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The Northern Cardinal Habits

Northern Cardinal Male
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 really interested in birdwatching, you'll take notice of this guy.


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 with the males more pronounced. They measure 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.

Mating Habits

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.

Do Cardinals Mate For Life?

Cardinal Egg
Cardinal Egg

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. Here is some video of a nest we cammed live on the internet one season.

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
baby cardinals in nest
Each season the pair will attempt 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, while still protecting their territory.

Any males born this season will initially look like the female but by winter, they will have the more pronounced black mask, crest, and red feathers of adult males.

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, remove an egg, and then 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. What this means is, baby Cardinals have a better chance at survival with Cowbirds in the nest than some other smaller species.

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.

Protecting Territory

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 Do Cardinals Eat

The adults food consist of insects, spiders, wild fruits, berries, and weed seeds. In winter, Cardinals eat more seeds and berries since insects are few. Preferring to perch while eating 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
bald cardinal bird
You're likely to notice that these are often the first birds to the feeders in the morning and the last birds to eat 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.

Do Cardinals Go South In Winter?

Northern Cardinals are permanent residents throughout their range and do not migrate south. Their range has been expanding further North.

Bald Birds

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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.

Cardinal Banner

More Information

Prevent Cardinals and Other Birds From Pecking and Crashing into Windows

See and Read About A Season We Had With This Bird - Video of Bird on Nest

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By Gene Planker