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Cardinal Facts

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The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a North American bird in the genus Cardinalis. It is also known as the redbird or common cardinal. The common name, as well as the scientific name of the northern cardinal refers to the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps. The term "northern" in the common name refers to its range, as it is the northernmost cardinal species. There are a total of 19 subspecies of northern cardinals which are mostly distinguishable by their colors. Their average life span is approximately three years although several have had life spans of 13 to 15 years. Family includes Cardinals, Grosbeaks and Buntings.

Photograph by Jeremy Black

Photograph by Jeremy Black


Northern cardinals get their vibrant red color from pigments within their food which is called “carotenoids.” Foods with yellow pigments are transformed into the color red while inside the birds’ bodies which results in bold red feathers. Scientists theorize yellow northern cardinals have a genetic mutation that stops the color changing process and results in the gorgeous yellow feathers instead. Another possibility is the birds are ill or stressed by environmental factors.



If northern cardinals are native birds in your area and you are interested in attracting them, you will need to provide a safe and ideal habitat where they will have access to plenty of food, water, and shelter. The basic items you will need include at least one bird feeder, a birdbath and a variety of areas for cover and nesting. It is best to avoid using reflecting surfaces in your yard as cardinals often attempt to attack their own reflection in an effort to protect their territory. It is also wise to keep your pets away from the bird feeders, birdbath and other areas the cardinals rest.

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Cardinals are non-migratory birds. Most cardinals live within a mile of where they were born. Most northern song birds are male, but cardinals are unique in this regard as well. Both the male and female cardinal sing! The male will rest upon the top of a tree, roof or building and uses its call to attract a mate. Female cardinals often sing from the nest in what may be a call out to her mate. Cardinal pairs have song phrases that they share which sounds like “cheer-cheer-cheer” and “chip-chip-chip.”

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Bird Feeders

One of the most important things you need in order to attract cardinals is a bird feeder. Unlike many other birds, cardinals are unable to change their direction quickly, so the bird feeders will need to be large enough for them to land onto easily. They want to feel protected while eating, so it is best to place the feeder about 5-6 feet above the ground and near trees or shrubs. Cardinals are also ground feeders and will appreciate food being left below the bird feeder as well. Some of the best options for bird feeder styles include those that are heavy and include a large, open perching area.



Cardinals use birdbaths for both drinking and bathing. Due to the size of most cardinals, it is best to have a birdbath with a depth of 2 to 3 inches at its deepest point. During the winter, it is best to display a heated birdbath or to submerge an immersion heater into your regular birdbath. The water in any type of birdbath will need to be replaced a few times each week. If a source for water is not displayed, the cardinals will be required to leave and find it elsewhere such as from a local pond, stream, or river.

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Photograph by Leslie Wilder


Mating periods are in March, May, June and July, resulting in 1 to 2 broods of 2 to 5 eggs. Egg dimensions are 0.9 to 1.1 inches (2.2 to 2.7 centimeters) in length and 0.7 to 0.8 inches (1.7 to 2 centimeters) in width, weighing approximately 0.16 ounces (4.5 grams). The egg appearance is smooth and glossy white with a tint of green, blue or brown and have gray, brown or reddish speckling throughout. The incubation period is typically 11 to 13 days. Once they hatch, cardinal young are fed by both parents for the next 25 to 56 days until they learn to feed themselves. Spiders and insects are almost exclusively what they feed their young. While in the nest, baby birds get their liquid needs from the foods they eat. The male will tend to the young while the female starts a new nest to lay more eggs.

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Photograph by Leslie Wilder


STAGE ONE - 0 to 3 days old
Newly hatched cardinals are completely naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down and their eyes are closed. It is clumsy and not ready to leave the nest.

Visit our Cardinal Photos Page for a full photo collection of baby cardinals from eggs to fledglings!

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Photograph by Leslie Wilder


STAGE TWO - 4 to 13 days old
Cardinal nestlings can open their eyes and have wing feathers that may resemble tubes, as they have yet to break through their protective sheaths. Their first set of feathers, the pin feathers, are a rust-brown color. Nestlings are still not ready to leave the nest and rely on both parents to fulfill their extreme appetites with a variety of insects.

Visit our Cardinal Photos Page for a full photo collection of baby cardinals from eggs to fledglings!

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Photograph by Leslie Wilder


STAGE THREE - 14 days and older
Fledglings are fully feathered, although its wings and tail may be short. They retain the brown color in their feathers and start to gain their characteristic crest at the top of the head. A fledglings beak will be black, but will turn orange-red as it gets older. It has not quite mastered flying yet, but can walk, hop, and flutter. It will leave the nest with one of its parents nearby for assistance and protection if needed. Fledglings will learn to fly within a period of about 20 days!

Visit our Cardinal Photos Page for a full photo collection of baby cardinals from eggs to fledglings!

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As a young female cardinal matures, its feathers will develop into that of an adult female cardinal, which are dull brown and olive with red tinges. Its black beak will change color as it gets older, turning a pale orange and becoming a deep orange-red once fully grown.

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The female northern cardinal's average length is 8.2 to 9.3 inches with an average weight of about 1.5 ounces. Typically, they live for an average of three years in the wild, although many have survived up to 15 years! They also have a crest on the top of their head and a black mask surrounding a red, cone-shaped bill. The female's mask is generally lighter than the male's mask. Female cardinals are a dull brown or olive color overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. 

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As a young male cardinal matures, its feathers will develop into that of an adult male cardinal, which are vibrant red from the top of its crest to the bottom of its tail feathers. Its black beak will change color as it gets older, turning a pale orange and becoming a deep orange-red once fully grown.

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The average length of a male northern cardinal is 8.2 to 9.3 inches with an average weight of about 1.5 ounces. They have the same life expectancy as the females. The male northern cardinal has a red crest on its head and a black mask on its face which surrounds its large black eyes and red, cone-shaped bill. They are one of the most highly recognized birds due to their brilliant red color.   

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Common Call

Unlike many other songbirds in North America, both the male and female cardinals have an ability to sing. Typically, only male songbirds are capable of singing. They have distinct song phrases, such as a very sharp chip-chip-chip or a long cheer-cheer. When you hear their sound, we suggest you look up as they tend to choose extremely high perches for singing. The male will use its call to attract a female, whereas the female cardinal will sing from her nest, perhaps calling out to her mate as a message to say food is needed. 



Northern cardinals are Omnivores. The typical diet for a northern cardinal consists of mainly seeds, grains, and fruit. Their diet is also supplemented with insects which are also the main source of food fed to their nestlings. Some of their favorite insects include beetles, butterflies, centipedes, cicadas, crickets, flies, katydids, leafhoppers, moths, and spiders. During the winter months they rely heavily on the seeds provided in birdfeeders, with their favorites consisting of black oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. Other foods they enjoy are dogwood, wild grape, buckwheat, grasses, sedges, mulberry, hackberry, blackberry, sumac, tulip-tree, and corn. Blueberry, mulberry, and blackberry plants are excellent options for planting as they become both food sources and shelter due to their thickets.To keep up their appearances, they consume grapes or dogwood berries. During the digestive process, pigments from the fruit enter the bloodstream and make their way to feather follicles and crystalize. If a cardinal is unable to find berries, its hue will gradually begin to fade.

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Mating Habits

In the southern districts, cardinals have been known to raise three broods within one season alone. In the middle states, they seldom raise more than one. Cardinals make exceptional parents. The male cardinal shares in the duties of parenthood with his mate, feeding and caring for the mother during and after incubation. His fatherly instincts guide him to protect and care for the mother and babies until after they are safely out of the nest. Young cardinals frequently follow their parents on the ground for several days after they leave the nest. They remain very close to their parents until they are able to obtain food on their own. While the male is caring for his family, his bright red color will often change to a dull shade of brown. This temporary transformation of color occurs as a camouflage during the periods he and his mate are caring for their young.

Molting season

Like many other birds, northern cardinals molt their feathers and grow new ones in late summer and early fall, after the breeding season has ended and food is abundant. During molting season, many people often comment about the rough appearance of cardinals because so many of them molt their head feathers all at once, rendering the birds bald.

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Nest Description

Once the location is selected, the male cardinal typically brings nesting materials to the female who is responsible for building the nest. These materials include bark strips, coarse thin twigs, grapevine, grasses, leaves, pine needles, plant fibers, rootlets, and stems. The female will crush twigs with her beak until they become pliable, then push them into a cup-shape with her feet. Each nest has four layers consisting of coarse twigs that are covered with a leafy mat, lined with grapevine bark, then finished off with pine needles, grasses, stems, and rootlets. Each nest takes up to 10 days to build, sits 2 to 3 inches tall, measures 4 inches across and has an inner diameter of about 3 inches. Cardinals will only use their nesting site once, so it is important to always have plenty of trees, shrubs and materials nearby. This will encourage cardinals to raise future broods on your property.

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Photograph by Leslie Wilder

Nest Placement

Cardinals do not use birdhouses for nesting. Instead, the male and female will search for a thickly covered nest site a week or two before the female begins to build it. The actual site tends to be a place where the nest is wedged into a fork of small branches within a shrub, sapling, or vine tangle. It is always hidden in dense foliage anywhere from 1 to 15 feet above the ground. The most common trees and shrubs cardinals choose include dogwood, honeysuckle, pines, hawthorn, grape, spruce, hemlock, blackberry brambles, rose bushes, elms, box elders, and sugar maples.



Northern cardinals were once prized as a pet due to its bright color and distinctive sound. In the United States, northern cardinals receive special legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also banned their sales as caged birds. It is also protected by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada.



An estimated global breeding population of 120 million northern cardinals has been reported with the majority living in the Eastern United States, followed by Mexico and then Southern Canada. In the United States, they can be found from Maine to Texas and south through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. They also live in parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Hawaii. Its range has increased in the last 50 years to include New York and New England, and is continuing to increase North and West. Experts believe this is due in part by an increase in towns, suburbs and humans who provide food year-round, which makes it easier for their survival in colder climates. Northern cardinals tend to live in dense shrubby areas such as forest edges, overgrown fields, hedgerows, marshy thickets, mesquite, and ornamental landscaping.



Cardinals prefer a secluded area where they feel safe and protected. The type of areas which provide excellent covers are dense vines, trees, and bushes. There are many types of trees and shrubs that cardinals are drawn to for the purpose of nesting. Planting shrubbery such as grapevines, honeysuckle, dogwoods, and junipers can provide the perfect cover for their nests. During the winter, evergreen trees and shrubs provide a safe and sufficient shelter for these non-migratory birds.



  • Cardinal (bird) or Cardinalidae, a family of North and South American birds

  • Cardinalis, genus of cardinal in the family Cardinalidae

  • Cardinalis Cardinalis, or northern cardinal, the common cardinal of eastern North America

  • Argynnis pandora, the cardinal, is a butterfly of the family Nymphalidae

  • Cardinal tetra, a freshwater fish

  • Paroaria, a South American genus of birds

Arts | Entertainment

  • Cardinal, a 2001 American film directed by Michael Harring

  • Cardinals, a 2017 Canadian film

  • The Cardinal, a 1936 British historical drama

  • The Cardinal, a 1963 American film

  • Cardinal, a 2017 Canadian television series

  • Cardinal, the second episode of the second season of the television series The Americans

  • Cardinal, a super villain appearing in Marvel Comics

  • The Cardinal (play), a 1641 Caroline era tragedy by James Shirley


  • Cardinal Brewery, a brewery founded in 1788 by Francois Piller, located in Fribourg, Switzerland

  • Cardinal Health, a health care services company which employs over 400,000 individuals


  • Cardinal (Catholic Church), a senior official of the Catholic Church.

  • Cardinal (Church of England), two members of the College of Minor Canons of St. Paul’s Cathedral.


  • Cardinal (chess), a fairy chess piece, also known as the archbishop


  • Cardinal number

  • Large cardinal


  • The Cardinals, a rock band which formed in 2003

  • The Cardinals, a 1950’s R&B group

  • Cardinal, a 1994 album by indie pop duo Cardinal

  • Cardinal, Pinegrove album, 2016


  • Cardinal direction, one of the four primary directions: north, south, east and west

  • Cardinal mark, a sea mark used in navigation


  • Cardinal, Manitoba, Canada

  • Cardinal, Ontario, Canada

  • Cardinal High School, a public high school in Middlefield, Ohio, Geauga County, United States

  • Cardinal Power Plant, a power plant in Jefferson County, Ohio

  • Cardinal, Virginia, United States

  • C/2008 T2, a comet named Cardinal


  • Cardinal, a table grape first produced in California in 1939

  • Lobelia cardinalis, also known as “cardinal flower”


  • Arizona Cardinals, an American professional football team

  • Assindia Cardinals, an American football club from Essen, Germany

  • Ball State Cardinals, the athletic teams of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, USA

  • Cardenales de Lara, a Venezuelan baseball team

  • Catholic University Cardinals, the athletic teams of the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., USA

  • Front Royal Cardinals, an American baseball team

  • Lamar Cardinals, the athletic teams of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, USA

  • Louisville Cardinals, the athletic teams of University of Louisville, USA

  • Mapua Cardinals, the athletic teams of Mapua Institute of Technology in Metro Manila, Philippines

  • North Central Cardinals, the athletic teams of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, USA

  • St. John Fisher Cardinals, the athletic teams of St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, USA

  • St. Louis Cardinals, an American professional baseball team

  • Stanford Cardinal, the athletic teams of Stanford University in Santa Clara County, California, USA

  • Wesleyan Cardinals, the athletic teams of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, USA

  • West Perth Football Club, an Australian rules football club in Western Australia

  • Woking Football Club, a semi-professional association football club in Woking, Surrey, England

State Bird

  • Illinois

  • Indiana

  • Kentucky

  • North Carolina

  • Ohio

  • Virginia

  • West Virginia


  • Cessna 177 Cardinal, a single-engine aircraft

  • St. Louis Cardinal C-2-110, a light aircraft built in 1928

  • Cardinal (train)

  • The Cardinal (rail car)