They're lively, bright and amazing songsters. At about 9 inches, with a 12 inch wingspan, these flashy members of the finch family are easy to spot, if not by the males' scarlet red plumage, then by the long tails and crested heads of both the male cardinals and the reddish-tan, less showy female cardinals.
The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.
The grosbeaks, seedeaters, and cardinals have large bills, while Granatellus and buntings have small bills. The cardinalid tanagers have a stout, near pointed bills, with some species of Piranga have serrations along the edge of their upper bills. This bill shape is not always an indicator of relationships, as the various species of blue cardinalid species, like the blue grosbeak and Cyanoloxia grosbeaks are related to the buntings. Similarly the cardinalid tanagers are closer to the cardinals and masked grosbeaks (more in the systematics section). The head is medium to large in size, with a medium neck length. The body of cardinalids range from small to medium with lengths of 4.5 to 11 inches (11 to 28 centimeters). Legs are also short to medium in length as well.