Red Robin vs Cardinal : The Differences

Red Robin vs Cardinal: The bright red Northern Cardinal and the rusty orange and black American Robin are two of the most familiar backyard birds in North America. Both species can be found across much of the United States and into Canada.

Red Robin vs Cardinal

These birds share some similarities. They are both medium-sized songbirds that frequent backyards, gardens, and woodland edges.

However, there are several key differences between the Northern Cardinal and the American Robin in terms of appearance, size, habitat, diet, behavior, and more.

Key Takeaways:

  • Cardinals have bright red plumage, a crest on their head, stubby beaks, and rounded tails. Robins have black heads, gray backs, long yellow beaks, and fan-shaped tails.
  • Robins are slightly larger than cardinals.
  • Cardinals nest in dense shrubs while robins will nest in a variety of spots.
  • Cardinals eat more seeds and fruits while robins favor insects and worms.
  • Cardinal songs are loud whistles, robin songs are more complex and melodious.
  • Cardinals are more solitary and territorial compared to the communal robins

Red Robin Vs Cardinals

CharacteristicsRed RobinCardinal
AppearanceBlack head, gray-brown back, wings & tail with a rust-orange breast and bellyBright red with a black face mask (males), gray mask and olive-gray plumage with reddish tinge (females)
SizeA little larger than cardinalsSmaller than robins
BeakLonger and more pointed, yellow in colorShort, cone-shaped, red in color
CrestNo crestCrest on top of head
Habitat and NestingNests in a variety of places, including in a tree or shrub, gutter of a house, on the ground, nesting shelf, or within an overhangBuilds nests in dense shrubs or trees, usually 3 to 10 feet off the ground
Food PreferencesEats insects, worms, and fruitsEats seeds, fruits, and insects
SongMelodious, with a series of clear whistlesLouder and more distinct than robins
Scientific NameTurdus migratoriusCardinalis cardinalis

Red Robin vs Cardinal: Appearance

The most striking difference between the Northern Cardinal and the American Robin is the coloration of their plumage.

Plumage Colors

Male Northern Cardinals are bright red all over. Females are mostly light brown but with reddish accents on the crest, wings, and tail.

American Robins, on the other hand, have black heads and wings with gray backs and rusty orange bellies and breasts. The females have paler chests but the same pattern.

So at a quick glance, a cardinal really stands out with its vibrant red color while a robin has more subdued earth tones in its plumage.


Another difference is the crest or crown on top of the cardinal’s head. The male has a bright red crest and the female has a reddish-brown crest. This gives the cardinal’s head a triangular shape.

Robins completely lack a crest, having rounded heads instead.


Northern Cardinals have short, thick cone-shaped beaks that are red or orange in color.

American Robins have much longer and more pointed yellow beaks suited for hunting worms.

Tail Shape

Cardinals have long rounded tails, while robins have shorter more fan-shaped tails. The male cardinal’s tail is brilliant red but on the female it’s more of a red-brown tint.

So in summary, the cardinal is the flashier species with its vibrant reds and tall head crest, while the robin has a more subdued plumage overall.

Cardinal Vs Red Robin Size

American Robins are slightly bigger than Northern Cardinals.

Robins measure between 9 and 11 inches long (22 to 28 cm) from tip of beak to end of tail. They have a wingspan of about 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm).

Northern Cardinals are a bit smaller, measuring between 8.3 and 9.3 inches long (21 to 23.5 cm) with a wingspan of 9 to 12 inches (22 to 30 cm).

So while the size difference is not huge, if you saw the two species side by side the robin would be noticeably larger overall.

In terms of mass, robins weigh on average between 77 and 96 grams. Cardinals weigh in around 45 grams on average.

The robin’s stouter build and longer tail feathers account for its slightly larger size compared to the cardinal.

Habitat and Nesting

Both the Northern Cardinal and American Robin frequent similar habitats, including backyards, gardens, parks, forest edges, and shrublands.

So they can often be seen foraging together in the same areas. However, there are some key differences when it comes to their nesting preferences.

Nest Placement

Northern Cardinals build cup nests out of sticks, bark, and grasses. They place these nests fairly low in dense shrubs or small trees, usually 3 to 10 feet off the ground. Favorite nest sites include thickets, briar patches, and tangles of vines and shrubs.

American Robins are much more flexible when it comes to choosing nest sites. They build their nests out of mud, grasses, and other materials on a variety of structures:

  • In the fork of a tree or shrub
  • On a shelf or ledge
  • In the gutter of a house or building
  • On the ground
  • In an overhanging cavity or alcove

Robins are very adaptable in their nest placement as long as they have a good base to anchor the nest and a place to perch nearby.

Red Robin Vs Cardinal Diet

Northern Cardinals and American Robins have somewhat different diets and foraging behaviors.

Cardinal Diet

Cardinals eat a mix of seeds, fruit, and insects. Up to 50% of their diet can consist of seeds and grain. They use their strong short beaks to crack open seeds and extract them.

Favorite fruits include wild berries and Dogwood. Cardinals sometimes visit bird feeders for sunflower seeds, safflower, peanuts, and suet.

Cardinals supplement their diet with protein from insects like beetles, crickets, flies, and spiders. They often forage for insects hidden in bark crevices and branches.

Robin Diet

Earthworms and other soft-bodied invertebrates make up the bulk of the American Robin’s diet. They can eat up to 14 feet of earthworms per day!

Robins also eat a wide variety of berries and fruits including juniper, sumac, dogwood, and citrus fruits. They frequent backyards looking for fruit trees and berry bushes.

Insects including beetles, caterpillars, ants, and grasshoppers round out their diet. They hunt for insects on the ground by cocking their head to listen and then pouncing on them.

So while both birds are omnivorous, cardinals are better adapted for shelling seeds while robins are optimized for worm-hunting and fruit-eating with their long probing beaks.

Red Robin Vs Cardinal Behavior

You’ll notice some clear differences in the behavior of these two backyard birds as well.

Red Robin vs Cardinal Sound

Northern Cardinals have loud, whistled songs with many repetitions of distinct phrases like “cheer-cheer” and “purdy purdy purdy”. You can often hear them singing from dawn through dusk.

The songs of American Robins are more complex and melodious. Their tunes have been described as a cheerfully caroled mélange of short motifs and sweet phrases.

Social Behavior

Northern Cardinals are more solitary and territorial. Mated pairs may stay together on a territory year-round and aggressively chase away intruders.

American Robins are more social and communal. In winter, huge mixed flocks containing hundreds or even thousands of robins may converge on food sources. But they may also forage in smaller groups with other species.

So cardinals will be found alone or in pairs, while robins congregate in larger flocks, especially when food is abundant.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some other types of red birds?

What is the spiritual meaning of a red cardinal?

Do Robins and Cardinals Share a Nest

Final Thoughts on Red Robin vs Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal and American Robin are two quintessential backyard birds of North America.

While they share some similarities and are often found in the same habitats, they have clear differences when it comes to appearance, size, nesting habits, diet, and behavior.

The key identifying features of the Northern Cardinal include the bright red plumage, prominent crest, thick red beak, and loud whistling call.

The American Robin is best identified by its black and gray coloration, rusty breast, long pointed beak, melodious song, and social foraging habits.

Watching these two iconic species interact in one’s backyard or garden can provide hours of entertainment and enjoyment. Their bright colors and active behaviors make them fun and easy birds to observe for birders of all levels.

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