Northern Cardinal

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Northern Cardinal
Cardinalis cardinalis

Male Northern Cardinal
The Northern Cardinal is a long-tailed songbird with a short, cone-shaped, thick bill and prominent crest. The males are slightly larger than the females. They are eight to nine inches long (22cm), with a wingspan of ten to twelve inches (25Ė31 cm), and weigh about and ounce and a half (45g).

Northern Cardinals legs and feet are a dark pink-brown. The iris of the eye is brown. The plumage color of the males is produced from carotenoid pigments in the diet. They donít molt into a dull plumage.

Male cardinals are crimson red, with a reddish bill and black face mask immediately around the bill and eyes, extending to the upper chest. Females are fawn brown with reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. The face mask of the female is gray to black and is less defined than that of the male. They have a red-orange bill. Immature males show variable amounts of red, and may have bare patches. Juveniles have red wings and tail, diffuse red on a brown background with a dusky bill.

Cardinals donít migrate but they may relocate to avoid extreme weather or if food is scarce. The oldest wild Cardinal banded by researchers lived at least 15 years and 9 months, a captive bird 28 and a half years. Annual survival rates for adult Northern Cardinals have been estimated at 60 to 65%. They prefer dense shrubby areas such as forest edges, overgrown fields, hedgerows, marshy thickets, mesquite, swapms, and regrowing forest.


Northern Cardinals tend to sit low in shrubs and trees or forage on or near the ground, often in pairs. They often hop through low branches. Cardinals commonly sing and preen from a high branch of a shrub. The distinctive crest can be raised and pointed when agitated or lowered and barely visible while resting. You typically see cardinals moving around in pairs during the breeding season, but in fall and winter they can form fairly large flocks of a dozen to several dozen birds. During foraging, young birds give way to adults and females tend to give way to males. Cardinals sometimes forage with other species, such as Juncos and goldfinches. They fly somewhat reluctantly on their short, round wings, taking short trips between thickets while foraging. Pairs may stay together throughout winter, and many mate for life.

Female Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinals are mainly ground feeders and finds food while hopping on the ground through trees or shrubbery. They eat mainly seeds and fruit, supplementing these with insects. Common fruits and seeds include dogwood, wild grape, buckwheat, grasses, sedges, mulberry, hackberry, blackberry, sumac, tulip-tree, corn, raspberry, gooseberry, and blueberries. Cardinals eat many kinds of birdseed, particularly black oil sunflower seed. They also eat beetles, crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, cicadas, flies, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, snails, and moths. They will drink maple sap.


Both male and female Northern Cardinals sing, with about sixteen different calls. The Northern Cardinal song varies regionally. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male. The sound heard most commonly is a loud, metallic chip. Cardinals make this call when warning off intruders to their territory, when predators are near, as females approach their nests, and by both sexes as they carry food to the nest or when trying to get nestlings to leave the nest. When one member of a pair is about to feed the other, either bird may make a softer note. A chipping noise is used by a Cardinal pair to locate each other, especially during dusk hours when visibility wanes.

Nests & Nesting

Cardinals usually donít use their nests more than once. Cardinals nest in dense tangles of foliage and look for conspicuous, fairly high perches for singing. A week or two before the female starts building, she starts to visit possible nest sites with the male following along. The pair call back and forth and hold nesting material in their bills as they assess each site. Nests tend to be wedged into a fork of small branches in a sapling, shrub, or vine tangle, 1-15 feet high and hidden in dense foliage. They use many kinds of trees and shrubs, including dogwood, honeysuckle, hawthorn, grape, redcedar, spruce, pines, hemlock, rose bushes, blackberry brambles, elms, sugar maples, and box elders.

Typically, Northern Cardinal pairs remain together the whole year. In winter, the bond may be relaxed. Pairs often stay mated until one dies at which time the surviving mate will look for another partner. Mated pairs sometimes sing together before nesting. Male Cardinals often feed the female as part of their courtship. What you'll see is the male pick up a seed, hop over to the female, and the two momentarily touch beaks as she takes the food. Mate-feeding continues through the egg-laying and incubation phases of breeding.

Males sometimes bring nest material to the female, who does most of the building. She crushes twigs with her beak until theyíre pliable, then turns in the nest to bend the twigs around her body and push them into a cup shape with her feet. The cup has four layers: coarse twigs covered in a leafy mat, then lined with softer bark and finally grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles. The nest typically takes 3 to 9 days to build; the finished product is 2-3 inches tall, 4 inches across, with an inner diameter of about 3 inches.

While the female builds the nest the male keeps a close eye on her and the surrounding territory for predators and other males. Cardinals will defend their territory against any intruders, they will even attack car mirrors, or even shiny bumpers. Birds may spend hours fighting these intruders without giving up. A few weeks later, as levels of aggressive hormones subside, these attacks should end. The male marks out his territory with song, which is a loud, clear whistle from the top of a tree or another high location. They can be aggressive when defending their territory, and they frequently attack other males who intrude. This tendency sometimes leads cardinals to fly into glass windows, when they charge an "intruding bird" that is really their own reflection.

Three or four grayish white, buffy white, or greenish white speckled with pale gray to brown, eggs are laid in each clutch. Eggs measure approximately 1 inch. The female generally incubates the eggs. Rarely, the male will incubate for brief periods of time. Incubation takes 11 to 13 days. During which time the male brings food to the female. The female Northern Cardinal sings often while sitting on the nest, this may give the male information about when to bring food to the nest.

The young birds when hatched are naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down, the eyes are closed, and they are clumsy. The nestlings are fed mostly insects, by the pair.

The young fledge 10 to 13 days after hatching. They remain dependent upon their parents for two to four more weeks. The male usually cares for the offspring during this time while the female starts the next nest. Up to four, broods can be raised each year with the male caring for and feeding each brood as the female incubates the next clutch of eggs. Guessing this would be further south as Minnesota has a shorter summer season.


Northern Cardinals are preyed upon by a wide variety of predators native to North America, including Cooper's hawks, loggerhead shrikes, northern shrikes, eastern gray squirrels, long-eared owls and eastern screech owls. Predators of chicks and eggs include milk snakes, coluber constrictors, blue jays, fox squirrels, and eastern chipmunks.

The Northern Cardinal was initially included in the genus Loxia, which now contains only crossbills. In 1838, it was placed in the genus Cardinalis and given the scientific name Cardinalis virginianus, which means "Virginia Cardinal". In 1918, the scientific name was changed to Richmondena cardinalis to honor Charles Wallace Richmond, an American ornithologist. In 1983, the scientific name was changed again to Cardinalis cardinalis and the common name was changed to "Northern Cardinal", to avoid confusion with the seven other species also termed cardinals. The term "Northern" in the common name refers to its range, as it is the northernmost cardinal species.

The Northern Cardinal, sometimes called Redbird, is the state bird of seven states. Early settlers were said to have named this bird after the Cardinal of the Catholic Church because the red of the bird reminded them of the color of the Cardinal's robes. The global population is estimated to be about 100,000,000 individuals. It was once prized as a pet due to its bright color and distinctive song. In the United States, this species receives special legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also banned their sale as cage birds.

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