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Number of species: 74

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Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

Northern Cardinal has an incomplete to complete preformative molt, but no prealternate molts. Except as juveniles (FCJ), sex of individuals is readily apparent by overall plumage.

The frequency of complete preformative molt may vary by population, but in the absence of detailed local knowledge, individuals lacking juvenile plumage should be considered M-FCF (U/AHY).

Quick tips

  • Check the bill - it is dusky gray to blackish on FCJ (juvenile) birds, becoming orange-red with some remaining dark spots in fall as FCF (HY), and subsequently entirely orange-red as M-FCF (U/AHY).
  • Examine the wing for molt limits - sharp contrasts between faded brown juvenile feathers and adjacent fresh reddish or red feathers among the primaries, secondaries, and/or primary coverts is indicative of FCF (HY/SY), whereas uniformly dark brown (female) or reddish (male) feathers in these tracts is indicative of M-FCF (U/AHY).
  • Look at the overall plumage, which is largely red on males, and mostly brown on females aside from red on the crest, wings, and tail.

Species account prepared by McGill Bird Observatory (2016). Last updated by Marcel Gahbauer (Mar 2022)

The molt categories displayed below may be filtered by month.


Click on any image below to bring up the side-by-side comparison tool.

Individuals not in molt

FCJ - (HY: April - September)
Grayish-brown overall; bill dark gray
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M-FCF - (U/AHY: August - following September)
Wing uniformly reddish (M) or brown with reddish edging (F); bill uniformly orange-red
Thumbnail - MG2-2531-23772-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3317.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2531-23772-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3315.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2531-23772-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3316.jpg
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FCF - (HY/SY: June - following September)
Primary coverts pale brown, contrasting with red-edged primaries and greater coverts; bill sometimes with remaining dark spots, especially in fall; sometimes molt limits among the primaries or secondaries with juvenile brown-shafted feathers contrasting with fresher red-shafted formative feathers; body plumage largely red (M) or brown (F)
Thumbnail - MG2-1891-91084-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3338.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-1891-91084-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3336.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-1891-91084-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3337.jpg
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Individuals in active molt

FPJ - (HY: April - September)
Similar to FCJ; some natal down remaining and/or juvenile flight feathers still growing in
No images available yet
FPF - (HY: June - November)
Greater coverts being replaced, and in some individuals also some to all secondaries, primaries, primary coverts, and rectrices
Thumbnail - MG2-1212-58625-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3344.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-1212-58625-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3342.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-1212-58625-Cardinalis_cardinalis_AOU_7_52-3343.jpg
M-SPB - (U: August - October)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained primaries, secondaries, and/or primary coverts either distinctly adult (relatively dark, less worn) or intermediate
No images available yet
SPB - (SY: August - October)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained juvenile primaries, secondaries, and/or primary coverts distinctly pale brown and very worn
No images available yet
Number of species: 74

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