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northern cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis

What do they look like?

Northern cardinals are medium-sized songbirds. Males are bright red all over except for a black mask on their face. Females are light brown or light greenish-brown, with reddish highlights. They do not have a black mask (but parts of their face may be dark). Both males and females have thick, orange-red, cone-shaped bills. They also have a long tail, and a distinctive crest of feathers on the top of their heads. Males are slightly larger than females. Males are 22.2 to 23.5 cm long whereas females are 20.9 to 21.6 cm long. Adult cardinals weigh 42 to 48 g. Young cardinals look similar to females, but they have a gray-black bill. (Kielb, et al., 1992)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    42 to 48 g
    1.48 to 1.69 oz
  • Range length
    20.9 to 23.5 cm
    8.23 to 9.25 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.5163 W

Where do they live?

Northern cardinals are native to the Nearctic region. They are found throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada into parts of Mexico and Central America. They have also been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Northern cardinals have a preference for the edges of woods, hedgerows, and vegetation around houses. This may be partially responsible for the increase in their population since the early 1800's. Cardinals also benefit from the large numbers of humans who feed them and other seed-eating birds with backyard bird feeders. Cardinals prefer to build their nests in dense thickets.

How do they reproduce?

Northern cardinals are monogamous (one male mates with one female). However, occasionally one male will mate with more than one female. Even though they usually form a breeding pair with one partner, northern cardinals frequently copulate with cardinals other than their mate.

Northern cardinals begin forming breeding pairs in early spring. The male begins trying to attract a mate by performing physical displays that show off his crest and his bright red feathers. Once he finds a female that may be interested, the male feeds her. This is called courtship feeding. Breeding pairs may stay together year-round, and may breed together for several years. (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 the nest in dense shrubs and vines. She then lays about 3 white to greenish eggs. She begins incubating after she has laid the last eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 11 to 13 days until they hatch. 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. Both parents also remove fecal sacs from the nest to keep it clean. The chicks begin leaving the nest about 9 to 10 days after hatching. The parents continue to feed them for 25 to 56 days after they fledge from the nest. After leaving or being driven out of their parents' territory, young birds often join flocks with other young birds. They may begin breeding the next spring. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Northern cardinals usually raise two broods a year, one beginning around March and the second in late May to July.
  • Breeding season
    Northern cardinals breed between March and September.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    11 to 13 days
  • Range fledging age
    7 to 13 days
  • Average fledging age
    9.5 days
  • Range time to independence
    25 to 56 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 1 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 1 years

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. They also remove the nestlings' fecal sacs from the nest to keep it clean. After the chicks have fledged from the nest, the parents continue to feed them for 25 to 56 days. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The oldest wild cardinal banded by researchers lived at least 15 years and 9 months. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

How do they behave?

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.

  • Range territory size
    .0021 to .026 km^2

Home Range

In one study in northern Kentucky, the winter home ranges of northern cardinals were estimated to be about .212 square kilometers. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

How do they communicate with each other?

Northern cardinals use mostly songs and body signals to communicate. Male and female cardinals both sing. Their songs are 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 "tail-flicks" and raising and lowering the crest of feathers on top of their head.

What do they eat?

Most of what northern cardinals eat is weed and sunflower seeds, grains, and fruits. They prefer seeds that are easily husked. They 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. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

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. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Because northern cardinals eat large quantities of seeds and fruits, they may help disperse seeds for some plants. They may also have an effect on 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 lay eggs in their nests. This helps local brown-headed cowbird populations. Northern cardinals also provide habitat for many internal and external parasites.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Do they cause problems?

We do not know of any way that northern cardinals harm humans.

How do they interact with us?

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 birdfeeders.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Northern cardinals appear to have become more common over the past 200 years. They have also expanded their range into new areas. This expansion is probably due to additional habitat that was created by humans. There are about 100,000,000 northern cardinals in the world. They are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

Some more information...

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)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jonathan Crane (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.


flesh of dead animals.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

uses sight to communicate


Farrand Jr., J. 1988. Western Birds. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Halkin, S., S. Linville. 1999. Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Pp. 1-32 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 440. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America.

Hickman, C., L. Roberts. 1995. Animal Diversity. Boston: William C. Brown.

Kielb, M., J. Swales, R. Wolinski. 1992. The Birds of Washtenaw County, Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Reiner, L. 1989. High altitude capture of a northern cardinal. North American Bird Bander, 14 (4): 125.

Searles, R. 1989. Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Passenger Pigeon, 51: 236.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Crane, J. 2001. "Cardinalis cardinalis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 16, 2014 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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