One of the most distinctive birds of the United States, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are present across the eastern part of the country, from South Dakota to Maine in the north, and spreading as far west as Arizona and New Mexico, and on rare occasions, California, in the southwest.
Our guide to Northern Cardinals in Texas explores the status and distribution of the species in the largest state, and identifies whether this striking scarlet songbird can be seen there all year round. Keep reading if you’re interested in learning more!
Texas forms one of the most westerly extents of the range of Northern cardinals, with the species present throughout the state. Only a few isolated areas further to the west – in Arizona, New Mexico, and California – are home to the species.
Northern cardinals are classed as ‘common to abundant’ throughout Texas, and are present in all areas of the state, with the only exception being the extreme northwest.
More recent data is unavailable, but a 1972 survey indicated an average density of 167 Northern cardinals per square kilometer in southern Texas.
Northern Cardinals can be found in most parts of Texas
Cardinals can be found pretty much all over the state of Texas. Breeding pairs are generally more common in the more humid eastern parts.
Research undertaken by the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas between 1987 and 1992 noted that breeding pairs of Northern cardinals were widespread in the eastern, more humid part of Texas, as far as the western limits of the Rolling Plains and Edwards Plateau.
Towards the state’s western border, on the High Plains, and in the eastern Trans-Pecos regions, the species was still present, but fewer breeding pairs were observed.
Nest sites used by Northern cardinals breeding in Texas range from near sea level to elevations of up to 1500 m (5000 ft). In eastern Texas, cardinals breed in a range of habitats where trees and bushes are found, including urban landscapes as well as rural areas, although they tend to stay away from densely forested regions.
As a species, Northern cardinals have adapted well to living in close proximity to humans and their surroundings and are common visitors to backyard bird feeders.
In the arid, desert landscapes of western Texas, Northern cardinals are less common, and are mainly found in urban areas and landscapes crossed by rivers or streams.
Female northern cardinal landing on cactus, Rio Grand Valley, Texas
Cardinals are classed as common and abundant in Texas and are widespread in all parts of the state, particularly the east and south. Spotting one of these distinctive crimson songbirds is not a rare event.
The species is tolerant of human company and urban landscapes, and is a frequent visitor to backyard feeders, especially in winter. So if you keep your feeders stocked and your eyes peeled, you may well be rewarded!
Female and Male Northern Cardinals perched on a branch
As Northern cardinals are classed as abundant in Texas, they can be seen throughout the state. In the eastern, more humid parts of the state, they have a wider presence, and can be seen in backyards, parks, and woodland clearings, as well as foraging on scrubland and cultivated rural landscapes.
In winter, Northern cardinals feed in flocks, and groups of 20 or more can show up at a backyard feeder in search of sunflower seeds, peanuts, cracked corn or any other seeds or grains.
Their bright plumage makes them easier to spot, and their abundance throughout their range means that anyone in any part of the state stands a good chance of seeing one without having to look too far.
Male cardinal bathing, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Cardinals are year-round residents in Texas, both breeding and overwintering in the state. As a nonmigratory species, Northern cardinals across the United States tend to remain close to their breeding grounds throughout the year, with some moving from high ground to spend winters at lower altitudes.
However, no major migration occurs, and Texas does not experience a noticeable fluctuation in population numbers at any point of the year.
Cardinals live in Texas all year round, and can be seen in both winter and summer months, foraging for food around backyard feeders and on lawns.
The species has a number of adaptations that allow them to cope with colder weather, such as being able to shiver and lower their own body temperature by a few degrees, which means that they can survive in colder parts of the country throughout the winter rather than needing to travel south in search of warmer weather.
In winter, cardinals may suddenly become a more visible presence in the state, as once the breeding season is over, they flock together in groups of up to around 25 birds to forage for food.
Being part of a larger flock increases their chances of survival, using the theory of 'safety in numbers' against predators.
Cardinal chirping in the winter snow in Texas
Northern cardinals successfully establish nest sites in a range of habitats across Texas, with breeding observed to be more concentrated further to the east. Small trees, shrubs, or tangled vines offer the perfect spot for breeding pairs to claim a territory and construct their nests.
Northern cardinal nests are bowl-shaped structures, woven from leaves, grasses, twigs and bark, and wedged into forks or branches. The nest, constructed by the female with minimal assistance from the male, is then lined with fine grass and bark.
Two broods per season are most common for Northern cardinals, but occasionally three or even four broods may be raised. A fresh nest is constructed for each new brood.
The nesting period of Northern cardinals in Texas has been observed to begin as early as January, extending into late August. The first eggs are laid at the start of March, with the latest clutches not being laid until the end of July in some cases. The peak months for breeding are between April and June.
Breeding pair of Cardinals foraging amongst the leaves
Cardinals are a familiar sight on back lawns and parklands throughout Texas, and can be a vocal, lively presence at backyard feeders.
Outside of the breeding season, it’s usual for the species to gather in loose foraging flocks, and feeding platforms or hopper feeders that are well stocked with peanuts and sunflower seeds stand you in good stead for attracting the attention of any neighborhood cardinals.
A fresh water source, such as a bird bath is another potential way of drawing cardinals to your yard, to offer a bathing and drinking spot. Planting an area with thickets of dense or tangled vines will provide shelter and a suitable site for cardinals to nest in.
Cardinals are frequent visitors to backyard feeders in Texas
A similar species that are abundant in Texas, and similar in appearance to the Northern cardinal is the Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus). From a distance, the two crested songbirds may be confused, although up close, some subtle differences make them distinguishable.
The male Pyrrhuloxia’s plumage is grayer, with reddish tinges, and it has a yellow bill rather than the bright orange beak of a Northern cardinal.
Pyrrhuloxia feeding on top of cactus, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
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