Robin vs Cardinal – Know the differences

When you are out birdwatching, one of the first things you need to be able to do is correctly identify the birds you see.

This can sometimes be tricky, especially when two birds are very similar in appearance, like the American robin and the Northern cardinal.

These two species are often confused with each other because they have similar coloring and their songs sound quite alike.

Robins are a type of thrush, while cardinals belong to the finch family. Robins are slightly larger than cardinals with long tails and bigger feet.

Both robins and cardinals are found throughout the continental United States.

Despite their similarities, these two birds are not related and several key differences can help you to identify them.

Read on to learn more about the American robin and the Northern cardinal so that you can tell them apart the next time you spot them in your local area.

In the following sections, we will give you in-depth info on some more differences between these two species. These differences will allow you to quickly identify between cardinals vs. red robin.

Differences of American Robin vs Northern cardinal

 American RobinNorthern Cardinal
Songs and voiceRobins make a chirping noise that is often heard early in the morning.Cardinal’s song is determined by the size of its body. Larger birds produce lower-pitched sounds, while smaller birds sing at a higher pitch.
SizeLength: 7.9-11.0 in (20-28 cm) Weight: 2.7-3.0 oz (77-85 g) Length: 8.3-9.1 in (21-23 cm) Weight: 1.5-1.7 oz (42-48 g)
Wing shapeWingspan: 12.2-15.8 in (31-40 cm) Round ShapeWingspan: 9.8-12.2 in (25-31 cm) Round shape
Tail shapeLong tailRounded tail
FlightStrong, quick direct flightRapid wing beats and wings pulled towards the sides
FlocksLarge flocksLive with small family groups. In breeding season, groups dissolve into pairs.
ColorGray-brown with warm orange underparts and dark heads. Red all over, with a reddish bill and black face.
BehaviorIndustrious, stand active, flock together in winters, roost on berriesSit low in the shrubs, common near bird feeders
Lifespan2 years (wild)3 years (wild)
HabitatParks, gardens, pastures, yards, fields,  pine forests, golf courses, tundra, woodlands, shrublands, and regenerating forestsParks, backyards, shrubby forests and woodlots
Robin vs Cardinal - Know the differences

Coloration

Both male and female American Robins have grey-brown feathers on their backs, but the males have darker heads, while the females’ heads are lighter in color. The underparts of both sexes are orange, but the males’ orange is usually brighter.

In flight, American Robins have a white patch on their lower belly and underneath their tail that can be quite noticeable.

Cardinals also differ in color between the sexes. Male cardinals are a brilliant red all over, while females are more of a pale brown with warm reddish tinges in their wings, tail, and crest.

Both male and female cardinals have black faces with red-orange bills. Cardinals are also usually slightly smaller than American Robins.

Shape

Robins have larger, rounded bodies with long legs, while cardinals have more slender bodies and shorter legs.

Moreover, robins have much longer tails than a cardinal’s stouter tail. When it comes to bill size, robins have longer and thinner bills, while cardinals have shorter and thicker bills. Cardinals usually have a crest on their heads, while robins do not.

Size and Lifespan

Robin’s measurement: 20-28cm in length, 77-85g in weight, and a wingspan of 31-40cm.

Cardinal’s measurement: 21-23cm in length, 42-48g in weight, and a wingspan of 25-31cm.

A robin’s lifespan is considerably shorter than a cardinal’s, on average. Whereas a cardinal may live for three to five years, a robin’s lifespan is only 13 months. The difference is that robins have high mortality rates in their first year, while cardinals do not. Once a robin survives its first year, it has a much better chance of living for several more years. The record for the longest-lived robin is 19 years.

Behavior

The American robin is mostly active during the day and often flocks together with other robins at night. They also have a habit of flicking their tails downward when alighting. In contrast, Northern cardinals tend to sit low in shrubs than in large flocks. Furthermore, males of the cardinal species can be aggressive when defending their territory-something that is not typically seen in robins.

Habitat

Robin’s native place- North America.

Favorite place- A climbing plant, piles of logs, tree roots, and cavities.

Nesting place- Like to nest on or near the ground, in hidden cavities such as hollows, nooks, crannies, and nest boxes.

Cardinal’s native place- The southeastern part of North America.

Favorite place- Grapevines, tall trees, woodland edges, shrub thickest, suburban gardens, bushy or semi-urban habitats, and swamp areas.

Nesting place- Dense shrubs, dogwood, and their favorite places. 

Food

Both birds eat a variety of fruits and seeds, but there is a difference in the types of insects that they eat. Robins mainly eat earthworms and other insects, while cardinals eat mostly seeds and fruit. Cardinals will also eat some insects, but they are not as common in their diet as they are for robins. It is also said that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.

Robins like to eat:

Fruits- juicy fruits like grapes, oranges, raisin,s etc.

Insects- Particularly like to eat mealworms and beetles.

Berries- Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries.

Cardinals like to eat:

Fruits- Apples, grapes, oranges, pears, raisins, plum cherries, and cherries.

Insects- Beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, cicadas, centipedes, etc.

Berries- Blueberry, mulberry, strawberry, elderberries, raspberries, and other dark-colored berries.

Besides, they will eat nuts, suet, seeds like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, muskmelon seeds etc.

Songs

Robin’s song is typically a string of 10 or so clear whistles assembled from a few often-repeated syllables. In contrast, the Cardinal’s song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles that lasts for 2 to 3 seconds.

Whereas, Robin’s song is often described as cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up, while the Cardinal’s syllables can sound like the bird is singing cheer, cheer, cheer or birdie, birdie, birdie. 

Calls

Both species use a variety of different calls to communicate with their mates, young, and other members. Robin typically makes a mumbled cuck or tuk call to communicate with others, while the cardinal makes a loud, metallic chip call.

The robin also has a sharp yeep or peek call that is used as an alarm, while the cardinal has a softer took note that is typically used when one bird is about to feed the other.

Nesting

Female robins build their nests from the inside out, using dead grass and twigs to create a cup shape by pressing them with the wrist of one wing, while cardinals crush twigs with their beaks until they’re pliable and then use their feet to bend the twigs around their body and push them into a cup shape.

In addition to grass and twigs, robins may also use paper, feathers, rootles, or moss to build their nest, while cardinals typically use grapevine bark, grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles. Once the nest is built, robins reinforce it using soft mud gathered from worm casting to make it heavy and sturdy.

Eggs

Robins have sky blue or blue-green eggs that are unmarked, while cardinals have grayish-white, buffy white, or greenish-white eggs that are speckled with pale gray to brown.

Another difference is in the number of broods. Robins typically have 1-3 broods, while cardinals only have 1-2. When it comes to clutch size, robins can have 3-5 eggs per clutch while cardinals only have 2-5.

Fun fact about American Robin

  • The male American Robin is a beautiful songbird that is known for its cheerful tune. He is often the last bird heard as the sun sets.
  • The American Robin is a member of the thrush family. Thrush birds are noted for their beautiful singing voices. The male of Robin’s song is thought to be one of the most beautiful of all thrush birds.
  • The American Robin is a known carrier of the West Nile virus. The virus can survive in a robin’s body for a longer period, meaning that more mosquitoes become infected when they bite the robin.   
  • Robin is also known for its running and stopping the behavior. When foraging for food, the robin will often stop abruptly and cock its head to one side, as if listening for something. It will then run a few steps in a different direction before repeating the process. This back-and-forth motion helps the robin to find earthworms and other invertebrates that are hidden just below the surface of the ground. 
  • Even though they are most commonly associated with earthworms, robins also have a sweet tooth! sweet cakes, syrup, and pastry dough are their favorites. 

Fun fact about Northern Cardinal

  • Cardinals are also known for their unique courtship ritual. When trying to impress a female, the male will often offer her food, beak to beak. This action is often referred to as the “kiss”.
  • While the cardinal is a relatively peaceful bird, the male can be fiercely territorial when it comes to breeding. If a male sees his reflection on a glass surface, he will often spend hours fighting the imaginary intruder. 
  • Northern cardinals are one of the few bird species that dine in the twilight when most other birds have retired for the evening.
  • Cardinals are one of the few bird species that mate for life. Once they find a mate, they stay together until one of them dies. This lifelong commitment is very rare in the animal kingdom. In addition to their long-term relationship, cardinals are also one of the most faithful bird species. They rarely stray from their mate and will often stay close to their nesting area. 
  • Cardinals are red because of a pigment in their diet called carotene. Carotene is found in many fruits and vegetables, but it is especially abundant in red peppers. Cardinals get their red plumage from eating lots of carotene-rich foods.

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