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Is There a Purple Cardinal Bird?

In this post we will be looking at species of cardinal and then investigating if there is a Purple Cardinal and if not, why do people think there are?

So, Is there a Purple Cardinal bird? Does it really exist?

To be straight, there are no purple cardinal birds that actually exist. There are various colors among the cardinal birds and also some purple birds that could resemble cardinals, however there is no proof of existence of purple cardinals.

Now, if there are no cardinals that are purple in color, then why do a lot of people claim to have seen a purple cardinal. What could they have seen in reality? Well, before that, let’s dig deeper into the various cardinal species.

Cardinal Species: What are the different colors of cardinals?

Now, we’ll start with looking at all the birds named cardinal.

There are 10 species of bird with Cardinal as their family name. It gets a bit complicated because 7 of them were named so because they looked like true cardinals in the Cardinalidae family. On the other hand, only 3 among them are truly cardinals by family.

The True Cardinals: Is there a Purple cardinal among them?

Basically, the family of Cardinalidae contains only 3 species:

The most common cardinal in North America is the Northern Cardinal and it is something of a celebrity in U.S. culture. The Northern Cardinal is the most seen and reported of the cardinal family and is resident across the east and center of continental America.

So, are the northern cardinals purple in color?

Photo by Skyler Ewing

Well, the male bird (on the top) is a striking scarlet color with a black face and prominent crest.

Photo by Imogen Warren

While the female is not as vivid, she is no less attractive with orangey brown coloring, a faded black face and red-tipped crest.

Photo by Félix Uribe

The Vermillion Cardinal looks very similar but it doesn’t have the black face or red bill. It is a rare bird only found in northeastern Colombia.

Photo by Andy Morffew

The last member of the cardinal family is the oddly named Pyrrhuloxia. It is resident in dry areas of southwestern America and northern Mexico. It is a blend of grays and scarlet but it has the distinctive cardinal crest.

So, we can conclude that there are no purple members of the true cardinal family. Yet there have been aberrations in coloring and every now and again an unusual bird is reported.

So, Let’s try and rule out other ‘cardinal’ birds also.

Other Cardinals (Paroaria & Gubernatrix) – Is there a Purple cardinal among them?

Out of the 10 cardinals, the remaining 7 are members of the Thraupidae family:

While the members of the Thraupidae family are not true cardinals, we will briefly look at them in our investigation, as they are so named and are similar in appearance.

Photo by Mauro Torres

Members of the Thraupidae family are all similar in appearance. They are white on the body and have black backs and wings. Their heads and faces are a varying degrees of bright red. While they all have some sort of crest, only the Red-crested Cardinal has a pronounced one.

So again, No purple here.

Here we have another yellow cardinal, aptly named the Yellow Cardinal.

Photo by Hector Bottai

This unusual and rare bird is the last bird named cardinal and again it is not related to the cardinal family at all. It is only found in Argentina and Uruguay. I think we can discount it.

Genetic Mutation and the possible existence of Purple Cardinals?

Within our 10 cardinal named birds there are no suspects for potentially being mistaken for a purple cardinal under normal circumstances. We now can accept, however, that there is a possibility of a genetic mutation that may allow one to exist.

Take this yellow Northern Cardinal below.

Photo by Diane Wurzer

This bird is resident in a garden in Alabama, and has successfully raised at least one family. The cause of the yellow coloring is to do with how all birds get their colors. Birds that have bright colors absorb pigment from the foods they eat (we all know that flamingo are pink because of their diet, right?). It is thought that this bird has some sort of genetic mutation that instead of the foods causing red feathers, they create yellow ones.

So if there is a yellow cardinal, it stands to reason that there could possibly be a purple one.

Birds that could be mistaken as Purple cardinals:

The Pyrrhuloxia as Rainbow Purple cardinal

Photo by Larry Ditto

This is a Pyrrhuloxia arguing with a Northern Cardinal. You can see that the Pyrrhuloxia is gray with red patches but it could almost be purple. The color gray is not a neutral color as you might think. It has undertones of color and those are blue, green or violet. Could it be that the undertone for this bird is violet, which might well give it a purple sheen in certain light qualities?

The Northern Cardinal as a Purple cardinal

Photo by Sudia Dan

At times, there is also a possibility that a bad light can make a northern cardinal appear as a purple cardinal for the human and camera eye. Yes, It is more likely that a purple looking cardinal sometimes happens because of light quality.

This shot of a Northern Cardinal was obviously taken in low light and you can see how it is almost purple in appearance.

Conclusion

Firstly, we can discount that there is any such bird as a Purple Cardinal or any purple bird that looks similar enough to a cardinal and could be mistaken for one.

Next, we know that color aberrations happen and there is always a possibility of a cardinal (or indeed any bird that obtains color through their diet) of different colors appearing.

Lastly, we can assume that any sightings of the Purple Cardinal are most likely to be of a Northern Cardinal or Pyrrhuloxia in low light, backlit or just at a weird angle. The resulting color just appears to be a shade close to purple.

So there you have it. We hope you enjoyed reading all about cardinals. The 10 cardinal birds are all linked to their eBird profiles so please explore them some more.

Imogen Warren is a bird photographer and a writer who was born in England, emigrated to New Zealand and 15 years later is now travelling Australia. She completed her education at the Victoria University of Wellington and went on to live a life of bird photographer. Furthermore, her photo series on Australasian bittern got her to the final of New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year. Imogen loves writing about birds and have contributed to several international magazines and blogs. She also maintains an extensive photographic library of birds she have photographed.