Bird Watcher's General Store

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Goofy Looking Cardinals

Dear Bird Folks,

I have this bird in my yard that looks like a cardinal and acts like a cardinal, but instead of a reddish orange beak, it has a big brown beak. What could it be?
– James, Eastham


Hey James:

If it looks like a Cardinal and acts like a Cardinal, guess what, James? It’s a Cardinal. Even the almighty Cardinal isn’t perfect all the time. The bird that you have described is simply a young Cardinal. They don’t get their signature reddish beak until they are almost a year old.

Summer is the time of year when we get lots of questions about weird looking birds. Since it is too early for most songbird migrations, the weird bird that you are seeing is probably not some exotic migrant, but more likely a very common young bird that hasn’t gotten its recognizable plumage yet. When it comes to summer backyard birds, a good rule of thumb is to pay attention to the other birds that the mystery bird is hanging out with. If your mystery bird hangs out with other grackles and looks somewhat like a grackle, it is probably a young grackle. You know, just like with humans. Even though people are dressed in ridiculous, outrageous clothes, they are still humans. They are probably just teenagers or golfers.