The cardinals are passerine birds of the Americas. They inhabit woodlands and forests. Birds of this family are medium-sized and robust with strong, conical bills. Sizes range between 4.5 – 9.4 inches (11.5 – 24 cm). They are primarily seed-eating birds, but many species also eat insects and other plant foods like fruit, flowers, and leaves.
There is a high degree of sexual dimorphism among Cardinalidae species. The males are typically brighter and more vividly colored than the females. Plumage coloration varies across genera from bright reds, oranges, and yellows to varying shades of blue. The red, pink, and orange colorations are acquired through their diet.
The Cardinalidae family is comprised of fourteen genera made up of cardinals, grosbeaks, and buntings. Types of birds within the Cardinalidae share similar common names with birds of other families. To avoid confusion, grosbeaks and buntings of the Cardinalidae family are also known as cardinal-grosbeaks and cardinal-buntings. The Cardinalidae tanagers once belonged to the tanager family – Thraupidae. They still, however, maintain their tanager common names. Similarly, there are also chats and seedeaters that belong to other families, such as the Parulidae and Emberizidae respectively.
The name cardinal stems from colonial times. It references the biretta worn by Catholic Cardinals, which resembles the crests of the genus Cardinalis males.
1. Genus Cardinalis
Cardinalis is the signature genus of the Cardinalidae family. There are three species of cardinals in this genus. The cardinals bear the conspicuous crest for which the Cardinalidae family is named.
1.1. Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
Description: The male is bright red with a black face mask. The female has a grey mask and an olive-grey plumage with a reddish tinge on the upper-wings, tail, and crest. Northern cardinals have red conical bills.
Distribution: From south-eastern Canada, through the eastern United States to Central America. Introduced birds occur in regions outside the natural range.
Habitat: They occupy a wide range of habitats, including woodlands, woodland edges, forest clearings, shrublands, swamps, thickets, and suburban parks and gardens.
- C. c. cardinalis
- C. c. affinis
- C. c. canicaudus
- C. c. carneus
- C. c. clintoni
- C. c. coccineus
- C. c. flammiger
- C. c. floridanus
- C. c. igneus
- C. c. littoralis
- C. c. magnirostris
- C. c. mariae
- C. c. phillipsi
- C. c. saturatus
- C. c. seftoni
- C. c. sinaloensis
- C. c. superbus
- C. c. townsendi
- C. c. yucatanicus
1.2. Pyrrhuloxia, Cardinalis sinuatus
The pyrrhuloxia is also known as the desert cardinal.
Description: The pyrrhuloxia is brownish-grey with a red tinge on the crest, upper-wings, and tail. It has a stout yellow bill and a red face-mask, which is conspicuous in males. The male has a splotchy red breast and belly.
Distribution: The southwestern United States and Mexico.
Habitat: Desert scrub, mesquite thickets, and woodland edges.
1.3. Vermilion Cardinal, Cardinalis phoeniceus
Description: The male is vibrant red, and the female is grey above and pale buff below with a red crest. Vermilion cardinals have grey bills.
Distribution: Northern Venezuela and Columbia.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical dry shrublands.
2. Genus Piranga
The Piranga genus was formerly included in the tanager family (Thraupidae) but was placed in Cardinalidae following DNA analysis. Birds in this genus are predominantly red, orange, or yellow with black wings and tails.
2.1. Flame-Colored Tanager, Piranga bidentata
Description: Flame-colored tanagers are named for the bright red coloration of the male’s plumage. The females are mostly yellow. Both sexes have black upperparts with white bands and distinctive ear-marks.
Distribution: From the southernmost United States through Central America to northern Panama.
Habitat: Mountain forests.
2.2. Red-Headed Tanager, Piranga erythrocephala
Description: The red-headed tanager is olive-green above and yellow below. It has a black eye-mask. The male has a bright red head and throat. The female is duller with grey cheeks and lacks the distinctive red.
Distribution: Western Mexico.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist montane forests.
2.3. Hepatic Tanager, Piranga flava
Description: The female hepatic tanager is yellow, and the male is red. Both sexes have greyish flanks and cheeks.
Distribution: From the Southwestern United States to Northern Argentina.
Habitat: Open woodlands, mixed forest, and forest edges.
- Hepatica: Central America from Nicaragua north to South Western United States
- Lutea: Central and South America
- Flavia: South America
2.4. White-Winged Tanager, Piranga leucoptera
Description: The male is red with black wings. The female is yellow with duller wings. Both sexes have white wing bars.
Distribution: Their range spans Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland and montane forests.
2.5. Western Tanager, Piranga ludoviciana
Description: Both sexes are yellow. The male is brighter with a red face and black upperparts. In non-breeding males, the red is less prominent. The female has grey upperparts and lacks the distinctive red face.
Distribution: They are native to the western parts of North America, from Southern Canada and Alaska to Mexico. During winter, western tanagers migrate as far south as Panama.
Habitat: Coniferous forests and mixed woodlands in the breeding range. In their wintering areas, they occur in a wide range of habitats including grasslands, deserts, and suburban gardens. They also inhabit forest plantations and other cultivated lands.
2.6. Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra
Description: Males are crimson red, and females are dull yellow with orange splotches on the face, throat, and back.
Distribution: They breed in the Southern United States and migrate south for the winter to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.
Habitat: In the breeding range, they nest in open woods and forests along streams. During winter, they inhabit lowland forests, forest edges, and clearings with scattered trees.
- P. r. cooperi
- P. r. rubra
2.7. Rose-Throated Tanager, Piranga roseogularis
Description: The rose-throated tanager is mostly grey. It has a white eye-ring. The male has a reddish crown, upper wings, and tail, and a pinkish-red throat. Females are similar to males, with yellow in place of red.
Distribution: Their range encompasses Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.
Habitat: Tropical or subtropical dry forests, woodlands, and forest edge. They also occur in degraded former forests.
2.8. Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea
Description: The male is scarlet-red red with black wings and a black tail. The female is yellow with black and olive upperparts. Scarlet tanagers have smaller bills than other Cardinalidae members.
Distribution: They breed in eastern North America and winter in the northwest of South America.
Habitat: Deciduous forest, woodlands, and suburban gardens in summer and montane forests during winter.
2.9. Red-Hooded Tanager, Piranga rubriceps
Description: It is a yellow bird with a crimson-red hood. The sexes are alike, but females are duller than males, and the red hood in males extends down the breast.
Distribution: They occur along the Andean mountain range from Columbia to Peru.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical cloud and moist montane forests.
3. Genus Habia
The Habia genusis comprised of five species of ant-tanagers. They were included in the Thraupidae family before being placed in the Cardinalidae. Ant-tanagers have long tails and plumage that varies in shades of brown, yellow, red, and sooty black.
They are largely insectivorous. The name stems from their tendency to follow swarms of army ants to catch fleeing insects. Aside from insects, fruit makes up a small portion of their diet. They inhabit patches of dense, secondary woodlands.
3.1. Red-Crowned Ant-Tanager, Habia rubica
Description: The male is dull red with a brighter red throat and breast. The female has a yellow-brown plumage with a brighter yellow throat. Both sexes bear the crown stripe, which is scarlet-red in males and yellow in females.
Distribution: From Mexico south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. They are also found in Trinidad.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical forests and woodlands with a preference for the understory and dense forest floor.
3.2. Red-Throated Ant-Tanager, Habia fuscicauda
Description: The male is dusky-red above and paler below with a characteristic bright red throat and crown. The female is brownish-olive above and pale-yellow below, with a bright yellow throat and dull yellow crown.
Distribution: South-eastern Mexico to eastern Panama.
Habitat: Woodlands, forest edges, secondary forest, and dense forest floors of tropical lowlands.
- H. f. salvini: Eastern Mexico to El Salvador
- H. f. insularis: South-eastern Mexico
- H. f. discolor: Nicaragua
- H. f. fuscicauda: Southern Nicaragua to Western Panama
- H. f. willisi: Central Panama
- H. f. erythrolaema: Northern Colombia
3.3. Sooty Ant-Tanager, Habia gutturalis
Description: The male is dark grey with a bright scarlet crest throat patch. The female is similar but duller than the male.
Distribution: Endemic to North-west Columbia.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forest, secondary forest.
3.4. Black-Cheeked Ant-Tanager, Habia atrimaxillaris
Distribution: It has dark brown upperparts and buff-colored underparts with a salmon-orange throat, which is brighter in males.
Description: Endemic to the Costa Rican Osa Peninsula.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forests and shrublands.
3.5. Crested Ant-Tanager, Habia cristata
Description: A greyish-brown bird with a conspicuous red crest and a red head, neck, and upper breast. The female is similar to the male but has a smaller crest.
Distribution: Endemic to Columbia, where it inhabits the western slopes of the Andes.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland and montane forests.
4. Genus Chlorothraupis
Birds of this genus were once members of the Thraupidae family along with the genera Habia and Piranga. They are closely related to the ant-tanagers of the Habia genus.
4.1. Olive Tanager, Chlorothraupis carmioli
It is also known as Carmiol’s tanager.
Description: It is olive-green above and paler below with a yellow throat.
Distribution: Central America and northern South America.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forests. They also occur in degraded former forests.
Status: Populations are believed to be on the decline.
4.2. Lemon-Spectacled Tanager, Chlorothraupis olivacea
Description: The male has a dark green plumage, whereas the female is a much lighter olive-green. Both sexes bear the characteristic yellow eye-rings.
Distribution: Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama.
Habitat: Understory of moist lowland forests and forest edges.
4.3. Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Chlorothraupis stolzmanni
Description: It has a dull olive-green plumage, and ochre underparts.
Distribution: From Columbia to Ecuador.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical lowlands and montane forests.
The Passerina genus is made up of the North American buntings (unrelated to the buntings of the Emberizidae). The blue grosbeak was formerly placed in the monotypic genus Guiraca but was included in the Passerine genus based on a molecular study that confirmed its close relation to the Lazuli bunting. It still maintains its grosbeak common name.
5.1. Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea
Description: The male is a rich royal blue with chestnut wing bars. It has a small black stripe between the eyes and bill. The female is grey-brown above with tan wing bars and pale brown below with a blue-tinged rump.
Distribution: Native to Mexico and the southern United States, and migrates south, spending winters in Central America and northern South America.
Habitat: Semi-open wooded habitats, riparian woodlands and woodland edges, scrubland, thickets, cultivated lands, and open fields.
- P. c. caerulea: Southeast and central USA
- P. c. interfusa: West and central USA and Northern Mexico
- P. c. salicaria: Southwest USA and northwest Mexico
- P. c. eurhyncha: Central and southern Mexico
- P. c. chiapensis: Southern Mexico to Guatemala
- P. c. deltarhyncha: Western Mexico
- P. c. lazuli: Southern Guatemala to northwest Costa Rica
5.2. Lazuli Bunting, Passerina amoena
Description: The male has a blue head and back with two white wing bars and a red breast and white belly. The breeding male is brighter. The female has greyish-brown upperparts with two light wing bars and light-brown underparts.
Distribution: They breed in the Southwestern United States and migrate south for the winter as far as Mexico.
Habitat: Dry brushy areas near streams, weedy pastures, valleys, thickets, and suburban gardens.
5.3. Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea
Description: The breeding male is two-toned and vibrant with an indigo blue head transitioning into turquoise blue on the body, with slate-black flight and tail feathers. During winter, the male is mostly brown, resembling the female.
Distribution: It breeds in North America from southern Canada to the southern United States and migrates south for the winter, from southern Florida and Mexico to Central America and northern South America.
Habitat: Open woodlands, secondary forest, forest edges, and farmlands. brushy forest edges.
5.4. Varied Bunting, Passerina versicolor
Description: The male has a dark purple body, reddish nape, and blue forehead. Females are uniformly brown.
Distribution: From Southwest United States to Guatemala.
Habitat: Deserts, shrublands, thorny brush thickets, thorn forests, and woodlands.
- P. c. ciris: Southeastern United States
- P. c. pallidior: South-central United States and northern Mexico
5.5. Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris
Description: It is one of the most beautiful birds in North America. The male has a dark blue head, green back, and red underparts. The female has grey-green upperparts and yellow-green underparts.
Distribution: They breed in the south-eastern United States and winter in Central America.
Habitat: Thickets, woodland edges, shrublands, and brushy areas.
5.6. Rose-Bellied Bunting, Passerina rositae
The rose-bellied bunting is also known as Rosita’s bunting.
Description: The male is a colorful bird with a royal blue head and upperparts and a characteristic pink breast and orange-yellow belly. The female is greyish above and buff-brown below.
Distribution: The Rose-bellied Bunting is endemic to a tiny stretch between Oaxaca and Chiapas in Southern Mexico.
Habitat: Arid to semi-arid thorny forests and woodlands.
5.7. Orange-Breasted Bunting, Passerina leclancherii
Description: The male has turquoise blue upperparts with a green crown and yellow lores, eye-rings, and underparts. The female is grey-green above with yellow underparts.
Distribution: Endemic to Mexico.
Habitat: Tropical dry forest, scrublands, thickets, brushy woodlands, scrubby clearings, and woodland edges.
The blue bunting, Cyanocompsa parellina is the only species in this genus. The blue-black grosbeak and the ultramarine grosbeak of the Cyanoloxia genus are sometimes placed in the genus Cyanocompsa.
Description: A small bird with a large, thick bill.The male has a rich blue plumage, with glossy blue highlights on the supercilium, forehead, cheeks, and shoulders. The female is cinnamon brown.
Distribution: Southwest North America, and Northern Central America
Habitat: Tropical lowland forest understory and dry, brushy woodlands.
- C. p. parellina: Eastern Mexico to Nicaragua
- C. p. beneplacita (or lucida): North-eastern Mexico
- C. p. indigotica: Western Mexico
7. Genus Pheucticus
The genus Pheuciticus is made up of six species of grosbeaks. They have stout, conical bills. Most species are yellow and black except for the rose-breasted grosbeak.
7.1. Mexican Yellow Grosbeak, Pheucticus chrysopeplus
The Mexican yellow grosbeak is also known as the yellow grosbeak.
Description: The male has a yellow back, head, and underparts. Its black wings and tail have large white spots. The female has olive upperparts with dark streaks on the crown and back and smaller white spots on the wings.
Distribution: Native to Mexico with occasional vagrants in the United States. The Sonora populations are migratory.
Habitat: They inhabit forests, woodlands, and forest edges.
7.2. Southern Yellow Grosbeak, Pheucticus chrysogaster
The southern yellow grosbeak is also known as the golden grosbeak.
Description: The male is bright yellow with black wings and a black tail. The female is dull yellow with brown wings and dingy streaks. Both sexes have white spots on the wings and tail.
Distribution: It is found in north-western South America, including Trinidad and Tobago.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical dry forests, montane forests, and shrublands. They also occur in degraded former forests.
7.3. Black-Thighed Grosbeak, Pheucticus tibialis
Description: The male is yellow with a black back, wings, thighs, and tail. The female is duller. Both sexes have a white wing patch, which is smaller on the female.
Distribution: From Costa Rica to western Panama.
Habitat: Semi-open habitats included forest canopy, secondary forest, woodland edges, wooded pastures, and suburban gardens.
7.4. Black-Backed Grosbeak, Pheucticus aureoventris
Description: The male has yellow underparts and a black head, breast, and upperparts, with white spots on the wings. The female has a brown head and upperparts with a speckled yellow breast.
Distribution: Throughout the north-western and central parts of South America.
Habitat: Woodlands, wooded scrublands, forest edges, and suburban gardens.
7.5. Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, Pheucticus ludovicianus
Description: The breeding male has a black head and upperparts with white wing patches, white, white underparts, and a conspicuous rose-red breast patch. The female is brownish-grey above with paler, streaked underparts.
Distribution: They are native to central and northeast America, including Canada.The northern populations migrate south for the winter to central and northern South America.
Habitat: Open deciduous woodlands.
7.6. Black-Headed Grosbeak, Pheucticus melanocephalus
Description: The male is mustard-yellow with a black head and black upperparts. It has white spots on the wings and tail. The female is mostly brown with dark streaks and darker above with lighter underparts. Females have smaller wingspots.
Distribution: From the western United States to Mexico.
Habitat: Mixed woodlands, deciduous and coniferous forests, thickets, and suburban areas. Often near streams, rivers, and lakes.
There are only two species belonging to the Caryothraustes genus. They are predominantly yellow with black masks and heavy, grey-black bills.
8.1. Black-Faced Grosbeak, Caryothraustes poliogaster
Description: It has olive upperparts and yellow underparts with a black face and a pale-grey belly and rump.
Distribution: Mexico and Central America.
Habitat: Moist lowlands forests, secondary forests, woodland edges, and forest clearings. They favor the forest canopy and understory.
8.2. Yellow-Green Grosbeak, Caryothraustes canadensis
Description: Olive-green above, with yellow underparts and a black face.
Distribution: Native to north-eastern South America and Panama.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forest. It also occurs in degraded former forests.
9. Genus Rhodothraupis
The crimson-collared grosbeak, Rhodothraupis celaeno is the sole member of this genus.
Description: Males have black upperparts and a black hood with a dull red nape, shoulders, and mottled belly. Females are olive-green above and yellow below with a black face. Crimson collared grosbeaks have large, black bills.
Distribution: From southern Texas to north-eastern Mexico.
Habitat: Tropical lowland forest, secondary forest, and forest edges.
10. Genus Periporphyrus
The red and black grosbeak, Periporphyrus erythromelas is the only species in this genus.
Description: The male is dull red above and bright red below with a black head. The female is similar but with a yellow-green coloration in place of red.The red and black grosbeak has a large black bill.
Distribution: It is found in north-eastern South America.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forest.
11. Genus Cyanoloxia
There are four species of grosbeaks in this genus. They have thick, black bills. The males have blue plumage, and the females are brown. The blue-black grosbeak and the ultramarine grosbeak are sometimes placed in the genus Cyanocompsa.
11.1. Glaucous-Blue Grosbeak, Cyanoloxia glaucocaerulea
Description: The male has a dull blue plumage with darker upper-wing and tail feathers. The female is reddish-brown with dark brown upperparts and a blue head.
Distribution: Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forest and shrubland, secondary forest, riparian woodlands, and forest edges. They also occur in degraded former forests.
11.2. Ultramarine Grosbeak, Cyanoloxia brissonii
Description: The male is dark blue with a glossy forehead, shoulders, cheeks, and supercilium. The upper wings and tail are darker blue. The female is reddish-brown.
Distribution: Central and Eastern South America with a small population in the north.
Habitat: Swamps, secondary forests, forest plantations, and semi-open areas.
11.3. Amazonian Grosbeak, Cyanoloxia rothschildii
Description: The male has a deep blue-black plumage. The female is rich dark brown.
Distribution: Western Amazon.
Habitat: Moist tropical lowlands forests and forest edges.
11.4. Blue-Black Grosbeak, Cyanoloxia cyanoides
Description: The male a dark blue plumage with a lighter forehead, supercilium, and shoulders. The female is dark reddish-brown.
Distribution: Central and South America
Habitat: Dense habitats with tall trees and thick undergrowth.
- C. c. cyanoides
- C. c. caerulescens
- C. c. concreta
12. Genus Amaurospiza
There are four species of seedeaters in genus Amaurospiza. They are small, finch-like birds with black, conical bills. The males are dusky blue, and the females are brown. The blackish-blue seedeater and the blue seedeater (Cabani’s seedeater) were formerly included in the bunting family, Emberizidae. The Ecuadorian seedeater, Amaurospiza aequatorialis was regarded as a subspecies of the blue seedeater until phylogenetic analysis confirmed them to be separate species. The Carrizal seedeater was discovered when a new population of Amaurospiza was found in 2003 in northern Venezuela.
12.1. Blue Seedeater, Amaurospiza concolor
It is also known as the Cabani’s seedeater.
Description: Males have a deep blue-black plumage, and females are cinnamon-brown with slightly darker upper-wings and upper-tail.
Distribution: Southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.
Habitat: High-lying woodlands and bamboo forests.
- A. c. relicta
- A. c. concolor
12.2. Carrizal Seedeater, Amaurospiza carrizalensis
Description: The male is glossy blue-black with darker flight feathers and white underwing coverts. The female is light buff-brown.
Distribution: Endemic to Isla Carrizal in Northern Venezuela.
Habitat: Bamboo forests but most of its habitat was destroyed due to the construction of the Tacoma dam.
Status: Critically endangered.
12.3. Blackish-Blue Seedeater, Amaurospiza moesta
Description: Males are dark blue-black with darker flight feathers and white underwing coverts. The females are brown.
Distribution: South America from Brazil to Argentina.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland and montane forests, and woodlands.
12.4. Ecuadorian Seedeater, Amaurospiza aequatorialis
Description: Males have a deep blue-black plumage, and females are brown with darker upper-parts.
Distribution: It is found along the western foothills of the Andes from Ecuador, from south-west Columbia to Northern Peru.
The dickcissel, Spiza americana is the only extant species in the Spiza genus.
Description: The dickcissel has a grey head with a yellow supercilium and a grey bill. Its body plumage is brownish above with black stripes. It has rust-colored shoulders and a yellow breast, with a pale greyish-white belly and rump. The male has a black throat patch. Females are duller than males.
Distribution: It is native to the mid-western United States and migrates south for the winter from southern Mexico to northern South America.
Habitat: Grasslands, prairies, meadows, and croplands.
14. Genus Granatellus
The Granatellus genus was previously placed in the Parulidae family but was moved to the Cardinalidae following biochemical analysis. There are three species of chats in this genus characterized by the distinctive black, white, and red plumage of the males.
14.1. Red-Breasted Chat, Granatellus venustus
Description: The male has black upperparts and a black head with white brows, a white throat, and red breast and belly with broad white flanks. The female is greyish-brown and pale below with a faint pink breast and white brows.
Distribution: Endemic to the western edge of Mexico and adjacent parts of Guatemala.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical dry, thorny forests.
14.2. Gray-Throated Chat, Granatellus sallaei
Description: The male is dark grey above with a grey head and throat and white brow. It has bright red underparts. The female is lighter grey above with a buff brow and breast and a white belly.
Distribution: Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical dry lowland forests.
14.3. Rose-Breasted Chat, Granatellus pelzelni
Description: Nearly identical to the red-breasted chat with less white on its flanks. The female has grey upperparts, a white belly, and a buffy face, chest, and under-tail.
Distribution: Found throughout north-eastern South America.
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist lowland forests.
The Cardinalidae family has undergone many changes in species and genera, as research helps us evaluate genetic associations and improve taxonomic mapping.
Most species of Cardinalidae are stable, although insular species are at risk due to habitat loss. The sooty ant-tanager of Columbia and the rose-bellied bunting of Mexico are both listed as near-threatened, and the black-cheeked ant-tanager of Costa Rica is endangered. The Carrizal seedeater is critically endangered as the majority of its habitat was destroyed for the construction of the Tacoma dam.