Northern cardinals are medium-sized songbirds. Both males and females have thick, bright orange, cone-shaped beaks. They also have a long tail and a pointed crest of feathers on the top of their heads. Males are bright red all over except for a large, black mask on their face. The mask covers their eyes, goes around their beaks, and covers their throats so that it looks like a black bib. Females are light brown with a reddish crest, wings, and tails. Females have a very small, black mask and bib. Males are slightly larger than females. Young cardinals look similar to females, but they have a gray-black bill and have less red coloration.
Northern cardinals are found throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada into parts of Mexico and Central America. These birds live as far north as Maine or Nova Scotia, Canada down south through Florida and the Gulf Coast. They range as far west as South Dakota, Nebraska and Texas. They have also been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda. Northern cardinals do not migrate so they live in the same place year-round. (Halkin and Linville, 1999; Sibley, 2000)
Northern cardinals live in several habitats including the edges of woods, swamps, riverside thickets, city gardens and residential areas. They are often seen at backyard bird feeders. Northern cardinals often build nests on the branches of dense bushes and shrubs. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals are monogamous (one male mates with one female). However, they often choose a different mate each breeding season.
Northern cardinals begin forming breeding pairs in early spring. The male tries to attract a mate by performing courtship displays that show off his crest and his bright red feathers. He will raise his crest and sway side to side while singing softly. Once he finds a female that may be interested, the male feeds the female to show that he would make a good provider for young cardinals. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals breed between March and September. They usually raise two broods a year, one beginning around March and the second in late May to July. The female builds a cup-shaped nest in dense shrubs and vines. The nest is built with twigs, strips of bark, and grass, and is lined with leaves, grass, or hair. She then lays 3 to 4 white to greenish eggs and will incubate them until they hatch 11 to 13 days later. While the female is incubating the eggs, the male brings food to her. After the chicks have hatched, the female broods them for the first 2 days. Both parents feed insects to the chicks. The chicks leave the nest when they are 9 to 10 days old. The parents continue to feed them for 25 to 56 days when the young become independent and have learned how to feed themselves. Young cardinals often join flocks with other young birds. They may begin breeding the next spring. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
The female northern cardinal builds the nest and incubates the eggs. When the chicks hatch they have no feathers or down, so the female broods them to protect them and keep them warm for at least 2 days. Both parents feed the chicks a diet of insects. After the chicks learn to fly and leave the nest, the parents continue to feed them for 25 to 56 days. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
The oldest wild cardinal banded by researchers lived at least 15 years and 9 months. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals are not migratory; they are year-round residents throughout their range. They are active during the day, especially during the morning and evening hours. In winter, most cardinals flock and roost together. During the breeding season, they are quite territorial. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals establish small territories surrounding their nest. Males will chase other male cardinals and intruders away from their territory to protect the young. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals use mostly songs and body signals to communicate with each other. Male and female cardinals both sing loud, beautiful whistled phrases. Some songs you may hear sound like "whoit whoit whoit" and "whacheer whacheer." These songs are used to defend territories and to attract mates. Male and female cardinals use "chip" calls to keep contact with their mate and to signal alarm. They may also signal alarm using body signals, such as flicking their tails and raising and lowering the crest of feathers on top of their head.
Most of what northern cardinals eat is weed and sunflower seeds, grains, and fruits. Northern cardinals have large, strong beaks are specialized to crack open seeds. They prefer seeds that are easily husked. They will also eat some insects and feed their young almost exclusively insects. Northern cardinals are less choosy during winter when food is harder to find.
Northern cardinals drink water by scooping it into their bill and tipping their head back. They drink freshwater from streams, ponds, or even birdbaths. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Adult northern cardinals are eaten by domestic cats, domestic dogs, Cooper's hawks, loggerhead shrikes, northern shrikes, eastern gray squirrels, long-eared owls and eastern screech-owls. Nestlings and eggs are eaten by snakes, birds and small mammals. Predators of eggs and nestlings include milk snakes, black racers, pilot black snakes, blue jays, fox squirrels, red squirrels and eastern chipmunks. Brown-headed cowbirds also take cardinal eggs from the nest and sometimes eat them.
When a predator comes near a cardinal nest, both male and female northern cardinals give an alarm call that is a short, chipping note. They also fly toward the predator to try to scare it away. Northern cardinals do not mob predators like other songbirds do. Females incubate the eggs and their brown coloration camouflages them while they sit on the nest so that predators cannot find them in the brush. An incubating bright red male can easily be spotted by predators who are searching for a nest. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Because northern cardinals eat large quantities of seeds and fruits, they may help disperse seeds for some plants. They may also affect the composition of plant communities because they are seed predators and seed dispersers.
Northern cardinals provide food for their predators. They also sometimes raise the chicks of brown-headed cowbirds that are brood parasites and lay eggs in the nests of other birds. This helps local brown-headed cowbird populations. Northern cardinals also provide habitat for many internal and external parasites.
We do not know of any way that northern cardinals harm humans.
Northern cardinals affect humans by dispersing seeds and eating insect pests such as boll weevils, cutworms, and caterpillars. They are also an attractive visitor to backyard bird feeders. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals appear to have become more common over the past 200 years. Northern cardinals like to live in residential gardens and are attracted to backyard bird feeders. These habitat preferences allow northern cardinals to expand their range and live wherever humans build cities or houses. There are about 100,000,000 northern cardinals in the world. They are not rare, but are protected under the United States Migratory Bird Act. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
Northern cardinals are also known as common cardinals, cardinal grosbeaks, red-birds, Virginia nightingales, cardinal-birds, cardinal red-birds, Virginia redbirds, crested redbirds and top-knot redbirds. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)
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