- Name:Northern Cardinal
- Species:Cardinalis cardinalis
Size & Shape
The Northern Cardinal is a fairly large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. Cardinals often sit with a hunched-over posture and with the tail pointed straight down.
Male cardinals are brilliant red all over, with a reddish bill and black face immediately around the bill. Females are pale brown overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. They have the same black face and red-orange bill.
Northern Cardinals tend to sit low in shrubs and trees or forage on or near the ground, often in pairs. They are common at bird feeders but may be inconspicuous away from them, at least until you learn their loud, metallic chip note. 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.
Look for Northern Cardinals in inhabited areas such as backyards, parks, woodlots, and shrubby forest edges. Northern Cardinals nest in dense tangles of shrubs and vines. 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.
- 8.3–9.1 in
- 9.8–12.2 in
- 1.5–1.7 oz
Slightly smaller than an American Robin
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.
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.
- Clutch Size
- 2–5 eggs
- 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.
Populations are generally in good shape. 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.