Northern Cardinal Habits

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 these birds' pictures against a backdrop of snow during the Christmas season.

And why not, he's one of those birds that once you've seen him, you'll have to admit he is a looker.

Read on to learn where and when Cardinals nest.


What Do They Look Like

Male Cardinal Perched on Tree

Male Northern Cardinal Perching on Tree

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 male's 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 northward range expansion offers more bird watchers a chance to see and observe this bird.

Cardinal Bird Call Song

One of the explanations for the Cardinals' move northward is the proliferation of food available from people feeding birds.

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.

Getting too close to the nest site while the female is in the building stage will cause her to abandon the site. Always watch from a distance.

Mating Habits

Male Northern Cardinal Feeds Female Mate Feeding

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 common to many of our backyard birds.

The video above shows an example of a male Cardinal offering food to the female while she is incubating the eggs in 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?

In the image below you can see what a Cardinal nest and egg look like.

Cardinal Nest with Egg

Image of Cardinal Nest with Egg

Typically, pairs remain together the whole year. In winter the bond may be relaxed as they look for feeding areas.

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 When Eggs Hatch

So when do Cardinals begin nesting? 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 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, vine leaves, rootlets, and paper lined with vines, grass, and hair.

Where Do Cardinals Nest

Cardinals nest in a variety of locations. They prefer to build their nest in dense shrubbery or among branches of small trees.

Nests are built 1-15 feet above the ground.

They do not use birdhouses but have been seen on abandoned feeders and other ledges that provide some cover. Here is some video of a nest in a cedar tree we cammed live on the internet one season.

The female is the only one to incubate the eggs. Birds don't have a gestation period. The time from egg laying to hatching is called incubation.

Male Giving Call - Beautiful

Egg laying may begin 1 to 8 days after nest completion. Incubation begins after the last egg is laid.

The female may sit for short periods before the last egg is laid but come and go more frequently.

The males' duty during this time is to feed her on the nest and protect their territory from intruders.

Watching and listening closely, You'll hear the male call and the female will leave the nest to be fed by the male.

This can be a dangerous time since the eggs or young are left alone.

The female will incubate and the eggs will hatch in 12 - 13 days.

When the Cardinal eggs hatch, both males and females will feed the young. Baby Cardinals are featherless at first and will develop gray and red feathers like females.

The baby Cardinals will leave the nest in 9-11 days after hatching. Often the young are unable to fly much the first day or two after fledging.

What Does a Cardinal Nest Look Like

The image below shows what a Cardinal nest with baby birds looks like.

baby cardinals in nest

Baby Cardinals in Nest

What Do Baby Cardinals Look Like When They Leave the Nest

In the video below you can see what a baby Cardinal looks like just before leaving the nest.

They are quite small with very short tales and look nothing like their parents.

Baby Cardinals grow quickly and within a week from leaving the nest they'll be close to adult size and look similar to females having gray or black beaks.

Baby Cardinal One Day Away From Leaving Nest

Do Cardinals Use the Nest More Than Once

Each season the Cardinal couple will attempt to raise two broods. A new nest will be constructed for the second brood by the female and the old nest is not reused.

The male continues to feed the first set of young for up to two weeks after leaving the nest. During this time the female will be incubating her second clutch.

This will keep the male busy by continuing to feed the female, the first brood, and 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 like the male Red Cardinal.

Should I Remove Old Cardinal Nest

While they won't reuse a nest, studies show that having more nests may reduce predation. These birds often nest near the previous nest so leaving the nest might offer some help with regard to predation.

Citation - Watts, B. D. (1987a). Old nest accumulation as a possible protection mechanism against search-strategy predators. Animal Behaviour 35:1566-1568.

Northern 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 eggs.

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 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 such as destroying more eggs.

Sometimes Cowbirds may remove an egg, lay one of their own eggs, and then pierce the remaining eggs.

Cardinals are unable to distinguish a Cowbird egg or hatchling from their own. This results in the Cardinals raising the Cowbird all the way to self-reliance.

Protecting Territory

Cardinals may protect a territory size of 1/2 to 6 acres during the breeding season.

With the average +/- 3 acres. Males will chase other males and females will chase other females from the pair's territories.

Male Territorial Call

Cardinals birds often fight with their reflection in house windows and car mirrors. To see what you can do about this behavior check Cardinals Keep Flying into Windows.

Feeding Habits - What Do Cardinals Eat?

In the wild, adult Cardinals eat a variety of foods consisting of insects, spiders, wild fruits, berries, and weed seeds.

In winter the Cardinal's diet is more plant-based which includes seeds and berries in the wild.

Some insects under leaves may be found to supplement their diet.

They can be attracted to winter bird feeding stations by offering Black-Oil Sunflower Seed and/or Safflower Seed

Preferring to perch while eating at bird feeders, the ideal bird feeder for them is a tray feeder style.

You can see what the seed types look like and learn more about them here: Seed Types

You're likely to notice that these are often the first birds to arrive at the feeders in the morning and the last birds to eat in the evening.

Around my home they make their last feeder visit at dusk.

Cardinal birds tend to be very territorial in their feeding habits during the breeding season.

If you want to see them at your bird feeders during Spring and Summer, try placing a couple of feeders out of sight from each other.

This will allow pairs to feed at the same time without all the chasing that happens.

One in your front yard and one in the back works well. In winter they are less territorial around bird feeders.

Do Cardinals Go South In Winter?

Cardinal Range Map

Cardinal Range Map

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

If food and shelter are adequate, adult Cardinals will stay on their territories year-round.

A Heated Birdbath can help provide the drinking and bathing water they need all year.

Where do Cardinal Birds Sleep At Night in Winter?

When it's time for a Cardinal to sleep, the bird will look for dense cover, especially in winter.

Tall thick stands of evergreen trees and shrubs offer the best protection for the birds during cold nights. The thick canopy above will help keep them dry.

Another way Cardinals can keep warm and sleep during winter is to fluff out their feathers to create air spaces that help insulate the bird and reduce heat loss.

For more on how birds get through the night see: Birds Sleep

Bald Birds

bald cardinal bird

Bald Cardinal

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 known for sure.

Theories include parasite or dietary problems. The good news is, the condition isn't permanent and the bird will grow new feathers.

Predators of Cardinals

Known predators of adult birds are Eastern Gray Squirrels,, Coopers Hawks, Cats, Dogs, and Loggerhead Shrike.

Nest site predators of eggs and nestlings include Blue Jays, snakes, squirrels, eastern chipmunks, opossums, and raccoons.

House Wrens have been known to pierce eggs in nests.

More Information about Cardinals

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

Watch Videos

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good housekeeping magazine
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