The bright red-crested Northern cardinal is one of the most recognizable garden birds in North America. These birds ooze attitude and are easy to spot thanks to their red plumage, though the females lack most of the same signature red plumage as the males.
Every power-packed adult cardinal starts life as a baby bird; this is a guide to all you need to know about baby cardinals!
Baby cardinals are born naked and blind with a small quantity of feathery down. They grow quickly, vastly increasing in size between day 1 and day 10, which is when most baby cardinals will have already left the nest.
At birth, baby cardinals are practically naked aside from some very fine grayish down that covers some of their feather tracts. They’re blind, and their skin is near-transparent, making them look somewhat yellowish. Despite being minuscule, baby cardinals can hold their heads up and can shuffle around the nest within just hours of being born. Northern cardinal hatchlings weigh just 3.5g (0.12oz) and measure just a few cm long.
Three baby cardinal chicks in the nest
As cardinals grow past the 7-day mark, they begin to grow out their predominantly brown-gray juvenile plumage. These first feathers are called pin feathers. Juveniles molt away most of their first feathers in the wintertime, developing their brown and red adult plumage. The crest develops around 10 days to 2 weeks after hatching and is typically present before the emergence of red adult plumage.
Juvenile cardinals look similar to adults in size and shape but lack red plumage until around November (some 6/7 months after the breeding season). The tail usually turns red first. Juvenile cardinals also have fluffy chest and underside plumage.
Baby Vermillion cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia (desert cardinal) and Red-crested cardinals are similar to the Northern cardinal, though they look different as they begin to molt and grow out their juvenile plumage. For example, the Pyrrhuloxia and Red-crested cardinals lack much of the red body feathers as the Vermillion and Northern cardinals.
A young Northern Cardinal fledgling, standing nearby to the nest
Juvenile cardinals are a light-brown color with fluffy undersides, breasts, and neck feathers. Their tails are short and may appear a faint rust-red, but otherwise, they’re pretty drab, and both the male and female lack red adult plumage.
However, juvenile cardinals still sport their distinctive crests, which develop in males and females from day 7 to 10. After a couple of weeks after fledging, juvenile cardinals are easy to identify from this crest, which is still a dull brown. Juvenile feathers begin to molt around 2 to 4 months after hatching but won’t resemble adult plumage until that year’s winter. At around the 1-year mark, young cardinals are nearly impossible to tell apart from adult cardinals. Juvenile cardinals have gray-brown bills that turn orange over two to four months.
It’s tougher to identify juvenile female cardinals as these don’t grow the same intense red plumage as the males. However, you can still identify juvenile female cardinals from adult female cardinals as female adults have red crests. In contrast, juvenile crests are mostly light-brown, and their beaks are also gray-brown and not orange-red.
Juvenile Male Northern Cardinal
Juvenile Female Northern Cardinal
Baby cardinals measure just a few centimeters long. They’re born naked and blind, and are very small and vulnerable.
Baby cardinals grow very quickly indeed and weigh more like 25g by day 7, attaining much of their adult size and weight after around 2 weeks to 1 month. Baby cardinals grow quickly but won’t develop their full adult plumage until towards the end of the year in October and November.
Baby cardinals weigh just around 3.5g at birth. Cardinal chicks grow quickly, gaining two to three grams of weight per day for the first week. After around a month, juvenile cardinals will weigh near enough the same as an adult.
Female Cardinal watching over her baby in an old bird house
Like most birds, baby cardinals won’t emerge from the nest until they’re ready to fledge. However, baby cardinals aren’t actually an uncommon sight, so long as you know what to look for.
When baby cardinals fledge after just 7 to 12 days, they’re still very undeveloped and are poor at flying for another two weeks or so. A baby cardinal looks fluffy light-brown with a short brown crest - the crest is a great way to identify a baby cardinal from other similar baby birds that lack the crest.
Between fledging and being able to fly with confidence, baby cardinals might appear abandoned on the ground or a low branch or bush. While it might be tempting to move the bird, baby cardinals are actually fed by their parents for around 70 days in some situations - don’t be too hasty to ‘save’ young birds just because they appear abandoned! It’s often likely that the parents are watching nearby.
Close up of a immature Cardinal
There is no specific name for a baby cardinal. Once hatched, baby cardinals are called hatchlings. Then, they’re referred to as nestlings for as long as they remain in the nest until fledged. Once fledged, they’re called fledglings. Finally, baby cardinals become juveniles, and then adults.
Baby cardinals are fed insects and invertebrates, including beetles, larvae, and caterpillars primarily. Parents also provide their chicks seeds, berries, and other plant foods.
The chicks can’t digest tough foods for the first few days, which is why soft invertebrates and berries are preferable. Cardinals eat mainly seeds, berries, and other plant foods, but they increase their insect intake during the season - insects are full of fat and protein, which is ideal for the chicks!
Both parents feed the chicks, though this varies between couples - the female will make more feeding trips than the males in most cases. Some tougher or harder foods are partially regurgitated into the chicks’ mouths, but most are broken up and fed whole.
Close up of a female cardinal feeding chicks in the nest
During the first two days or so after hatching, the male tends to bring food to the female, who will then feed the hatchlings. As the nestlings age, the male starts to feed the young birds more often.
Studies reveal that males feed the chicks around 40% of the time by day 3 and 60% of the time by day 8. Baby cardinals are fed for up to 70 days after fledging, which is much-elongated compared to many other small birds that leave the family unit much sooner.
Cardinal chicks are usually fed whole food items, but their parents also regurgitate food in the chicks’ mouths.
Cardinals have strong, chunky beaks which make them pretty good at manipulating and cracking tougher foods into harder pieces. Hard-shelled foods like seeds will likely be broken up and fed to the chicks in smaller pieces.
Both parents feed the chicks around 8 times per day, with an average of around 2 to 4 trips per hour. Feeding is more intense in the first days after hatching.
Cardinal feeding her young
Female cardinals lay between 1 to 5 eggs, though 2 or 3 is average. Single-egg clutches are rare.
Whether or not all hatchlings in a nest will survive until fledgling or adulthood is a different question altogether. At hatching, a cardinal might have 2 or 3 babies, but after a month or so, one, two, or even all three babies may die from predation, starvation, or disease.
Cardinal eggs measure around 2.5 x 1.8cm and range in color from gray-white to greenish.
Almost all cardinal eggs are quite heavily spotted or blotched with light or dark brown marks, though the shape of blotches varies widely. Blotches are usually concentrated towards the thicker end of the egg.
The nest and eggs of a northern cardinal
Cardinal eggs are incubated for around 11 to 13 days on average.
Incubation times are possibly marginally higher earlier in the breeding season, probably because the ambient temperature is lower.
Cardinals breed and lay eggs in March and April. At higher latitudes, egg-laying may occur in late April but rarely later. Early March egg-laying is also rare. Late-March to early April is most common.
Egg-laying usually begins within 1 to 8 days after the pair of cardinals chooses a nesting site and builds a nest.
Immature baby cardinal perched on a branch
Baby cardinals fledge after just 7 to 13 days, but parental feeding continues for up to two months or even longer in some situations.
During this time, the young cardinal won’t stay too far from the nest and will regularly return for feeding. However, as the young cardinal learns to fly competently, parental feeding fades, and eventually, the juvenile cardinal will leave the family unit entirely.
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