Brilliant red and resilient all year long, the beloved Northern Cardinal is the official bird of seven American states. These common songbirds bring a splash of color and some adorable antics to backyard birdfeeders across the east.
Female left, and male right, Northern Cardinal pair
Northern Cardinal bathing in water
Juvenile Northern Cardinal (male)
Redbird, Common Cardinal, Red Cardinal, Cardinal
21cm to 23cm
25cm to 31cm
42g to 48g
Northern Cardinals are unmistakable birds. Although each of the 18 subspecies varies to some extent in size and appearance, each has the same distinguishing characteristics. Read on to learn more about their size and appearance.
The Northern Cardinal is a medium-sized songbird with a stout bill and a prominent crest. Males stand out with all crimson-red plumage except for a small black face mask.
Female Northern Cardinals are easily identified by their black face mask, red crest, wings, and bills. Female Cardinals are undeniably beautiful birds, despite being less colorful than their male counterparts.
Juveniles have a similar appearance to females, although they can be told apart by their dark bills.
Rare yellow cardinals and birds with half-male and half-female plumage turn up from time to time, and Northern Cardinals often have a scruffy appearance when molting and sometimes even go bald.
Male Northern Cardinal
Female Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinals are somewhere between an American Robin and a House sparrow in size. The various subspecies vary slightly in size, and the largest Northern Cardinals come from the Southwest in northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Northern Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds with a body length of up to about 9 inches (23 cm), nearly half of which is made up by their fairly long tails.
Despite their size, Northern Cardinals weigh about as much as a golf ball. Adults weigh an ounce and a half or slightly more (42 - 48g), and there is no real difference between the sexes.
The Northern Cardinal does not travel long distances or fly to any great heights or speeds. Their wingspan varies from about ten to twelve inches (25 - 30 cm).
Northern Cardinal perched on a branch
The calls and songs of the Northern Cardinal are a familiar sound across the eastern half of the United States.
Northern Cardinals produce a variety of calls, and both sexes sing. You might hear their typical ‘cheer cheer’ song at any time of the year, although males are particularly vocal in the spring. Their most common call is a high-pitched metallic ‘chip’ note.
Northern Cardinals have conical bills, typical of seed-eaters, although their varied diet changes depending on food availability across the seasons. Continue reading to discover what they eat in the wild and what you can feed them in your backyard.
Northern Cardinals feed primarily on seeds, although they supplement their diet with fruits and insects. These birds are regular visitors to bird feeders. More than two-thirds of their diet consists of plant material, although insects and their larvae are important in the late spring and summer.
Cardinals readily visit bird feeders, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. They will feed on suet, cracked corn, peanuts, and mealworms, but they prefer sunflower seeds over other types.
Baby Northern Cardinals hatch out as helpless chicks, completely unable to feed themselves. Both parents provide a steady supply of nutritious, protein-rich insects like caterpillars.
The adult birds continue to feed their chicks for several weeks after fledging until they become fully independent.
Cardinal feeding on seeds
Northern Cardinals are widely distributed in North America, and birdwatchers can spot them in a variety of habitats. Continue reading for a more detailed account.
Befitting their wide distribution, Northern Cardinals occupy a variety of woody and shrubby vegetation types. They are at home in parks, suburban backyards, old agricultural fields, swamps, and forest edges. These birds are more common along drainage lines and shrubby areas in dry, open habitats.
Northern Cardinals are native to North America. Most of their range falls within the contiguous United States, although they also occur in southern Canada to the north and Mexico and Central America to the south.
Northern Cardinals are widespread in the eastern half of the United States. They occur across the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, and in parts of the Southwest. The species was also introduced outside their native range, and today, birdwatchers can spot Northern Cardinals in Hawaii and Bermuda.
Female Cardinal taking off in the snow
Northern Cardinals spend most of their time perched or hopping through the branches of shrubs and trees or foraging on the ground.
At night, Cardinal pairs roost together in shrubs and trees, although the male moves off a short distance when the female is incubating eggs in the nesting season.
Northern Cardinals are abundant birds across much of their range. They are most common in the Southeast, although their numbers have increased in the north, perhaps due to the expansion of human development and an increased abundance of food from bird feeders.
Cardinal in flight, looking forward
The world is a dangerous place for a small, colorful songbird. So how long do Northern Cardinals live, and what threats do they have? Read this section to learn more about their lifespan, predators, and conservation status.
Northern Cardinals can live for over 15 years, although most individuals probably live for just two or three years.
There are many potential causes of mortality for Northern Cardinals, including:
Northern Cardinals have a wide variety of natural enemies, including mammals, birds, and even reptiles. In urban and suburban areas, domestic and feral cats can be a major threat to Cardinals, although wild species like Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks often share our towns and cities.
Many other species will prey on Adult Northern Cardinals and their eggs and chicks, including the following birds and animals:
Northern Cardinals are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which makes it illegal to catch, keep, or kill these birds.
Northern Cardinals are not endangered. The species is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and their numbers are increasing.
Northern Cardinal taking a drink of water
Northern Cardinals nest in the spring and summer each year, producing one or two broods. They may start their nesting as early as February and continue into the start of fall. Cardinals often nest in backyards, so keep a lookout for a nesting pair on your property this year.
Cardinals are resident birds, and they nest throughout their range. Females build their nests above the ground in dense shrubs and small trees. Some individuals build their nests as high as 40 feet (12m), although the average height is between three and seven feet (1 - 2m ).
Most female Cardinals lay two or three eggs per clutch. The eggs are whitish, grayish, or greenish, with variable gray or brown speckling. Each egg measures approximately 1 inch long and ¾ inch across (25 mm x 19 mm).
Northern Cardinals pair up to raise a family together. Pair bonds can last more than one season, so at least some Northern Cardinals will mate for life.
However, monogamy in the bird world does not always imply fidelity. Northern Cardinals often mate with other partners during the nesting season.
Male Cardinal feeding hungry hungry chicks in the nest
Male Northern Cardinals have the heart-warming habit of feeding their partners, an action that looks very much like an affectionate kiss. However, these colorful songbirds can be pretty feisty too.
Northern Cardinals can be pretty aggressive during the breeding season. Of course, people have nothing to fear from them, but other cardinals who enter their territory will be chased and attacked if necessary.
Cardinals can get so worked up that they will attack their own reflections in windows and car mirrors. You can prevent this behavior by temporarily covering your windows and mirrors in the spring.
Northern Cardinal with spread wings, preparing to land
Long after many colorful songbirds depart for the warm south, birdwatchers can still see Northern Cardinals in their backyards. Keep reading to learn about their movements.
Cardinals are a non-migratory species. Unlike many other colorful species that head south for the winter, these steadfast songbirds tough it out all through the year, even surviving the freezing conditions of Southern Canada and the upper Midwest.
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