Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), more commonly known simply as cardinals, are common and beloved birds across the United States. Although often identified by their fiery plumage, only the males of the species are bright red; the females are mostly brown with a slight reddish hue. Several other birds -- some in the same taxonomic genus -- look similar to cardinals.
One of three species -- including cardinals -- belonging to the genus Cardinalis, pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) are one of the cardinal's closest relatives. They're extremely similar in body shape to cardinals, and exhibit that same type of crest and short, stout beak. The most noticeable difference is their coloration: pyrrhuloxias have mostly gray plumage, although they do have small flashes of red in their feathers, not unlike female cardinals.
The third bird species found in the genus Cardinalis are vermilion cardinals (Cardinalis phoeniceus). Although cardinals are normally famed for their red coloration, it's vermilion cardinals that have the brightest plumage. Found only in Colombia and Venezuela, they have the most southerly range of the three species in this genus. Males look remarkably similar to male cardinals, but can be differentiated by the lack of a black mask around their eyes. Also, their ranges don't overlap, so you can tell which is which according to where you spot it.
Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) are roughly the same size and shape as cardinals, but have slightly more slender bodies and noticeably slimmer beaks. Males have shiny black plumage and females are all gray, so they also lack the distinctive red coloration of cardinals. Found across the southwestern United States, they share some of the same geographical range as cardinals.
Although not in the same genus, all tanager species belong to the same taxonomic family as cardinals: Cardinalidae. Five species of Tanagers exist and can be found across various parts of North and South America. Although all of them have a similar body shape to cardinals, those that look most like their cousins are those with red plumage: summer tanagers (Piranga rubra), scarlet tanagers (P. olivacea), flame-colored tanagers (P. bidentata) and hepatic tanagers (P. flava). Like cardinals, it's only the males of the species who exhibit the brightest coloration.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Northern Cardinal
- Birds of the World: Cardinalidae
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Pyrrhuloxia
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology Neotropical Birds: Vermilion Cardinal
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Phainopepla
- Arizona Naturalists: Phainopepla