Name and Range
In the 1800s the Northern cardinal was trapped and sold in Europe as a “Virginia nightingale.” Its brilliantly colored feathers were even in demand for ladies’ hats. Once known as a primarily southern bird, today it is protected and is gradually increasing its range farther north and southwest. Northern cardinals currently are found in most parts of the U.S. and even in the southern edge of Canada.
This colorful bird’s scientific name, Cardinalis cardinalis, came about because the bird’s red plumage was reminiscent of the robes and hats of the Roman Catholic Church’s cardinals. Its common name is technically the Northern cardinal; although there are seven other species of cardinals, they are all found in South America.
“In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred.”
~ John James Audubon
Female Northern cardinal
Male and female adult Northern cardinals are similar in size, measuring about 7.5 to 8.5 inches, with males just slightly larger than females. Mature males have bright red feathers with a bib and mask of black. They are also distinguished by a handsome red crest at the top of their heads. The female has a brownish-olive body with a dull red coloration on her wings, tail and crest. The female’s bib and mask is smaller and not as dark as that of the male. Both sexes have a heavy, cone-shaped, bright orange-red bill. Together with its large jaw muscles, this thick beak allows the cardinal to cut and crush hard seeds.
A young male doesn’t gain his mature plumage before his first winter -- until then, he looks much like a female. It’s easy to differentiate a juvenile cardinal from an adult female, however, simply by examining the bird’s bill. A youngster’s bill is black, and turns red only when he or she reaches maturity. Like other birds with red plumage, cardinals derive their red coloring from foods containing pigments called carotinoids. Adults may briefly look a bit unkempt in the fall, since they undergo a period of molting from mid-August to September that is completed sometime in October.
Male singing from a high perch
Northern cardinals are renowned for their singing. One of the bird’s most frequent calls is a metallic-sounding “chip”. Single chips, repeated slowly, may serve as a location call between family members. Louder and/or more frequent chip calls can indicate aggression between two individual cardinals, or may be voiced to indicate threat from a predator. Both male and female cardinals produce distinctive and repetitive songs, often transcribed as “what cheer, cheer, cheer,” and “birdy, birdy, birdy,” and “sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet.” (Watch this video to learn more about Northern cardinal song.) The female, whose voice is softer than the male’s, will sometimes duet with her partner. The songs of the male are especially noticeable in late February and early March as days grow longer and the birds are pairing up. During this time, males like to sing from a high, exposed location that will maximize the transmission of sound.
Habits and Behavior
Northern cardinals may display territorial behavior with other birds or their own species, showing aggression by holding body and crest low while staring down an opponent with an open bill. This may be accompanied by spreading and vibrating of the wings. A pointed crest can also indicate a cardinal’s agitation. During mating season, males in particular may be prone to mistake their own reflections in windows and mirrors for rival birds. If this happens, it’s a good idea to temporarily cover the window so that the bird does not injure itself.
If you watch Northern cardinals at a feeder, you are likely to witness an endearing display called courtship feeding. The female adopts the role of a helpless fledgling, quivering her wings until the male responds by feeding her. Such behavior may supply the female with useful information about the quality of a potential mate.
During non-breeding season in cold weather, Northern cardinals often join together in flocks. Large flocks are more common in cities and towns where people offer feeding stations and have planted plenty of shrubs for cover. Northern cardinals may also associate with other birds in winter, including juncos, sparrows and chickadees. Life in a flock can aid an individual bird in evading predators as well as in finding food, especially during times of heavy snow cover.
Nesting and Young
The Northern cardinal nest, a bowl-shaped affair made of loose twigs and grass, is built in a shrub, thicket or small tree, usually no more than 10 feet above the ground. The female lays three or four brown-speckled eggs of grayish- or bluish-white. The female cardinal performs almost all the incubation, with the male faithfully provides food for her during this time. Once the eggs hatch, the male takes over most of the care and provides more food to the nestlings than the female does. He continues doing this for a number of days after the nestlings depart the nest, since the babies still can do little flying and remain relatively immobile for 10 to 12 days. Baby cardinals do not become fully independent until about forty days after leaving the nest. The chicks look much like the female and are colored a dull pink.
Northern cardinal pairs may attempt to raise as many as five broods a season, but usually only one or two are successful. This may be due to natural nest disturbance, such as from high winds or a poorly sited nest. Hatchlings are also vulnerable to predators such as snakes, blue jays or small mammals like chipmunks or squirrels. A female brown-headed cowbird will sometimes act as a brood parasite, removing a cardinal egg, then laying her own egg in the nest for the cardinal parents to raise as their own.
Attracting Cardinals to Your Property
Northern cardinals reside at the edges of woods and thickets and also do well in parks and residential and urban areas. In the wild, their diet is mainly seeds and fruit, supplemented by insects. These birds remain in the same range year-round, and are attracted to almost any kind of feeder, as long as the perches are large enough for their feet. Although their favorite food is black sunflower seed, they also like cracked corn, millet, safflower seed and nutmeats. They are especially active at feeders in the morning and evening hours.
Northern cardinals require understory shrubs or other dense foliage for nesting. The eastern red cedar is a preferred nesting and roosting tree, as are juniper, hawthorn, witch hazel and wild grape. You can attract Northern cardinals to your property by planting their favorite berried shrubs and trees, including the American holly, viburnum, sumac, dogwood, blackberry and hackberry.
Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’ (Eastern Red Cedar)
Ilex opaca ‘Judy Evans’ (American holly)
Cornus florida ‘Appalachian Spring’ (Dogwood)
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Northern Cardinal
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Lab: Cardinalis Cardinalis
Northern Cardinal by Gary Ritchison, Stackpole Books, 1997
Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams, Rodale Press, 1994
Dave's Garden members:
Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’ (Eastern Red Cedar) by ViburnumValley
Ilex opaca ‘Judy Evans’ (American holly) by ViburnumValley
Cornus florida ‘Appalachian Spring’ (dogwood) by dogwood lover