- 8.3–9.1 in
- 9.8–12.2 in
- 1.5–1.7 oz
- Slightly smaller than an American Robin
- Cardinal rouge (French)
- Cardenal rojo, Cardenal norteño, Cardenal común (Spanish)
- Only a few female North American songbirds sing, but the female Northern Cardinal does, and often while sitting on the nest. This may give the male information about when to bring food to the nest. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male.
- Many people are perplexed each spring by the sight of a cardinal attacking its reflection in a window, car mirror, or shiny bumper. Both males and females do this, and most often in spring and early summer when they are obsessed with defending their territory against any intruders. Birds may spend hours fighting these intruders without giving up. A few weeks later, as levels of aggressive hormones subside, these attacks should end (though one female kept up this behavior every day or so for six months without stopping).
- The male cardinal fiercely defends its breeding territory from other males. When a male sees its reflection in glass surfaces, it frequently will spend hours fighting the imaginary intruder.
- A perennial favorite among people, the Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven states.
- The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was 15 years 9 months old.
Look for Northern Cardinals in dense shrubby areas such as forest edges, overgrown fields, hedgerows, backyards, marshy thickets, mesquite, regrowing forest, and ornamental landscaping. Cardinals nest in dense foliage and look for conspicuous, fairly high perches for singing. Growth of towns and suburbs across eastern North America has helped the cardinal expand its range northward.
Northern Cardinals eat mainly seeds and fruit, supplementing these with insects (and feeding nestlings mostly insects). Common fruits and seeds include dogwood, wild grape, buckwheat, grasses, sedges, mulberry, hackberry, blackberry, sumac, tulip-tree, and corn. Cardinals eat many kinds of birdseed, particularly black oil sunflower seed. They also eat beetles, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers, cicadas, flies, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, and moths.
- Clutch Size
- 2–5 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1-2 broods
- Egg Length
- 0.9–1.1 in
- Egg Width
- 0.7–0.8 in
- Incubation Period
- 11–13 days
- Nestling Period
- 7–13 days
- Egg Description
- Grayish white, buffy white, or greenish white speckled with pale gray to brown.
- Condition at Hatching
- Naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down, eyes closed, clumsy.
Males sometimes bring nest material to the female, who does most of the building. She crushes twigs with her beak until they’re 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 (and sometimes bits of trash) covered in a leafy mat, then lined with grapevine 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. Cardinals usually don’t use their nests more than once.
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.
© René Corado / WFVZ
© René Corado / WFVZ
Northern Cardinals hop through low branches and forage on or near the ground. 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, including Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, other sparrow species, Tufted Titmice, goldfinches, and Pyrrhuloxias. They fly somewhat reluctantly on their short, round wings, taking short trips between thickets while foraging. Pairs may stay together throughout winter, but up to 20 percent of pairs split up by the next season.
Northern Cardinal populations slightly increased every year from 1966 to 2010 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 120 million with 77 percent in the U.S. and 22 percent in Mexico. They rate a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. The expansion of people and their backyards over the last two centuries has been good for cardinals. However, habitat loss in southeastern California, at the edge of the cardinal’s range, may cause the disappearance of the cardinal population there.
- Halkin, Sylvia L. and Susan U. Linville. 1999. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 440 (A. Poole, Ed.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
- Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.