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It is 10–11 centimetres long and has a thick conical bill. Breeding males are brightly coloured with red (occasionally orange) and black plumage. The forehead, face and throat are black and the rest of the head is red. The upperparts are red apart from the brown wings and tail. The upper breast and under tail-coverts are red while the lower breast and belly are black. The non-breeding male and female have streaky brown plumage, paler below. Females are smaller than the males. It has various twittering calls and a nasal contact call. The male has a buzzing song. Breeding males of the Northern Red Bishop have a red throat, black extending further back on the crown and long tail-coverts which almost cover the tail. The females and non-breeding males are almost identical to those of the Southern Red Bishop.