Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), are a common and admired backyard bird. They often frequent bird feeders in winter and early spring, when they are more likely to be in a flock. Then, in spring through early fall, you often see them in mated pairs for nesting season. Do you know if any cardinals nest on or near your property? Here’s what to look for if you aren’t sure.
Cardinal nests are usually built in a well-hidden spot, tucked in the fork of branches, shrubs, or tangled vine. How high they build their nests can vary, most are placed 1-15 feet off the ground. Like most birds, cardinals do not typically use their nests more than once. They will build new nests for each brood.
Having nestlings nearby can be a delightful experience. You get to observe (from a distance, of course) the cardinal's habits and behaviors, and watch their young grow and fledge. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? If you are ready to discover more about how to identify a cardinal nest and how you might attract a nesting pair, read on!
Northern Cardinal nest with chick inside, tucked away in dense shrub
Cardinals nest during the breeding season, which begins in March and can run all the way into September. A mated pair will typically have one to two broods per year.
Males will sometimes bring nesting materials to the female, but the female will do most of the nest building. While the new nest is under construction, the male stays nearby keeping watch for predators and potential rivals.
A cardinal’s nest looks like a small cup made of twigs and other natural materials. They use a variety of trees and shrubs, depending on what grows in their territory. Exterior building materials may include, vines, twigs, bark strips, and roots. The interior is typically lined with softer materials, such as grass, leaves, and hair.
Three Northern Cardinal chicks in the nest
The female cardinal builds the nest by crushing twigs in her beak until they are easy to manipulate. She then turns the twigs around her body to make a cup shape, and slowly builds upwards to her desired height. The finished product usually reaches 4 inches across and 2-3 inches tall.
Nests take about three to nine days to build. The cup typically has four layers, with the outside consisting of coarse twigs and rougher material. The inner layers are softer and more pliable, often made of bark, leaves, grasses, pine needles, and hair.
Though cardinals will nest multiple times throughout the breeding season they will not reuse previous nests. The female constructs a new one each time. They do this to ensure nests do not become infested with mites. It also makes them less likely to become a target for predators.
Female Cardinal gathering materials to build the nest
A cardinal’s eggs range from grayish-white to greenish-white and are usually flecked with gray and brown.
Females typically lay 2-5 eggs per nest. Once a cardinal lays her eggs, she will incubate them for twelve to thirteen days.
Cardinal nest with three eggs inside
Baby cardinals will begin to leave the nest about nine to eleven days after hatching. Usually, the fledglings are not able to fly much for the first day or two. They must build up strength and muscle in their wings.
Cardinals are one of the few perching birds that will not use a traditional nest box or birdhouse. They prefer dense shrub and vine thickets for shelter and nesting. That said, you can build a cardinal-friendly nesting box.
Male Northern Cardinal perched on a tree branch
Cardinals do not like to feel enclosed, so a nest box should be open and flat, allowing them to enter and exit from multiple directions. They like to have ample cover over their heads as well. You can add a roof to your nest box or tuck it away in a dense shrub.
Of course, the same pair is unlikely to reuse the nest box. If your structure is successful once, however, perhaps other cardinal pairs will be attracted to it in the future.
That said, the best way to attract nesting cardinals would be to meet their natural shelter needs. If your backyard offers low trees, shrubbery, and undergrowth where a nest could be well concealed, you might be in luck. Providing food and water sources would also make your yard more attractive.
Female Northern Cardinal
Cardinals do not reuse previous nests. However, this does not prevent them from nesting in the same area. If a prior nesting site offered excellent shelter, along with plenty of food and water sources, cardinals are likely to build a new nest near an old one.
Male (right) and female (left) Cardinals
At night, cardinals like to nest or sleep in places with good cover where they feel protected from predators. Dense shrubs, trees with thick foliage, or even tree cavities make excellent resting places for these birds.
Unlike their nesting habits, some cardinals will return to the same place to sleep each night. It largely depends on the season and the weather. If it is cold or rainy, cardinals will seek shelter that is more dense, so they can stay dry and secure. They may even tuck away in a birdhouse or under a well-protected roof.
If a female has hatchlings that need warmth at night to survive, she will sleep on the nest. Once the cardinal babies fledge, though, the female will find other secure resting places.
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