Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis

Northern Cardinal - Male
Northern Cardinal - Male. - Photo © Jen Goellnitz

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.

Common Name: Northern Cardinal, Cardinal, Virginia Nightingale, Common Cardinal

Scientific Name: Cardinalis cardinalis

Scientific Family: Cardinalidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick short cone shape, red, pinkish or red-orange coloration, dark on juvenile birds
  • Size: 7-9 inches long with 11-inch wingspan, long thin tail, stout body, large head crest
  • Colors: Red, black, buff, tan, gray
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males are brilliant red all over that 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 and the legs and feet are gray.

    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.

    Foods: Insects, seeds, fruit, nuts, sap, berries, cracked corn (See: Omnivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    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.

    See the complete northern cardinal range map.

    Vocalizations:

    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.

    Behavior:

    Male northern cardinals are noted for their aggression, which can be observed through feeder domination or chasing other cardinals away from different territories. 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. In backyards, they often feed on the ground and are the earliest birds to visit in the morning and the last to visit in the evening.

    Reproduction:

    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.

    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.

    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 altricial hatchlings will leave the nest in 9-12 days.

    Attracting Northern Cardinals:

    Northern cardinals can be shy backyard visitors and are most likely to visit suburban yards that offer low 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 bird baths. In time, cardinals may be hand-fed by patient birders.

    Conservation:

    Northern cardinals are not considered threatened or endangered. They are subject to a variety of backyard hazards, however, such as a 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 backyard birders offer supplemental food in the winter, these birds stay in less hospitable locations throughout the year.

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