What is the difference between a summer tanager and a cardinal?

Answered by Michael Wilson

The main difference between a Summer Tanager and a Cardinal lies in their physical appearance. Let’s start with the male Northern Cardinal. These birds have a distinct long, pointed crest on top of their heads, which adds to their overall regal appearance. The black feathers around their faces create a striking contrast against their vibrant red plumage. Another notable feature is their heavy, triangular bill, which is reddish in color.

On the other hand, adult male Summer Tanagers are entirely red, lacking the black feathers around the face that Cardinals possess. Their overall body shape is similar to Cardinals, but their bill is longer and thinner in comparison. This difference in bill structure can be quite noticeable when observing these birds up close.

When it comes to their behavior and habitat preferences, there are some similarities and differences as well. Both Cardinals and Summer Tanagers are known for their melodious songs, although the specific tunes may vary. Cardinals are often found in a wide range of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and gardens, while Summer Tanagers tend to prefer more open habitats like open woodlands, forest edges, and even orchards.

In terms of range, Cardinals are native to North America, with their vibrant red plumage making them a familiar sight in gardens and parks throughout the United States and Canada. Summer Tanagers, on the other hand, have a broader distribution, ranging from the southeastern United States down to Central and South America. This wider range gives them a more tropical distribution compared to Cardinals.

It’s important to note that these differences discussed are specific to male Cardinals and Summer Tanagers. Female Cardinals and immature birds of both species may have different plumage, which can make identification more challenging. However, the distinguishing features mentioned earlier still hold true for the adult males of each species.

As an avid birdwatcher, I have had the pleasure of observing both Cardinals and Summer Tanagers in the field. The vibrant red coloration of male Cardinals always catches my eye, especially when contrasted with their black face feathers. On the other hand, male Summer Tanagers stand out in their bright red plumage, without any contrasting colors. Their longer, thinner bills give them a sleek appearance.

While both male Northern Cardinals and Summer Tanagers are red birds, they can be distinguished by various physical features. Cardinals have a crest, black face feathers, and a heavier, triangular bill, whereas Summer Tanagers lack the black face feathers and have a longer, thinner bill. Understanding these differences can help birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts identify these beautiful species in the wild.