Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are small passerine songbirds from the Cardinalidae family. These colorful birds are a common sight across the Eastern and Southern United States, where birdwatchers can enjoy them throughout the year, often in backyards and city parks.
Cardinals are a joy to watch during the breeding season when pairs work together closely to raise a family. So how do Northern Cardinals partner up? Do they mate for life?
Northern Cardinals are a monogamous species. A pair will work together to raise up to two broods each season, each consisting of up to five eggs. Each partner has a role to play, and they continue to support their offspring long after they have left the nest. Cardinals usually stick together throughout the breeding season, and some birds even pair up for multiple seasons, so you could say those birds mate for life.
Cardinals are not always faithful, however, and birds who lose a partner will not waste time when seeking a replacement. With so many threats like cats, Cooper’s Hawks, and even window collisions, a short-lived species like a Cardinal needs to do everything it can to reproduce successfully.
Sometimes it’s not only death that does them part, however. Even healthy Cardinals split up, and the annual divorce rate can be as high as 20%.
Cardinals are a monogamous species, and will pair up for the breeding season, sometimes even multiple seasons
Northern Cardinals are devoted partners and parents for the most part. The pair court each other with fascinating displays of song and dance, and male Cardinals show their devotion by feeding the female before she has even laid her eggs.
Their loving care extends to their chicks, which remain in the nesting territory for several weeks. They are fed by their father even after their mother has laid her second clutch of eggs.
This article uncovers the relationship between Northern Cardinal pairs. Read on to learn the fascinating secrets behind the love life of one of America’s favorite backyard birds.
Northern Cardinals are non-migratory birds, and their nesting territories can sustain them throughout the year in some areas. Finding a new partner takes effort, and there’s always the risk that they may be an unfit parent, so it makes sense for successful pairs to stick together.
Cardinals are not a very long-lived species. In fact, the average Cardinal lifespan is just three years or so. This short lifespan means that many Cardinal pairs that mate for just a few consecutive seasons will have effectively paired for life.
Continue reading to learn more about the pair relationships of Northern Cardinals.
A breeding pair of Northern Cardinals
Cardinals may form strong partnerships, but all is not always as it seems. A study of nesting Northern Cardinals in Kentucky found that 13.5 percent of the chicks in their study group were the offspring of a different male. The same study found that male Cardinals guard their fertile female partners for 72 percent of the time, although this is clearly not quite enough.
Male Cardinals are known to be polygamous in some instances. This behavior could be due to a female that has lost her partner entering the territory of an established pair. Some males might actively seek out additional partners, however.
Male participation is vital for successfully rearing the chicks, so mated females without a dedicated partner are less likely to succeed in raising their brood.
Nevertheless, there are records of males with more than one partner providing enough food to successfully raise two broods at the same time.
Male and female Cardinals perched on a branch during the winter
Cardinal pairs often split up, even during the breeding season. This behavior can occur as much as twenty percent of the time. Nesting failure is the most likely cause for a pair to divorce.
Male Cardinals do not have bright red plumage and a beautiful voice for nothing. These eye-catching songbirds use their voice and actions to attract a partner and then court her each breeding season. Read on to learn more about how Cardinals attract a breeding partner.
Northern Cardinal courtship behavior starts in the late winter or early spring, and most pairs have formed by April. Male Cardinals attract females with their songs. They will also display in the air by slowly flying towards the female with their crest raised and their feathers fluffed.
If the female is interested in his advances, the male Cardinal will move on to court her with a dance-like display of lifted, shaking wings while tilting his body from side to side.
Male Cardinals also feed females during courtship, possibly to prove that they will be able to provide for their partner while she is incubating. The female will encourage this behavior by quivering her wings in the same way that many fledgling birds beg for food.
Interestingly, female cardinals also get into the act. They display to their partner by tilting to one side with slightly raised wings. In fact, their displays can look very similar to those of their male counterparts and may even include similar vocalizations. Females Cardinals let their partner know they are ready to mate by crouching with their head and tail held high.
Male Cardinal feeding a female as part of the courtship ritual
Cardinals do not migrate, so some bonded pairs remain in their nesting territory through the fall and winter to nest together in the following breeding season. Many Cardinals leave their nesting territories to join flocks in the winter, however.
In this case, a bonded pair might leave the flock together at the start of the nesting season or a male may leave to establish a territory and then be joined by a female. If a pair should divorce or lose a partner, the remaining bird will seek a new partner during or after the breeding season.
Northern Cardinals produce one or two broods each year. It’s difficult to say just how many times Cardinals copulate in a season because they tend to be secretive when mating.
Female (left) and male (right) Northern Cardinal pair at a bird bath
The world is a dangerous place for a small, brightly colored songbird like a Northern Cardinal. Cats, hawks, and many other predators are a constant threat. Many mortalities are also caused by factors like disease, exposure, and collisions.
A Northern Cardinal will seek a new mate when it loses its partner. The unfortunate bird may have a neighbor that has recently lost a partner or simply match up with a bird that couldn’t find a mate at the beginning of the breeding season.
If Cardinals do mourn the loss of a mate, it probably doesn’t last very long. Finding a new partner does not take long in some cases, even within the same breeding season. Science has not yet unraveled the complexity of bird emotions, however, so we don’t know for sure.
Pair of Cardinals feeding from a feeder together
Baby Northern Cardinals first leave the nest just a week or two after hatching. They don't go far, however, staying in the immediate vicinity of the nest for a further two or three weeks. Their parents continue to feed them until they are up to two months old.
The birds stick together in the breeding territory during this time, although the female will stop feeding the young birds from her first brood once she begins to prepare for her second brood of the season.
You might spot Cardinals locking bills in a pretty romantic-looking way. This behavior is not exactly a kiss, although this display of affection certainly reinforces the pair’s bond. Cardinals lock their bills when the male is feeding the female during courtship.
A pair of 'kissing' Cardinals - the male is feeding the female, to reinforce the pairs bond
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