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Can cardinals be other colors than red?


Cardinals are known for their bright red plumage, which makes them easy to identify. However, some people have reported spotting cardinals with unusual coloring, bringing up the question – can cardinals be colors other than red? While the typical red coloring is by far the most common, there are some rare genetic variations and conditions that can produce cardinals with different plumage.

Typical red plumage

The red color of cardinals comes from carotenoid pigments in their diet. Cardinals get these red pigments from eating seeds, fruit, and insects that contain these pigments. The red coloration helps cardinals communicate and find mates. The bright crimson plumage of the males helps them stand out to females.

Most cardinals have red feathers covering their face, throat, crest, wings, tail, and parts of their back and belly. The red can range from bright orange-red to deeper scarlet. Females are soft brownish-red overall with some reddish-orange and gray feathers mixed in. Juveniles start out with brownish-gray feathers that become red as they molt and mature.

So in most cases, cardinals achieve their distinctive red hue through their normal diet. But in rare cases, unusual genetics or conditions can lead to different colors.

Genetic mutations

Genetic mutations can sometimes disrupt the normal process of carotenoid absorption or deposition in cardinals. One possible genetic mutation is albinism, which prevents normal pigment from being deposited in feathers.

Albino cardinals have white plumage instead of red since they lack the normal red pigments. However, albino cardinals are extremely rare. They may have reddish eyes and feet, but their feathers are pure white.

Another possible genetic mutation is melanism, which causes an over-production of melanin pigments. Melanistic cardinals may appear much darker than normal, with blackish-red, brownish-gray, or even black feathers. These melanistic cardinals are uncommon but have been spotted in nature.

Dietary pigment differences

The diet of cardinals can also occasionally impact their coloration. Cardinals normally get their bright red hue from carotenoids in their regular diet. But subtle differences in diet can lead to subtle differences in color.

Cardinals that consume less red/orange pigments may be a paler peachy-red shade. This can happen if seeds and fruit are less abundant one season, or if the carotenoid content is lower. A cardinal with faded plumage likely has a dietary deficiency in carotenoids.

On the other hand, cardinals that eat lots of red/orange foods can become even deeper red. Cardinals are known to eat berries, cherries, dogwood, and sumac fruit, which all contain carotenoids. More consumption of these very pigmented foods can intensify their redness.

So natural seasonal or individual variations in diet can lead to some natural variation in the red hues of cardinals. But extreme diet differences would be needed to cause radically different colors besides red.

Color changes during molting

Cardinals molt and replace their feathers periodically throughout the year. During the molting process, the newer emerging feathers may differ slightly in color from the old feathers.

Freshly molted feathers coming in may be brighter and more intensely red. Older fading feathers tend to be more washed out brownish-red. So a cardinal who has just completed a molt can look especially vibrant.

On the other hand, a mid-molt cardinal with a mix of old and new feathers may seem dull or patchy in color. Molting happens gradually, so the odd coloration is only temporary until the new feathers grow in.

Physical abnormalities

In rare cases, physical abnormalities can also impact cardinal plumage color:

– Injury or trauma could damage developing feather follicles, leading to odd pigmentation.

– Skin, feather, or beak abnormalities may point to underlying illness, which could affect coloring.

– Parasites like lice or mites could disrupt feather growth and cause discoloration in patches.

However, these conditions are uncommon and should not drastically alter plumage color across the entire bird. Trauma or disease may lead to poor feather growth in isolated areas, while the majority of the plumage remains normally colored.

Color variations in females

Female cardinals show much more variation in color than males. While males are consistently bright red, females can display subtle variations in their plumage.

Some females are quite red overall, while others are more brownish-gray. Regional and individual differences in the diet of females may impact her carotenoid intake and influence her shades of red.

Females also display more gray feathers, especially on the wings and tails. Higher quantities of gray and fewer red feathers can give some females an overall grayer appearance.

The varied coloring of females helps camouflage them on the nest. Meanwhile, the consistently red males remain easy for other cardinals to spot.

Color variations in juveniles

Young cardinals start out with primarily brownish-gray feathers. Juvenile plumage lacks much red initially, only gaining more red patches as they molt and mature.

A very young cardinal may display almost no red feathers yet. Intermediate juveniles show a mix of red, brown, and gray. Only after a full year do they achieve adult coloring.

So it’s quite common for young cardinals to display plumage that is brown, gray, or an intermediate mix of colors. Their patchy irregular appearance helps camouflage them while they are vulnerable fledglings.

Geographic variations

Northern cardinals can be found throughout Eastern North America, Central America, and the Caribbean region. Across this broad range, there are some subtle geographic variations in size, shape, and coloring:

– Cardinals from the subtropical south tend to be slightly smaller and darker red. Increased carotenoids from their fruit-rich diet intensifies their hue.

– Northern cardinals at higher latitudes are generally larger and paler. Their diet contains less intense pigments during the northern winters.

– Island populations may be intensely or dully colored depending on local diet. Isolated island cardinals can eventually differ noticeably from mainland varieties.

– Separate subspecies in Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula are smaller and darker red overall.

So latitude, diet, and isolation can all contribute to subtle regional variations in cardinal plumage tones. But all geographic variants remain essentially red in color.

Rare cardinal color variants

While most cardinals display red plumage, over the years there have been some exceptionally rare sightings of cardinals with dramatically different coloring:

– **Yellow cardinals** – In 2012, an unusual yellow cardinal with some red feathers was repeatedly spotted in Alabama. Its yellow hue was attributed to a rare genetic mutation.

– **White/pale cardinals** – Albino cardinals with pure white or extremely pale plumage are spotted very rarely. Lacking red pigments, they have white feathers with some reddish parts.

– **Orange cardinals** – In 2014, an orange cardinal with negligible red was photographed in Florida. Carotenoid pigments were present but concentrated in orange rather than red.

– **Tan cardinals** – A few tan cardinals lacking normal red pigmentation have been observed over the years. Their precise genetic mutation is unknown.

– **Black/brown cardinals** – Melanistic dark cardinals have been sighted but are highly uncommon. Increased melanin leads to blackish-brown plumage.

These unusually-colored cardinals appear due to rare genetic conditions. But they are the extreme outliers – nearly all cardinals in nature exhibit standard red plumage.


Cardinals nearly universally display red plumage. This red coloration results from carotenoid pigments in their typical seed and berry diet. However, some rare factors can lead to color variants:

– Genetic mutations like albinism, melanism, or other conditions can disrupt normal red pigment deposition.

– Dietary differences in carotenoid content can lead to paler or darker red hues.

– Injuries, parasites, or illness may impact color but only in isolated patches.

– Females and juveniles often display more variable amounts of red, brown, and gray.

– Geographic variation contributes to subtle regional color differences.

But even with these contributing factors, true brightly-colored non-red cardinals are exceptionally rare. The vast majority of cardinals across North and Central America can be distinguished by their quintessential red plumage. So while not impossible, it is highly unusual to see a cardinal that isn’t red!