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What color is a mother cardinal?

The color of a mother cardinal depends on the species of cardinal. The most common cardinal in North America is the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The female Northern Cardinal has pale brownish-gray feathers on the body, wings and tail, with bright red accents on the face mask, crest, wing feathers and tail feathers. The adult male Northern Cardinal is bright red all over.

Quick Facts on Cardinal Colors

  • Adult male Northern Cardinals are bright red with black faces.
  • Adult female Northern Cardinals are pale brownish-gray with bright red accents.
  • The color differences help camouflage the female on the nest.
  • Juvenile cardinals have drab brown and gray feathers until their first molt.
  • Some species like the Red-capped Cardinal have similar coloring as the Northern Cardinal.
  • Tropical species can have yellow, orange, white or even blue plumage.

The color differences between adult male and female Northern Cardinals play an important role in their behavior and breeding. The bright red male is highly visible as he sings and defends his breeding territory. The subtler female is well camouflaged as she incubates eggs and cares for the young in the nest. The drab brown plumage keeps her safely hidden from predators.

Northern Cardinal Color Changes with Age

After hatching, both male and female Northern Cardinal chicks have sparse gray down. At around 2 weeks old, their juvenile plumage starts growing in. Juvenile cardinals have drab brown and gray feathers, lacking any red, orange or yellow pigment. This provides camouflage as the young birds follow their parents outside the nest.

After their first molt around 3 months old, the young cardinals start to show some red-orange color in their feathers. Males will have some reddish feathers mixed in with brown and gray. Females gain red-orange accents in their face, crest, wings and tail.

By their first breeding season at around 1 year old, the birds reach full adult plumage. Adult males are a vivid scarlet red with black faces. The females retain their subtle pale brown and gray feathers with bright red accents. Their plumage continues darkening and intensifying through the second year. Cardinals can live up to 15 years in the wild.

Plumage of Other Cardinal Species

The Northern Cardinal is one of 21 cardinal species in the genus Cardinalis. Here are some examples of mother cardinal colors in other species:

Red-capped Cardinal

Native to eastern South America, the female Red-capped Cardinal resembles the Northern Cardinal with pale brown body plumage and bright red face, wings, tail and crest.

Yellow-billed Cardinal

Found in Venezuela and Colombia, female Yellow-billed Cardinals have pale horn-colored bills and mostly olive-gray plumage with some red accents in the face and wings.

Red-cowled Cardinal

In parts of South America, the female Red-cowled Cardinal is olive-brown overall with orange-red on the face and throat.

Magnificent Ground Dove

Though not a true cardinal, females of this Mexican dove species are primarily grayish-brown with a red face and breast.

Species Region Female Coloring
Northern Cardinal North America Pale brown body with bright red accents on face, crest, wings and tail
Red-capped Cardinal South America Pale brown body with bright red accents on face, crest, wings and tail
Yellow-billed Cardinal Venezuela, Colombia Mostly olive-gray body with some red in face and wings
Red-cowled Cardinal South America Olive-brown overall with orange-red face and throat
Magnificent Ground Dove Mexico Grayish-brown overall with red face and breast

Why Do Male and Female Cardinals Look Different?

The reason male and female Northern Cardinals look so strikingly different comes down to their reproductive behaviors and strategies.

In many bird species, the males are brightly colored to attract mates, while the females are camouflaged to blend into the environment while incubating eggs and caring for the young. Cardinals follow this pattern closely.

The bright red male Northern Cardinals stand out vividly against green trees as they sing and display to defend their territories and attract females. Being so visible advertises their presence and fitness. In contrast, the pale brown females can fade into vegetation as they nest and raise their chicks. Their subtle coloring helps conceal them and their eggs from potential predators.

Juvenile cardinals of both sexes start out with camouflaging gray/brown plumage. This helps hide the vulnerable fledglings as they learn to fly and forage outside the nest. As they mature, the males and females follow different development paths – males increasing in scarlet intensity while females retain subtler hues of brown, gray and red.

How Do Cardinals Get Their Color?

Cardinals get their brilliant red, orange and yellow colors from carotenoid pigments in their diet. They ingest carotenoids from fruit and berries, as well as insects. The pigments are then deposited in the birds’ feathers as they grow.

Northern Cardinals maintain their bright plumage through molting. Each year they molt partially in early summer, replacing some feathers after the breeding season. Then they undergo a complete molt in late summer/early fall before winter arrives.

Without sufficient carotenoid-rich foods in their diet, cardinals’ plumage would appear less vibrant. Oranges and reds would be paler or more yellow. In some tropical locales, cardinals have access to different carotenoids that create orange, peach or even yellow coloring instead of red.

While the red pigments come from food sources, genetics regulate exactly where the pigments are deposited in different amounts and intensities. The instructions encoded in DNA dictate males will be red overall while females retain a subtler mix of browns, grays and reds.

Interesting Facts About Cardinal Colors

Here are a few more interesting tidbits about cardinal plumage colors:

– Orange Northern Cardinals sometimes show up due to a genetic mutation causing abnormal pigment deposition.

– Albino cardinals with white plumage are extremely rare. They lack the normal pigments from diet.

– Cardinals molt all their head feathers at once, briefly losing color on their faces.

– Male and female cardinals look identical when juveniles. Sex is determined through DNA testing.

– Cardinals use their colorful bills as signaling devices during courtship.

– Tropical cardinals called Chocolates get their name from brownish plumage.

– Cardinals see color differently than humans due to extra cones in their retinas.


In summary, the stereotypical mother cardinal has pale brownish-gray body plumage with bright red accents on the face, crest, wings and tail. This subtler coloring allows the female cardinal to blend into vegetation while incubating eggs and caring for young. The vividly-colored male has life-long bright red feathers with black accents on the face and throat.

Cardinals gain their colorful carotenoid pigments from fruit and insects in their diet. Genetics regulate precisely how those pigments are deposited into the feathers of males and females. The differences in coloration follow their species-typical breeding behaviors, with camouflaged females and flashy, visible males. Cardinals provide a classic example of how evolution uses color strategically for survival and reproductive success.