With its instantly recognizable bright red or reddish tan plumage, jaunty head crest, and distinctive face mask, the northern cardinal is one of the most desirable backyard birds in North America. This midsized songbird is also a popular state bird, sports mascot, and winter holiday symbol. 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 narrow black 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. Males are just slightly larger than females.
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.
On occasion, you might spot a northern cardinal with xanthochroistic plumage or an unusual yellowish pigmentation. In these rare cases, males appear brilliantly yellow rather than red, and the rest of their markings, including their facial masks, 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. Common sounds include an undulating pitch "cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer" song as well as sharp, high "chip" calls. Male and female birds sing in courtship duets, and males sing to advertise or defend their territory.
Northern Cardinal vs. Vermilion Flycatcher
Male vermilion flycatchers (Pyrocephalus rubinus) are a brilliant orange-red throughout the breast and belly with a thin dark mask on the head. Unlike cardinals, they don’t have a head crest but instead, have raised crown feathers on the head and a thin black mask. Vermilion flycatchers are slightly blackish in the tails, but cardinals have red tails. Females are not as brilliantly red as males—in both species—but they both have distinctive red tones. While cardinals have strong, long beaks, vermillion flycatchers have short, small bills.
Vermilion flycatchers share some common territory with cardinals. They both live in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Cardinals have a wider distribution throughout the U.S., while Vermilion flycatchers are distributed further south in Central America and parts of South America.
Northern Cardinal Habitat and Distribution
Northern cardinals are common throughout the eastern United States from Maine to Florida and spanning west to southern Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and the east half of Mexico. They also live in northeastern Canada: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. 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. However, they can be shy around other species, especially larger birds. Northern cardinals will also fight their 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 effortlessly through the forest canopy.
Diet and Feeding
These omnivorous birds 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. However, they can be shy and skittish at feeders 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 guarding against predators or intruders. The breeding season runs from March to September.
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 beige, with darker purple, gray, or brown splotches concentrated at the larger end. One pair of birds may raise 2 to 4 broods annually of 3 to 4 eggs each. Eggs are about an inch long and just under an inch wide. Eggs are incubated by the female for 12 to 14 days, though the male may also spend brief periods incubating. The young hatchlings are nearly naked at first but mature quickly and will leave the nest in 9 to 12 days.
Both male and female cardinals care for the nestlings, but the male contributes more food. When the babies fledge or leave the nest before becoming fully flighted birds, the male will feed and care for them. The female usually goes off to get a new nest ready to raise another brood.
Northern Cardinal Conservation
Northern cardinals are not considered threatened or endangered. However, they are subject to a variety of hazards, such as attacks by outdoor or feral cats, overuse of insecticides or other chemicals, and window collisions. These birds are adaptable and readily visit bird feeders, so the northern extent of their range has expanded. As long as 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, honeysuckle hedges, and evergreen shrubs. In time, cardinals may be hand-fed by patient birders.
How to Find This Bird
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. Dense cover is generally preferred, making northern cardinals more challenging to locate, but they are active and will move about to give birders a good view. They are most active mid-morning from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m, and then again mid-afternoon from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Explore More Species in This Family
While northern cardinals are distinctive, other birds in their family are also bold and brightly colored. To see some closely-related colorful songbirds, look for these birds:
Otherwise, check out our other wild bird profiles for more bird identification fun.
Northern Cardinals in Culture
Northern cardinals are well known even to non-birders, thanks to their popularity as mascots for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the Arizona Cardinals National Football League team. It is also a mascot for many minor league sports teams, schools, and even businesses; the confident, boldly-colored cardinal is a famous icon.
This species is the state bird of seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia)—more than any state bird. Cardinals are also popular in winter holiday decorations because their bright plumage colors are a cheerful accent on snowy days. These birds are frequently seen on holiday cards, candles, wrapping paper, dishes, bows, and other festive accents.