With its instantly recognizable bright red or reddish tan plumage and jaunty head crest, the northern cardinal is one of the most desirable backyard birds in North America. It is also a popular state bird, sports mascot, winter holiday symbol, and more. This fact sheet can help you discover everything about northern cardinals, the most familiar member of the Cardinalidae bird family.
- Scientific Name: Cardinalis cardinalis
- Common Name: Northern Cardinal, Cardinal, Virginia Nightingale, Common Cardinal
- Lifespan: 3-5 years
- Size: 8-9 inches
- Weight: 1.5-1.7 ounces
- Wingspan: 10-12 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Northern Cardinal Identification
These bright songbirds are easily recognized by their red plumage. Males are brilliant red all over and may be slightly duller or show a grayish wash on the wings. A black narrow facial mask surrounds the eyes, bill, and chin. Females are a buff golden-tan with a red tinge to the wings and tail, and their facial mask is smaller and less distinct. Both genders have a prominent head crest that can be raised and lowered to indicate the bird's mood. For both genders, the eyes are black, the legs and feet are gray, and the thick, conical bill is gray-black. Juveniles look similar to adult females, but their bill is gray-black and their crest is less defined and has a scruffier appearance.
In rare cases, northern cardinals have been recorded with xanthochroistic plumage. In these instances, males are brilliantly yellow rather than red, but the rest of their markings, including the facial mask, remain the same and are easily identifiable.
In addition to their bold appearance, northern cardinals have distinctive and beautiful songs with more than two dozen variations depending on the situation and the birds’ geographical region. Both male and female birds sing in courtship duets, and males will sing to advertise or defend their territory. Common sounds include an undulating pitch “cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer” song as well as sharp, high “chip” calls.
Northern Cardinal Habitat and Distribution
Northern cardinals are common throughout the eastern United States from Maine to Florida and continuing west to southern Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and the eastern half of Mexico. These birds prefer dense woodland cover and riparian areas but can easily be found in suburban regions if mature trees are available.
Northern cardinals do not migrate but instead remain in the same range year-round. They are welcome winter birds in yards and gardens when their bright plumage is easily noticeable against snowy landscapes.
Male northern cardinals are noted for their aggression, which can be observed through feeder domination or chasing other cardinals away from different territories, though they can be shy around other species, especially larger birds. Northern cardinals will also fight their own reflections in windows, mirrors and other reflective surfaces, often exhausting or injuring themselves in the process if the surface is not covered. In flight, these birds have a relatively undulating flight path, and they flit easily through the forest canopy.
Diet and Feeding
These are omnivorous birds and will sample many different food sources, including insects, seeds, fruit, nuts, sap, berries, cracked corn, and suet. They often feed on the ground and are the earliest birds to visit in the morning and the last to visit in the evening. They can be shy and skittish at feeders, however, and may be easily spooked by larger or more unruly birds such as grackles, cowbirds, or jays.
Cardinal pairs are monogamous and may mate for life. These birds bond over a feeding courtship ritual in which the female bird mimics the behavior of a nestling and the male bird offers her seeds or berries in a kiss-like gesture. The male will also care for the female while she tends the nest, bringing her food and standing guard against predators or intruders.
The female cardinal does the majority of nest construction, though the male may help supply nesting material. Nests may be composed of twigs, grasses, leaves, stems, roots, pine needles, and other plant materials, shaped into a deep cup and positioned 3-10 feet above the ground in a dense tree or shrub.
Eggs and Young
The eggs are whitish or pale green, blue, or faintly brown, with darker purple, gray, or brown splotches concentrated at the larger end. One pair of birds may raise 2-4 broods annually of 3-4 eggs each. Eggs are incubated by the female for 12-14 days, though the male may spend brief periods of time incubating as well. The young hatchlings are nearly naked at first but mature quickly and will leave the nest in 9-12 days.
Northern Cardinal Conservation
Northern cardinals are not considered threatened or endangered. They are subject to a variety of hazards, however, such as attacks by outdoor or feral cats, overuse of insecticides or other chemicals, and window collisions. Because these birds are so adaptable and readily visit bird feeders, the northern extent of their range is actually expanding. As more birders offer supplemental food in the winter, these birds stay in less hospitable locations throughout the year.
Tips for Backyard Birders
Northern cardinals can be shy visitors and are most likely to visit suburban yards that offer low, dense ground cover such as privet and honeysuckle hedges. Offering cracked corn, safflower seeds, and black oil sunflower seeds in-ground or platform feeders will help attract cardinals, and they can also be tempted by ground birdbaths. In time, cardinals may be hand-fed by patient birders.
How to Find Northern Cardinals
These birds are relatively easy to find because they are quite abundant within their range. Listening for their sharp, whistling calls and musical songs can let birders know that cardinals are in the area, and watching in the leafy canopy or brush will show their flitting flight and flashes of bright plumage. Denser cover is generally preferred, which can make northern cardinals more difficult to locate, but they are active and will move about to give birders a good view.
Northern Cardinals in Culture
Northern cardinals are well known even to non-birders, thanks to their popularity as mascots. From the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team to uncountable numbers of minor league sports teams, schools, and even business, the jaunty, boldly-colored cardinal is a popular icon. Furthermore, this species is the state bird of seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia), the most of any state bird. Cardinals are also popular in winter holiday decorations because their bright plumage colors are a cheerful accent on snowy days, and these birds are frequently seen on holiday cards, candles, wrapping paper, dishes, bows, and other festive accents.
Explore More Species in This Family
While northern cardinals are distinctive, they are not the only bold, red birds that birders might notice. To see even more colorful songbirds, look for these fiery birds: