The Red-cowled Cardinal has a distinctive red face and crown that it shares with several other species in the genus Paroaria: P. coronata, P. gularis and P. capitata. However, the habitats and distributions of these species do not overlap with that of the Red-cowled Cardinal, which is endemic to northeastern Brazil (Del Hoyo et al. 2011). The Red-crested Cardinal (P. coronata) most closely resembles the Red-cowled Cardinal in appearance, both sharing a white belly and scarlet red face, crown and neck, and dark back and wings; however, the Red-crested Cardinal has a distinguished red crest that extends dorsally from the crown. The Red-crested Cardinal also lives in Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, not Brazil (Del Hoyo et al. 2011). The Red-capped Cardinal (P. gularis gularis) and the Yellow-billed Cardinal (P. capitata) also closely resemble the Red-cowled Cardinal with the characteristic red face, white body and darker wings; however, the Red-capped Cardinal has bright orange eyes, a black neck patch and is found in Peru, not Brazil. The Yellow-billed Cardinal has a black neck patch, like the Red-capped Cardinal, but also has a yellow orange bill and orange legs which distinguishes it from the Red-cowled Cardinal which has black legs, a grey white bill and a red neck patch (Del Hoyo et al. 2011). Their distribution is different from that of the Red-cowled Cardinal as well, only being found in Argentina and the most southern parts of Brazil, not overlapping with the distribution of the Red-cowled Cardinal (Del Hoyo et al. 2011). What further distinguishes the Red-cowled Cardinal from these similar species is its song. The song of the Red-cowled Cardinal is less of a chirp and more of “weet-chup” and warbles, whereas the songs of these three similar species are distinctive chirps (Restall 1974, Del Hoyo et al. 2011).
Adult: The Red-cowled Cardinal adult has a red crown, forehead, face and chin with the red bleeding into the mid chest creating a striking red patch in the midst of the overall white ventral side of the body (Jaramillo 2011). From a distance the Red-cowled Cardinal appears to have dark wings and a dark back, however, when seen up close the primaries and secondaries are a dark grey with white lining he edges with black scapulars. Near the nape the scapulars change in color from black to a light grey speckling. The Red-cowled Cardinal has a conical beak with the upper mandible being a darker grey and the lower mandible a lighter grey or bone color (Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011). The rump and most of the dorsal part of this tanager’s body is a darker grey while the belly and undertail coverts are white (Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011). The female’s plumage appears similar to that of the male’s plumage (Restall 1974); however, the species is sexual dichromatic from an avian visual perspective (Burns and Shultz 2012).
Juvenile: Juveniles look like adults except that the scarlet red crown and face of the adult is not present in the juveniles—juveniles have a more dull brown red flush (Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011). Juveniles also appear to be smaller than the mature adult and appear to have a shorter tail (Restall 1974).
There is little information on the molting strategy of the Red-cowled Cardinal. Tanagers that have been studied have either a Complex Basic Strategy or Complex Alternative Strategy (Ryder and Wolf 2009). However, most tanagers only molt once a year (Isler and Isler 1987), and this pre-basic molt likely occurs after the breeding season (Isler and Isler 1987, Ryder and Wolfe 2009). Many species have been found to breed in subadult plumage (Isler and Isler 1987). A juvenile plumage has been described for the Red-cowled Cardinal (see above, Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011). Restall (1974) mentions that some juveniles do not survive the first molt and that the first molt may be a very significant step in the survival of the Red-cowled Cardinal. More specific information on molt and its timing is not available for this species.
Bill: upper mandible is dark grey and lower mandible is a bone or light grey (Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011)
Iris: eye is a light sepia color with a black iris (Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011)
Legs: dark grey (Restall 1974, Jaramillo 2011)
Length: 18 cm (Jaramillo 2011)
Mass: 33.2 g (Schluter and Repasky 1991)