There are three species of cardinals from the genus Cardinalidae and six from the genus Paroaria. The most common of these, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), has gained worldwide recognition for being the red bird in the Angry Birds game series and is the state bird for no less than seven states!
Cardinals are quirky and popular little birds that are common throughout the Americas, so how long do cardinals live?
The average lifespan of a cardinal is around three years, though many birds do not survive past the nestling stage. In fact, some 40% to 60% of Northern cardinal nests fail, meaning that all unfledged nestlings will die. To make up for their low nestling survival rate, cardinals have up to 4 broods per year, and the birds fledge in just ten days or so.
The outlier here is the Desert cardinal that can live for around 6 to 8 years on average - much longer than most other cardinals. Cardinals in the genus Paroaria, like the Red-Crested cardinal, have similarly short lifespans.
Whilst the average lifespan of cardinals is low, they can live for well over ten years in some situations. Numerous wild cardinals have reportedly lived for longer than ten years. One female Northern cardinal tagged in Pennsylvania was at least 15 years, nine months old.
Read on to discover more about the lifespan of this much-loved bird!
On average, Northern Cardinals have a lifespan of between 2 and 3 years
The average lifespan of a cardinal is around three years, except for the Desert cardinal, which generally tends to live longer, about 5 to 8 years.
A lifespan of 3 years is relatively low for a bird of this size, but high nestling mortality rates mean that most cardinals will not survive until fledging. Around 60% of Northern cardinal nests fail, which often means that any nestlings will die. Some studies have suggested that nest failure rates are even higher, around 85%.
Some cardinals go on to live long lives, but year-on-year survival rates are only around 60%. Some wild cardinals have been found to live until they’re around 10.
Male (right) and female (left) Northern Cardinals perched in a tree
The Desert cardinal lives primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. They seem to live longer than other species of cardinals; around eight years on average in the wild.
One of the reasons for this longer lifespan is thought to be that Desert cardinals have fewer predators in their specialised arid environments.
Desert Cardinal or Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)
Cardinals are reported to live much, much longer lives in captivity. There are many claims scattered around that the oldest cardinal in captivity, lived until 28 and a half years old, but there is little information to back this up.
Given that one cardinal reached the age of at least 15.9 years in the wild, this seems possible, but there really is no way of telling how old a captive cardinal can live.
As many as 60 to 85% of cardinal nests fail, meaning that any nestlings die before they fledge. Infant mortality rates are high, so only around half of all cardinal chicks will survive until adulthood. The challenges faced by cardinals don’t stop there - their year-on-year chance of survival is only around 60%.
Most cardinal nests fail due to adverse weather conditions or predation. The main predators of cardinals include:
Cardinals also face risks from dehydration and starvation, as well as diseases, parasites and other types of infections. Many cardinals are involved in roadkill incidents.
Male Northern Cardinal calling
Cardinals have multiple broods a year, sometimes as many as four and lifecycle is relatively quick:
The fledging period here is rapid - cardinals are ready to leave the nest within just 12 days of hatching.
Cardinals are relatively small birds, and their bright red plumage is not exactly discrete or camouflaged! As a result, they face numerous risks, both on the land and in the air.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Female Northern Cardinal perched in a tree
Many birds prefer to eat every day, and some spend the majority of their days hunting or foraging. Like other medium-sized songbirds, cardinals can generally only survive for around 48 hours without food. They will likely get lethargic quickly if they do not feed each day.
Northern Cardinal during the winter
Northern cardinals extend from as far north as South-Eastern Canada, Maine, Minnesota and other northerly USA states to as far south as Texas, Mexico and Central America. They’re well-adapted to the cold weather, and some have thick plumage. Cardinal subspecies distributed further north tend to be larger and heavier.
Cardinals can also concentrate their warm blood around the vital organs and core, which helps them keep warm. They roost communally to huddle and share warmth. Whilst cardinals don’t migrate, they will fly inland in the winter, and those nesting in the mountains will return to lower elevations.
Other species of cardinals distributed in Central and South America won’t need to take many measures to stay warm during the winter as they only experience wet and mild winter conditions.
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