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Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
8.3–9.1 in
21–23 cm
Wingspan
9.8–12.2 in
25–31 cm
Weight
1.5–1.7 oz
42–48 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than an American Robin
Other Names
  • Cardinal rouge (French)
  • Cardenal rojo, Cardenal norteño, Cardenal común (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • 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.

Habitat


Open Woodland

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.

Food


Seeds

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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1.1 in
2.2–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.8 in
1.7–2 cm
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.
Nest Description

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.

Nest Placement

Shrub

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.

Northern Cardinal Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Northern Cardinal Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

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.

Credits

Range Map Help

Northern Cardinal Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident.

Backyard Tips

Nearly any bird feeder you put out ought to attract Northern Cardinals (as long as you live within their range), but they particularly seem to use sunflower seeds. Leave undergrowth in your backyard or around the edges, and you may have cardinals nesting on your property.

Find This Bird

The brilliant red of a male Northern Cardinal calls attention to itself when males are around. You can also find cardinals by getting a sense of the warm, red-tinged brown of females – a pattern you can learn to identify in flight. Away from backyards, cardinals are still common but inconspicuous owing to their affinity for dense tangles. Listen for their piercing chip notes to find where they are hiding.

Get Involved

Keep track of Northern Cardinals at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Q & A: Why is a cardinal attacking my window?

The Northern Cardinal is a focal species for NestWatch. Learn how to find nests and report your observations.

Enhance your yard for cardinals and other birds. Visit our web pages on attracting and feeding birds

You Might Also Like

You can identify cardinals and many other birds just from their size and shape. Watch our Inside Birding video series and learn how—right from your computer.

Have you seen a bald cardinal? Read our web page on bald-headed birds.

Northern Cardinal from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)

Find in-depth information on cardinals and other hundreds of other birds for as little as $5 in The Birds of North America Online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union

eBird Occurrence Maps, Northern Cardinal