Cardinals and Relatives: Pictures and Identification Tips

Birds can always be a great subject for dinner table conversation and arguments. When it comes to the Cardinal family of birds, it’s a good bet that someone will argue that the wow factor of birds applies to family members.

In all corners of the United States it is close to impossible to now hear a “Wow”, there’s Grosbeaks, Buntings and/or Tanagers cheering up the backyard feeder during migration. If birds feel jealousy, the wow’s are enough to make the other feeder birds, including the year round resident cardinals, a tad bit jealous of all the attention.

It’s fitting to start with one of America’s favorite birds, Cardinals. As the video shows, male Northern Cardinals sport the always exciting red feathers that brighten up many a back yard feeder throughout the year. Because they are also feeder birds, getting pictures and/or video can be as easy as focusing the camera on the feeder and waiting for them to show up.

Seven different states designate Cardinals as the official state bird. Their range extends from the Rocky Mountain area through the Eastern seaboard.

picture of a female Northern Cardinal, part of the Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Tanagers and Buntings identification guide
Female Northern Cardinals have more muted brown feathers.

picture of a male Pyrrhuloxia, part of the Cardinals family in the Southwest
First time visitors to the Southwest see what looks to be a washed out Cardinal. In fact, it’s a Pyrrhuloxia, a close relative of Cardinals. The gray and red feathers stand out.

Like Cardinals, they are human friendly and enjoy sunflower seeds at the backyard feeder.

picture of a Dickcissel bird
Dickcissels gain heir fame as prairie and pasture birds. During the breeding season that are a Midwest staple. Their breeding range also extends through most of the East, with the exception of the Southeast.

At first glance, the yellow and black breast of the male resembles the other Midwest grass bird, the Meadowlark. Their songs, however are quite different. Whereas the Meadowlark has a melodious song, the Dickcissel has the more blunt, well Dickcissel sound.

picture of a juvenile Dickcissel bird, cardinals
Females lack the black breast feathers. Juveniles, like the one pictured have a streaky belly and the beginning of the yellow on the eyebrows.

Getting a picture can often be easy because they congregate in large flocks prior to migrating south for the winter.


picture of an Indigo Bunting, part of the Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Tanagers and Buntings identification guide
When it comes to the Buntings and backyard birding, think finch rather than cardinal. They mostly prefer millet and thistle at the feeder.

There’s a bunting for everyone in the continental United States. Indigo Buntings, for example, are the Eastern species. They breed almost everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains.

It’s difficult to miss the all blue feathers of the male. Females have more demure, brown feathers.

picture of a male Lazuli Bunting
Laxuli Buntings are the Western species, with a breeding range that partially overlaps the Indigo Bunting along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Males have blue feathers on the back and wings with a buffy and cream belly. Females have the buffy and cream belly with brown wings and back feathers.

picture of a male Varied Bunting
With the exception of the Southwest border area, Varied Buntings do no migrate to the United States for breeding season. The picture highlights their more muted blue and red feather colors compared to the more common buntings.

picture of a female Painted Bunting
When it comes to the wow factor during spring migration in the Southeast, the Painted Bunting fits the bill perfectly. The first picture shows a female Painted Bunting in the typical green feathers.

picture of a male Panted Bunting
The male Painted Bunting is a striking bird with blue, red and green feathers.

Migratory Cardinals: Grosbeaks

picture of a Black-headed Grosbeak
The common name grosbeak almost literally means large beak. It’s a common name that gets a bit confusing because like the Buntings, there are grosbeaks in both the finch and cardinal families.

The three grosbeaks in the cardinal family are fairly backyard feeder friendly, as long as there’s sunflower seeds for them.

The picture shows a male Black-headed Grosbeak, the most common Western species.

Black-headed Grosbeak Singing

picture of a male Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeaks breed in the southern half of the United States from coast to coast. The brown wings are the best way to tell them apart from their relatives the Indigo Bunting.

picture of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak
The picture pretty much explains the name Rose-breasted Grosbeak. They are the common Eastern species.

picture of a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Females have brown wings, a fairly distinct eyebrow and the mottled, off white belly.

The Newest Cardinals: Tanagers

picture of a male Hepatic Tanager, cardinals
Tanagers recently made the move to the Cardinals family, adding even more wow to their story. Because they are forest birds, they are the least likely group to visit back yard feeders. However, during migration, they may make a quick pit stop in wooded neighborhoods.

picture of a male Hepatic Tanager
Western Tanager male, the only United States visitor with yellow feathers. Males also have the nice red feathers on the cap.

They tend to be the last of the spring migrants.

The red feathers of the following three tanager species bring a special wow to these forest birds.

Hepatic Tanagers are the least wide ranging and only present in forested area of New Mexico and Arizona. Comparing the picture of the Hepatic Tanager with the next few shows that the red feathers are slightly less bold

picture of a male Summer Tanager
Summer Tanagers breed in the forests of the Southern half of the United States. So, here’s some partial overlapping territory with the Hepatic Tanager in the Southwest.

picture of a male Scarlet Tanager, cardinals
The black wings and red feathers make for a very striking male Scarlet Tanager. They are the eastern Tanagers.

Forest fragmentation causes some problems for their breeding habitat.