSaltator atripennisFound in Argentina and Bolivia, it has a gray body, black wings, and white throat.

The Cardinalidae family, commonly known as the cardinal family, is a diverse group that includes not only the cardinals but also grosbeaks and tanagers. These birds, while varied in appearance and habitat, share certain characteristics that classify them within the same family. Let’s delve deeper into some of the notable species from the grosbeak and tanager groups.


Grosbeaks are known for their stout bills, adept at cracking open seeds.

  • Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus): Sporting a black head and bright orange chest for males and a streaked brown appearance for females.
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus): Males have a distinctive rose patch on their white belly, while females are streaked in brown.
  • Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea): With its deep blue hue and rust-colored wing bars in males, it’s a Southern U.S. favorite.
  • Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus): Exhibiting a yellow and black color palette, it’s a sight to behold in North American forests.

yellow green grosbeak blue black grosbeak ultramarine grosbeak


Tanagers captivate observers with their vivid hues and are predominantly native to the Neotropics. However, some species grace the North American landscapes with their presence.

  • Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea): This North American jewel is easily recognizable. The males dazzle with a fiery red body set off by black wings and tail, whereas the females don a subtle olive-yellow.
  • Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana): Native to North America’s west, males sport a luminous yellow body, black wings, and a standout red head.
  • Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra): Unique for being North America’s only entirely red bird, the males exhibit a rose-red plumage, while the females are cloaked in a soft yellow-orange.
  • Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata): A Central American gem, it mesmerizes with a gold-adorned head, a turquoise body, and a contrasting black back and tail.

Additionally, there’s a suite of ant tanagers like the red throated ant tanager, black cheeked ant tanager, red crowned ant tanager, sooty ant tanager and Crested Ant Tanager that further enrich the Neotropical avian tapestry.

Passerina Buntings: A Spectrum of Color

  • Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea): As previously mentioned, the male is an iridescent deep blue during the breeding season, while females and juveniles are brown with hints of blue on their tails and wings.
  • Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris): One of the most colorful North American birds, males sport a vivid combination of red, blue, and green, making them look almost tropical. Females are a plain greenish-yellow, blending well with their surroundings.
  • Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena): Males have a bright blue head and back, a white belly, and a rusty-orange chest, creating a beautiful gradient. Females are pale brown with a touch of blue on their wings and tail.
  • Rose-bellied Bunting (Passerina rositae): Native to Mexico, the male boasts a deep blue head and upper body, transitioning into a vibrant rose-colored belly. The females are more subdued with shades of brown.
  • Varied Bunting (Passerina versicolor): Males possess a mix of purple, blue, and red, especially in good lighting, while females are a nondescript brown.
  • Orange-breasted Bunting (Passerina leclancherii): Found in the tropical regions of western Mexico, males are radiant with a combination of blue, green, and a fiery orange breast. Females exhibit a greenish-yellow coloration. Others include the Blue bunting cardinal birds

Northern Cardinal


Northern Cardinals are medium-sized birds known for their brilliant red color and crested heads. The males are stunningly vibrant with their entirely red plumage, while the females have a more subtle appearance (see the difference between Male Vs Female Cardinal). Female Northern Cardinals have a pale brown coloration with touches of red on their wings, crest, and tail. Both males and females have a distinctive black face mask and a conical bill.


Northern Cardinals are the most well-known type of cardinal and can be found in eastern United States, Mexico, and Central America. They are a resident species in these regions, meaning they do not migrate and can be seen all year round. Their adaptability to various habitats, including forests, woodlands, gardens, and parks, has contributed to their wide distribution.


Northern Cardinals are known for their charming behavior. They are typically non-migratory and stay in their territories throughout the year. The males are particularly vocal and often perch in prominent locations, such as treetops and power lines, to sing their beautiful songs.

They may also engage in courtship displays, where the male feeds the female, in order to strengthen their bond. Northern Cardinals are generally not aggressive towards humans and can be observed peacefully foraging for seeds or berries in backyards and gardens. Cardinal Eggs are laid 2-3 times a year and Cardinal Fledglings leave the well hidden cardinal nest after 14 days.

The Northern Cardinal has a firm place in American popular culture. Its vibrant color and pleasant song have made it a favorite among bird lovers. It holds the honor of being the state bird for seven U.S. states, more than any other bird: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Pyrrhuloxia: The Desert Cardinal

Physical Features Distinguishing it from the Northern Cardinal

The Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) is often mistaken for the Northern Cardinal due to some similarities. However, it has a more muted color palette. While male Northern Cardinals are bright red, male Pyrrhuloxias have gray bodies with red on the face, wings, and tail. Their bills are also noticeably more parrot-like and curved.

Habitats and Regions it’s Most Commonly Found

Pyrrhuloxia, commonly known as the Desert Cardinal, is a resident of the American Southwest and Mexico’s arid regions. It primarily occupies desert thickets, often favoring mesquite, cholla, and other prickly desert plants.

Adaptations for a Desert Environment

The Desert Cardinal has several adaptations that help it thrive in its arid environment. Its diet is versatile, consisting of seeds, fruits, and insects, allowing it to make the most of the limited resources. Furthermore, its behavior includes being most active during cooler parts of the day to conserve energy and avoid the desert’s extreme midday heat.

Vermilion Cardinal


Vermilion Cardinals, also known as the Red-capped Cardinal, share a similar appearance to Northern Cardinals but with some distinct differences. They are mainly red in coloration, but their plumage appears slightly darker and less vibrant compared to Northern Cardinals. They possess a red crest on their head, similar to their Northern Cardinal relatives. Vermilion Cardinals have a black face mask and a bright red beak.


Vermilion Cardinals are primarily found in northern parts of Venezuela and northeastern Colombia. They inhabit tropical shrublands and can be observed in areas with dense vegetation, including forests and mangroves. Their range is limited compared to the Northern Cardinals, but they are still an iconic bird in their respective habitat.


Vermilion Cardinals share similar behavior patterns with other cardinal species. They are territorial birds and defend their territories against intruders, including other male Vermilion Cardinals. Their vocalizations play an important role in territorial defense and attracting mates. Vermilion Cardinals are known to be less commonly seen compared to Northern Cardinals, but their captivating appearance and behavior make them an exciting species to spot in the wild.

The South American Varieties

While North America boasts its iconic Northern Cardinal, South America is home to various cardinal species that showcase an array of vibrant colors and unique features.

Red-cowled Cardinal

The Red-cowled Cardinal (Paroaria dominicana) stands out with its bright red head and neck, contrasted against its white underparts and brown upper body.

Yellow-billed Cardinal

As its name suggests, the Yellow-billed Cardinal (Paroaria capitata) is known for its distinctive yellow beak. It has a red head and black and white body.

Red-capped Cardinal

The Red-capped Cardinal (Paroaria gularis) sports a vivid red head, similar to its cousins, but has a predominantly white underbody with sleek black upper parts.

While these South American cardinals differ in color patterns, they share several characteristics. All have strong, robust bills adapted for seed consumption and a penchant for open habitats near water. Their social behaviors and melodic calls also make them notable in their respective habitats.

Cardinal Coloration

Male Northern Cardinals are known for their vibrant red plumage, which remains vivid throughout the year. Their entire body, including their crest, wings, back, and tail, is colored in various shades of red. The intensity of their red coloration attracts females and serves as a visual display of their health and vitality.

Female Northern Cardinals have a more subdued coloration compared to males. They possess a pale brown plumage with hints of red on their wings, crest, and tail. This blending of colors helps them blend into their surroundings, providing better protection during nest-building and incubation.

Vermilion Cardinals display a similar color palette to Northern Cardinals. They are mainly red, albeit slightly darker than their Northern Cardinal relatives. The red color is evident throughout their body, including their crest, wings, and tail. Their overall coloration is vibrant and eye-catching.

Pyrrhuloxia or Desert Cardinals have a unique coloration that sets them apart from other cardinals. They have a combination of auburn and gray tones in their plumage. The males display a brighter red on their crest and wings, while the females have a more muted gray appearance. The bright yellow beak of Pyrrhuloxia adds a striking contrast to their overall coloration.

Territorial Behavior

Cardinals, including Northern Cardinals, Vermilion Cardinals, and Pyrrhuloxia, are known to be territorial birds. Males fiercely defend their territories against intruders, especially other males of the same species. Intruding males are met with aggressive displays, including loud calls, raised crests, and fluffing of feathers. Direct physical confrontations may also occur, although they are relatively rare.

Cardinals are generally not aggressive towards humans, and they are often observed peacefully coexisting in backyards and gardens. They may visit bird feeders, especially during the winter months when food sources are scarce. Cardinals are known for their beautiful songs, which can be enjoyed by humans as a pleasant soundtrack to their outdoor activities. However, it is important to give these birds their space and avoid disturbing their natural behaviors.

Breeding Habits

Cardinals, including all three species mentioned, have a relatively high breeding frequency. They typically breed and raise multiple broods in a breeding season. This allows them to replace any individuals lost to predation or other factors and maintain their population numbers. The exact number of broods produced may vary depending on environmental conditions and availability of resources.

The nesting habits of cardinals vary among the different species. Northern Cardinals build cup-shaped nests, usually in dense shrubs, vines, or low trees. The nests are often constructed by the female and are made of twigs, grasses, and other plant materials. Vermilion Cardinals have similar nesting habits, building their nests in shrublands or forest edges. Pyrrhuloxia or Desert Cardinals, on the other hand, prefer to construct their nests in prickly vegetation, such as cacti and thorny thickets, providing additional protection for their eggs and nestlings.

How many birds are in the cardinal family?

The cardinal family, or Cardinalidae, comprises over 50 species. This family not only includes cardinals but also grosbeaks, buntings, and some tanagers.

What bird family are cardinals?

Cardinals belong to the bird family Cardinalidae. This family encompasses a variety of songbirds primarily found in the Americas.

What are the three types of cardinals?

While there are several species in the cardinal family, the three most commonly referred to as “cardinals” are:

  1. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis): This is the red cardinal familiar to many in the eastern United States.
  2. Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus): Found in northern Colombia and Venezuela, this bird has a striking red color similar to the Northern Cardinal.
  3. Pyrrhuloxia or Desert Cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus): This bird is found in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico and is gray with a red face and often a red underbelly.

What are cardinals related to?

Cardinals are closely related to other birds in the Cardinalidae family, such as grosbeaks, buntings, and certain tanagers. The relationships between these birds are based on genetic data and shared morphological characteristics.

Are cardinals the only birds that mate for life?

No, cardinals are not the only birds that form long-term pair bonds. Many bird species, such as swans, certain species of geese, and eagles, are known to form monogamous relationships that can last for many years or even a lifetime. However, it’s essential to understand that “mating for life” in birds doesn’t always equate to exclusive pair bonding; some birds will find new mates if their partner dies or if they fail to breed successfully with their current partner.

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