With its vivid red color and signature crest, the cardinal may be the most recognizable songbird in the world. The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), also known as the common cardinal, is the most well known species and is native to the eastern half of the United States, Mexico and parts of Canada. Male northern cardinals are almost completely bright red, a color they maintain year round, and have a black face and thick, orange bill. Females are similar in build but are primarily light brown, with bits of red on their wings, tail and head. Both sexes usually measure 8-9 inches long and have a wingspan of under a foot.
Northern cardinals make their homes in forested areas, open fields, thickets and backyards. They have short wings and are not particularly good fliers, so most are residents of the same area all year. As such, they are often the only songbirds you can hear on winter mornings. Northern cardinals primarily feed on seeds or grains and are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders. They usually prefer to forage on the ground in areas close to trees. Northern cardinals will also eat insects and feed their young an exclusive diet of invertebrates before the chicks fledge.
Male cardinals are extremely territorial. They will spend many hours during the day perched at the top of trees singing loudly; they do this to mark the boundaries of their territory. In spring in particular, male cardinals will mistake their reflection in windows or car bumpers as a rival male and will often spend many hours savagely attacking the imaginary intruder.
During mating season, which is usually in the spring, males will court females by bringing them seeds and will feed the female beak to beak. Cardinals don’t use the same nest twice, so each spring the female is responsible for building a new one. The male will often assist by bringing her sticks and building materials and the rather complex nest will be constructed in about a week. Most nests are built 1-15 feet above ground either in the fork of a tree or in a thicket or bush.
Within a week of building the nest the female will lay 1-5 eggs requiring just less than two weeks of incubation, and the young will fledge within 10 days of hatching. Cardinals can have up to four broods in a year. If more than one brood is present the male will be responsible for feeding and taking care of the growing chicks while the female incubates new eggs. While cardinals can mate for life, most live no more than a year. Their lack of flying skills combined with the fact that they spend much of their time near or on the ground combines to make them easy prey for hawks, owls and gray squirrels. Nevertheless, northern cardinals are capable of living for over 15 years in the wild.
NORTHERN CARDINAL FACTS
- Northern cardinals are one of the few species of songbirds in North America where the female sings. It is believed that they sing to communicate with their mate while in the nest.
- The northern cardinal is the state bird of seven states.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology