The American robin and the northern cardinal are two of the birds most contused with each other by many people and it is not surprising. Although these two species have many similarities, for example in the way they sing and in the vivid colors they have, some key differences will guide us in distinguishing them.
Furthermore, in many areas, it is common for these two species to be found in the same habitat since, as we will see below, their distribution coincides in many places.
Therefore, in this article, you will learn everything you need to get to know each of these species better, which will make it easy for you to differentiate them.
What is the main difference between a Robin and a Cardinal?
One of the main differences is the coloration of each species, while American robins have a very striking bright orange color on their chest and a gray back, male northern cardinals have bright red coloration and in the case of females are pale brown.
Expert Tip: Another difference that ornithology experts find is the size of each species. Cardinals are usually smaller than robins.
Although these are the main differences, we can appreciate many others in almost all aspects of both birds as we will see below.
Main characteristics of each species
In this section, we will learn about the different characteristics of each species to learn more about each of them. In addition, they will also help us to differentiate them more easily.
American robins have an orange coloration on the underside, this being the most striking. In the rest of the body, it is grayish and brown, although its head is much darker than the rest of the body.
In the case of cardinals, the males have much brighter coloration than the females, in this case of intense red color. On the other hand, females are soft brown with some reddish reflections mainly on the wings, tail, and crest.
Young birds, both male, and female show a coloration similar to that of adult females until fall when they molt and grow adult feathers.
Size and Shape
Robins have a rounded body shape and are 9-11 inches (22-28 centimeters) from their legs to their heads.
Cardinals have a shape similar to robins although they are a bit longer despite being smaller in stature. They are typically 8.3 to 9.3 inches (21-23.5 centimeters) long on average.
During winter, they look bigger because both the male and female fluff their feathers to trap warm air next to their body and prevent cold air from reaching their body. The down feathers are small and hair-like at the base of each flight feather.
The legs and feet of almost all birds are thin and devoid of feathers, making them vulnerable to rapid heat loss.
The beak of American robins is small and fine in size that giving it a more elongated appearance with a slight upward curvature. Its beak is shaped like this to make it easier for it to hunt its prey, which is usually small insects. The color of its beak is completely yellow.
Cardinals have a cylindrical beak at the base that gives it an orange-colored cone shape. On the face around the beak, they have an indistinguishable circular black spot. Although this species also feeds (although less often) on insects, its beak does not have the typical shape with that curvature of hunting birds.
Adult robins have rounded wingtips and a wingspan of 12 to 16 inches (30-40 centimeters).
Northern cardinals also have rounded wingtips when opened and can grow to between 10 and 12 inches (25-30 centimeters) wingspan, which are significantly smaller than robins’ wings.
The shape of the tail of American robins is reminiscent of a fan that spreads and is entirely black or dark brown.
The tail of the northern cardinals has a rounded shape and like most of its body, it has a bright red hue and in the case of females, the tail is pale brown with some reddish reflections. Northern cardinals, being smaller than robins, have a smaller tail as well.
Way of Flying
An easy way to distinguish American robins when they adopt the flight position is by looking at a white spot between the belly and the tail. They have a direct and fairly fast-flying style.
The northern cardinals have a different way of flying since you can see the beating of their wings in a very marked and strong way.
American robins are quite social birds that seek protection in the herd, especially in cold weather. For this reason, it is very common to see this species in large flocks.
Northern cardinals, on the other hand, usually choose a mate to live with after the mating season. At this time, this species of bird meets in small family groups to choose who will be its partner.
American robins often make sounds to impress females or to warn other males that they are in their territory.
Northern cardinals also use their sounds to attract females but instead of robins, they also use their sounds to scare off predators. The northern cardinal learns their songs, and as a result, the songs vary by region. Although they have a very similar song and it is what makes people confuse them.
Expert Tip: According to experts, the sound of cardinals is more attractive and slower.
The songs of the two sexes of the northern cardinal, although not distinguishable by human hearing, are sexually dimorphic. It is suggested that this is due to differences in the hormone levels of the two sexes.
As with height, American robins are bulkier and therefore heavy. On average, this bird can weigh between 77 and 80 grams (2.7-3.0 ounces).
Northern cardinals weigh significantly less. They weigh between 43 to 45 grams (1.51 -1.58 ounces) on average.
In this case, the northern robins have been less lucky. Their life expectancy is between 5 to 6 years but normally they tend to live less since many dangers lurk in nature. They usually live 2 years in the wild.
Northern cardinals are much longer-lived than American robins as their life expectancy can even reach 15 years. But as with robins, in nature they do not live as long as a general rule, averaging about 3 years in birds of their species.
These birds are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plants and animals. The “carnivorous” side of their diet consists mainly of invertebrates, although they sometimes hunt small animals. Some of the different prey they catch include earthworms, grasshoppers, snails, flies, crickets, and more.
They search for seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits throughout their range. When they hunt in the early morning, they hunt worms and other invertebrates, and later in the day. They eat berries and other fruits.
The northern cardinal’s diet consists mainly (up to 90%) of weed seeds, grains, and fruits. It is a trough on the ground and finds food while hopping on the ground through trees or bushes. It will also consume snails and insects, including beetles, cicadas, and grasshoppers; they feed their young almost exclusively on insects.
During the summer months, it shows a preference for seeds that flake easily but is less selective when food is scarce during winter.
Are red robins and cardinal the same?
As we have already been able to deduce so far, the answer is a resounding no, they are not the same. They have differences in the vast majority of their main aspects. In addition, in case it has not been clear, other additional differences have nothing to do with its appearance, such as:
1. Origin of his name
Both species were discovered when European settlers arrived in America and it was they who gave them the names they have. For example, robins were nicknamed that way by the beloved robin of England, and robins are named for the robes formerly worn by Church cardinals.
We must know that both species are quite aggressive when it comes to protecting their territory from other birds. They are also quite suspicious of their environment until they get used to it.
As we have already said before, robins seek protection in the herd and remain in large flocks throughout the year, although especially in winter. On the other hand, northern cardinals prefer to live in pairs.
Both species usually live in forests, bushes, and wetlands although they have become very accustomed to the presence of humans and have learned to live among us. For this reason, it is very common to see them (especially northern cardinals) flying in city parks and gardens, courtyards, or suburban areas.
Expert Tip: The favorite place for robins and cardinals to feed is in open areas such as meadows or fields. However, when it comes to nesting, these birds often go to places with denser vegetation to hide their young from predators.
Robins have a very wide distribution throughout North America and Central America. They can even live in much of Canada and Alaska, except in the far north. This bird can be seen in the southern United States and even Mexico.
On the other hand, northern cardinals are usually abundant throughout the eastern United States. We can also find them in Mexico, northern Guatemala, and northern Belize.
Even though a large number of bird species are used to migrating in cold weather, both American robins and northern cardinals live year-round in the same place. For them, it is not necessary to migrate to live.
The American robin usually makes two clutches a year between April and June. They can lay between 5 or 6 eggs per laying and are blue or greenish-blue. The American female robin build chooses the location of her nests, then builds them from the center to the edges.
Robins usually build their nests in the lower half of the tree, just behind a layer of leaves and on horizontal branches. These nests are woven together from various materials, probably twigs grasses, and even materials that humans can leave behind. On the other hand, northern cardinals usually lay between 2 and 4 clutches per year.
In each of them, they usually lay between 2 and 5 grayish-white or greenish-white eggs with brown or gray splashes.
Expert Tip: In the case of the northern cardinal, mated pairs sometimes sing together before nesting. During courtship, they can also engage in bonding behavior in which the male collects food and takes it to the female, feeding her from beak to beak.
If mating is successful, this feeding of the pair can continue throughout the incubation period.
Both species are prey to a wide variety of native North American predators, including hawks, shrikes, bald eagles, the golden eagle, and various owls, including long-eared owls, and eastern screech owls.
Chick and egg predators include milk snakes. Coluber constrictors, blue jays, crows, eastern gray squirrels, fox squirrels, eastern chipmunks, and house cats.
Do cardinals get along with Robins?
Recently the Toronto Star ran the following headline: “Cardinals and Robins can live together, experts say”. This was in response to another study that stated that two species of birds could not coexist. Again, this is wrong.
At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive, but there have been many recent studies showing that cardinals and robins can coexist. In fact, some studies have even shown a greater number of these species living near one another.
These species can coexist because they are not competing for the same resources. In other words, they don’t eat the same things. In fact, many of the studies on this subject have also shown that two species can share habitat without any problem as long as they do not compete for the same resources.
For example, one study showed that although cardinals and robins may use the same resources (such as fruit and insects) at different times of the year, neither was found to drive the other out.
So next time you see a cardinal perched on your bird feeder, take heart that it may live better near robins than you might expect.
Red Cardinals – Rare or Common?
Who among us hasn’t noticed the splendor of nature? A majestic oak tree on your morning hike, a babbling brook next to a cozy picnic table, or the calming sounds of birds rustling in the branches.
My personal favorite sighting, a beautiful red cardinal. I saw one this morning from my balcony and it got me thinking, is it rare to see a red cardinal?
The simple answer is no, red cardinals are a very common bird, however, any bird is rare outside of its natural habitat.
Expert Tip: Red cardinals are typically common in warmer climates such as the U.S. Southeast but have recently expanded into the northern U.S. and even into Canada making them even more common.
In addition, red cardinals have a significant place in the spiritual world, with many believing that red cardinals are a spiritual sign from Heaven, a connection with lost souls. Either way, we can all agree that they are stunning birds, and rare or not, we’re lucky to spot one from time to time.
As you have already seen, there are many differences between the two species (surely more than you would have imagined) which makes them easy to distinguish. You must remember that the main difference between them and that with a little practice you will recognize them just by looking at them is in their color and size.
Perhaps the most difficult way to differentiate them is by listening to them since as we have said, their songs are quite similar except for a little difference, speed.
We hope this article has been of great help to you and that you have found all the information you needed to distinguish Northern cardinals from American robins. If you have any questions you can comment to let us know, we will gladly answer you.