The Northern Cardinal, a frequent visitor to bird feeders is one of the most admired backyard bird species. Every greeting card company in North America must use this birds picture against a backdrop of snow during the Christmas season.
And why not, it's one of those birds that even if you're not a birdwatcher you'll for sure notice one.
The male is a bright red bird with a pointed crest on the top of his head. The female is mostly buff brown in color with some red on her head, wings, and tail. Both have small black masks on their faces that surround the bill and eyes. About 8 1/2 inches long.
Northern Cardinals have been steadily expanding their range north while also inching their way westward. This range expansion offers more bird watchers a chance to see and observe this bird. One of the explanations
for this expansion is the proliferation of food available supplied by bird watchers.
These birds are permanent residents throughout their range.
While a somewhat secretive bird while nesting, you may still be able to watch from a distance. It has been my experience that if she feels threatened,
the female bird will abandon her nest building and find a new location. Always watch from a distance.
Video - Watch as the male brings a caterpillar for the female while she is incubating eggs.
At your bird feeder, one of the mating habits you may see is referred to as "mate feeding". What you'll see is the male pick up a seed, hop over to the female, and the two momentarily touch beaks
as she takes the food.
Mate-feeding continues through the egg-laying and incubation phases of breeding.
This behavior is actually common to many of our backyard birds. The video to the right shows an example at the nest.
Mate feeding is thought to be part of the pair bonding process. That is, it gives the female an idea of how well the male will provide food to
their eventual young.
Typically pairs remain together the whole year. In winter, the bond may be relaxed. Pairs often stay mated until one dies at which time the surviving mate will look for another partner. Mating for life is often used in field guides to describe this behavior.
Nesting Habits - Where They Nest
The female builds the nest while the male keeps a close eye on her and the surrounding territory for predators and other males.
The nest is made up of twigs, bark strips, vines leaves, rootlets, paper, and lined with vines, grass and hair.
Where the nest is located is usually in dense shrubbery or among branches of small trees. Generally 1-15 feet above ground. They do not use bird houses but I have seen them nest on abandoned feeders
and other ledges that provide some cover.
The breeding season can run from March to as late as September. The female will lay 2-5 eggs that are buff-white with dark marks. The female is the only one to incubate the eggs. The males duty during this time is to
feed her on the nest and protect their territory from intruders.
The female will incubate the eggs for 12- 13 days.
When the eggs hatch, both will feed the young. The young leave the nest in 9-11 days after hatching. Often the young are unable to fly much the first day or two after fledging.
Baby Cardinals in Nest
Each season the pair will try to raise two broods. A new nest will be constructed for second broods by the female. The male continues to feed the
first set for up to two weeks. During this time, the female will be incubating her second clutch.
This will keep the male busy feeding her, and the first brood, and protecting their territory.
Any males born this season will initially look like the female but by winter they will have the black mask and crest looking like their dads.
Cardinals and Cowbirds
These birds are often parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird. The female Cowbird watches these birds as they build their nest and lay their eggs. While the female
Cardinal is away the Cowbird will visit the nest and remove an egg and lay one of her own eggs. Cowbirds do not build nest, instead they use other
birds to raise their young. If the Cowbirds young is larger than its host, the host birds may die due to starvation.
Video - Male Singing
Cardinals and Cowbird young are roughly the same size and grow at pretty much the same rate so, they have a better chance at survival. Never remove
a Cowbird egg because the female often returns to check on her egg. If her egg is gone she may cause more problems. Sometimes Cowbirds may remove an egg
lay one of their own and then pierce remaining eggs.
These birds often fight with their reflection in house windows and car mirrors. (see link at bottom for information on what to do about crashing and pecking windows.)
Feeding Habits - What Cardinals Eat
The adults food consist of insects, spiders, wild fruits, berries, and weed seeds. Preferring to perch while feeding at bird feeders, the ideal cardinal bird feeder is the hopper style. Two seed types that these
birds like are, Black-oil sunflower seed and safflower seed. You can see what the seed looks like here: Seed Types
Bald Northern Cardinal
You're likely to notice that these are often the first birds to the feeders in the morning
and the last birds in the evening. Around my place it will nearly be dark when they make their last trip.
These birds tend to be very territorial in their feeding habits during the breeding season. Placing a couple of feeders
out of sight from each other will allow more birds to feed at a time. One in your front yard and one in the back works well.
In winter, this territorial behavior around bird feeders appears to be more relaxed.
Northern Cardinals are permanent residents throughout their range and do not migrate south.
At some time or another you may see a male that has no crest or head feathers at all, the bird looks bald. This is not unusual and happens to
many types of birds. The reason isn't know for sure, maybe a parasite or dietary problem. The good news is that it doesn't last and the bird
will grow new feathers.