Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are one of America’s most popular backyard birds, and you only have to look at them to see why. They are one of two North American species in their genus and can be seen across the central and eastern half of the United states, extending across the south as far as Arizona.
Many birdwatchers delight in having these songbirds nest on their properties each year, and with a little luck, they might even nest in your backyard. So where and when do Cardinals nest?
Northern Cardinals usually nest in the spring, although they often start nest-building in late winter. The females build a simple cup-shaped nest in the dense, tangled vegetation of a shrub or tree, five to seven feet above the ground.
Northern Cardinals use their nests for about three weeks while they incubate their eggs and raise their chicks. They do not reuse them, so the breeding season can be a pretty busy time for birds that raise up to four broods a year. The male will take over caring for the fledged chicks when the female Cardinal begins to prepare for the next brood.
This article covers the nesting habits of the Northern Cardinal. Follow along to learn where, when, and how these colorful songbirds nest in wild and suburban North American landscapes.
Close up of a female Cardinal on the nest
Have you ever wondered where Cardinals build their nests? These birds become highly territorial when breeding, so there’s a good chance your regular backyard visitors have a nest nearby.
Northern Cardinals usually build their nests in the forks of thorny shrubs and vines. Impenetrable vegetation protects the eggs and chicks from the elements and any unwelcome nest predators.
Northern Cardinals are breeding residents in the United States from Southeastern Canada in the North to Belize in Central America. They were also introduced outside their native range, and today you can find nesting Cardinals in Hawaii and Bermuda.
Cardinals nest in a variety of shrubby habitats, including suburbia, woodlands, and along watercourses in drier areas.
Nesting Cardinals will return to the same breeding territory each year. In fact, many of them never leave at all. Cardinals do not necessarily build their nests in the same spot each year. They will occasionally re-use a specific location if they have been successful there in the past, however.
Northern Cardinals often nest in backyards. These birds have adapted surprisingly well to suburbia and the changing American landscape, even expanding their range into Southern Canada in the last few decades.
Cardinals usually nest in secluded places - forks of thorny shrubbery and vines provide protection
Cardinals do not use nest boxes. Unlike cavity-nesting species, these birds prefer to build their nests within the branches of shrubs and trees.
Cardinals nest in many different trees and shrubs across their wide American range. You might find their nests in the following plant species:
Northern Cardinals nest relatively low to the ground. Most nests are built at a height of five to seven feet, although they range from one to forty feet above the ground.
Three recently hatched Northern Cardinal chicks in the nest
Northern Cardinals build fairly typical cup-shaped nests. Continue reading to learn more about their appearance - it might just help you identify a Cardinal nest in your backyard.
Northern Cardinals build small, bowl-shaped nests out of plant material. Look out for a fine twig structure that is almost twice as wide as it is high. The outside of the nest looks pretty untidy, but the inner cup is neat and round.
Cardinals build small, cup-shaped nests that are just large enough to accommodate the incubating female and her two or three chicks. Let’s take a look at the dimensions of an average Northern Cardinal nest:
Cardinal nest with three unhatched eggs inside
Northern Cardinals have a relatively long nesting season, sometimes stretching over three seasons of the year. Continue reading to learn when Cardinals nest.
Cardinal nest construction begins between late winter and mid-spring (February - April) when winter begins to release its grip and the days start to grow longer. These birds often build their nests before the last snow has thawed and their chosen tree or shrub has leafed out.
Cardinals start nesting early, and their breeding season is long. These busy birds can raise several broods in good years, and the last chicks may fledge the nest as late as early September in the fall.
Northern Cardinal nesting can span up to eight months of the year. Raising just a single successful brood can take ten weeks or more.
The process begins when the pair start scouting for a nest site - a task that can take over two weeks. Female Cardinals take about a week to build the nest and lay their eggs within a week of its completion.
The eggs hatch after 11 to 13 days, and the chicks fledge the nest just 9 or 10 days later. The young birds are fed by their parents for another month (or more) before becoming fully independent.
Cardinals lay their first eggs in the spring months of March and April. The last eggs of the year are usually laid by mid-August.
Cardinals usually begin nesting in the spring, even though some birds remain on their breeding territories throughout the year. Many Cardinals join flocks in the winter and often roost communally in trees and shrubs.
Male Northern Cardinal feeding hungry chicks inside the nest
Female Northern Cardinals build the nests with little to no help from their partner. They use various natural and artificial materials, and construction takes three to nine days to complete. Continue reading to learn more about the Cardinal nest-building process.
Female Northern Cardinals build their nests securely in the fork of a branch without actually attaching it in any way. The nest consists of various layers, beginning with the coarse outer layer that looks rather loose and untidy.
The neat inner cup is made of softer materials for comfort and insulation.
Female Cardinals shape the nest by softening twigs and wrapping them around their body to form a cozy cup of the perfect size. They turn around in the nest as they work, pushing the material into place with their feet.
Cardinals use a variety of natural and unnatural materials to build their nests. They weave the outer structure from twigs, but softer materials like bark strips, leaves, grass, and pine needles are used for the inner layers. Cardinals also use artificial materials like plastic and paper.
Female Cardinals usually build the nest alone, although their partner may collect twigs and other nesting materials.
Female Cardinal gathering nesting materials for construction of the nest
With their nest complete, female Northern Cardinals move on to the next stage of the nesting process - egg laying. She will lay her eggs within eight days and begin incubating them once they are all safely in the nest.
Cardinal eggs are small at about 1 x 0.75 inches (2.5 x 2 cm). They are speckled or spotted in gray or brown and have a whitish, grayish, or greenish ground color.
Cardinals usually lay two or three eggs, although you could find anything from one to five eggs in a nest.
Male Northern Cardinals rarely sit in the nest. The female is responsible for incubating the eggs.
Close up of Cardinal eggs
Male Cardinals are more involved when it comes to feeding their chicks. They may also bring food to the female for the first few days of incubation, just as they did during courtship.
Male Cardinals continue to feed the fledglings when the female has begun preparations for the next brood.
Northern Cardinal chicks first leave the nest as early as seven days after hatching, although most chicks fledge after nine or ten days, and some don’t leave until they are nearly two weeks old.
Baby Northern Cardinals remain reliant on their parents at this stage and will stay very near to their nest. In fact, their parents will feed them for up to eight weeks after fledging.
Northern Cardinals can have as many as four broods each year, although two or three are more common.
Female Cardinal feeding fledgling
Cardinals abandon their nests after they have completed nesting for the year. They will not be quick to abandon a nest that contains eggs or chicks, although you should not approach a nest too closely to avoid disturbing the mother and chicks.
Northern Cardinals do not nest on the ground. They choose the shelter of dense shrubs and trees to build their nests.
Female Cardinals sleep on their eggs at night to keep them warm and sheltered. They sleep in trees and shrubs outside of the nesting season.
Male Cardinal feeding his four day old chicks
The best way to attract Cardinals to your yard is to provide good foraging and nesting sites. Growing native plants such as American Elderberry and Wild Grape provides great nesting opportunities for these welcome backyard birds.
Mother Cardinals brood their babies continuously for the first few days after hatching. She must sleep with the babies to keep them warm because they do not yet have feathers and cannot regulate their own body temperatures.
It is illegal to disrupt nesting Cardinals in the United States. The best option is always to wait until the birds have completed nesting before removing the nest.
The incubation and brooding periods last just three weeks or so, and the young birds will be flying on their own within a further two weeks.
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