Color Phases of Northern Cardinals

••• BubblegirlPhoto/iStock/GettyImages

Northern cardinals are an iconic-looking songbird of North America, having been named the official bird of seven Eastern states from Illinois to Virginia, but you may only recognize the red male of the species. The female is primarily colored light brown or gray with just slight touches of red.


All northern cardinal hatchlings are born with pink skin and grayish scaling. No red is evident in either the male or females. As molting begins, however, baby cardinals take on a tan hue that remains well into their juvenile period, when color changes in the male begin to differentiate the two genders. Also, baby beaks are uniformly black and fade to a coral red through the molting period.


When juvenile northern cardinals grow their feathers in the fall, their gray and tan tones slowly change to mottled light browns and soft reds. Red grows faintly into the tail and wing feathers of both genders, but only the males show bold uniformity in the red that grows into the main torso and head feathers. Females will grow mostly light brown or grayish feathers in these areas. Both genders of juvenile will develop black masks around mostly black beaks during this period.

Male Adults

Even many children can identify the male northern cardinal when it pays a visit to a nearby tree branch or bird feeder. Its vibrant red coat is named after the lustrously red coats traditionally worn by cardinals of the Catholic church. The heads of the males also are covered in red feathers, with black masks surrounding now coral-red beaks. By adulthood, some northern cardinals still have brown spotting or patterning on the plumage of their tails and wings.

Female Adults

Never exhibiting all-over red coloring, the female northern cardinal only develops soft red tinges or spots on a primarily brownish or grayish plumage. They are often slightly bigger than the males, but both are identically shaped in head and stature, as well as having similarly colored red beaks and black masks. The black of the beaks fade to red in both genders by adulthood.


About the Author

Dan Harkins has been a full-time journalist since 1997. Prior to working in the alternative press, he served as a staff writer and editor for daily publications such as the "St. Petersburg Times" and "Elyria Chronicle-Telegram." Harkins holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of South Florida.