The northern cardinal bird is one of the most popular and common of all North American birds and is a regular visitor to backyards throughout its range.
It’s a mid-sized song bird with a vivid red crest on its head and a short, thick red bill. The male cardinal has a black mask on its face and throat and is bright red all over its body. The female cardinal also has a black or gray face mask but its body is a dull brown or tan color, with dull red wings and tail.
The bright red crest is what got the cardinal its name as it looks like a Catholic Cardinal’s mitre. The feathers at the front of the crest are much shorter than those at the back, which gives the crest its point. Cardinals use their crest to communicate by making it stand up or lie flat.
The cardinal is what is known as a passerine bird, which means it has feet with three toes that point to the front and one toe that points to the back. This makes it easy for the feet to perch on branches.
In the wild, the northern cardinal bird can live for up to fourteen years.
Where do Cardinals live?
The northern cardinal used to be a southern bird but it has now spread a lot more north. It is thought this could be due to back yard birding providing them with food and other resources. The cardinal can now be found in southern Canada, down through the eastern United States and into Mexico.
What do Cardinals eat?
The northern cardinal bird is a common visitor to backyard bird feeders and loves to eat sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. Northern cardinals have very strong beaks which let them easily crack open all the seeds they eat.
As other birds don’t like safflower seeds as much, it’s probably the best cardinal bird food for you to put out and putting such seeds in a bird feeder is a great way to attract cardinals to your backyard. Although the safflower seed costs more than other seeds, it’s well worth spending that little bit extra on it if you want these beautiful birds to visit you.
Cardinals prefer to feed from perches when they visit feeders so make sure you use feeders with perches if you want to attract them. You can buy bird feeders specially designed just for the northern cardinal bird. Away from feeders, cardinals eat a range of seeds, grains and fruits, along with weeds, insects and spiders.
Cardinals don’t migrate (in fact most cardinals live within a mile of where they were born) and they also don’t lose their bright red plumage in winter.
This means they are still conspicuously beautiful visitors to back yards and gardens even during the cold winter months.
During this time you can put out suet feeders with sunflower seeds stuck in them to feed them. These suet feeders are a great cardinal bird food for winter.
Cardinals drink fresh water from ponds and streams, and will also drink from garden fountains.
Cardinals are quite social birds and will even join flocks that include other birds. However, during the mating season they split into pairs with the male feeding his female partner while she incubates the eggs. This mate feeding lasts all through the egg laying and incubation stages of the breeding process. Cardinals can have three broods per mating season, with between two and five eggs per brood.
The male northern cardinal bird is very territorial and can be very aggressive when other males invade its territory. This is especially true during the mating season. This can lead to male cardinal birds flying into windows as they attack their own reflection thinking it’s another male.
Communication and Cardinal song
The northern cardinal bird communicates by singing and through the use of its red crest. When a cardinal is annoyed or worried, the crest stands erect and it lays flat when they’re relaxed. It’s quite rare that the female sings as well as the male in a song bird species, but that’s the case for cardinal birds. The singing is the main way that cardinals communicate.
The northern cardinal song is a loud, clear whistled pattern and lasts for about two to three seconds. The patterns are repeated and then varied. The female cardinal may sing a more complex song that’s a little bit longer than the males.
Northern cardinal bird sounds can make it seem like they are singing cheer, cheer, cheer or birdie, birdie, birdie. These cardinal sounds can be heard all through the year, especially the male cardinal song, but spring and early summer are the peak times to hear the sounds of the cardinal call.
You can listen to the sound of the northern cardinal here.
Baby Northern Cardinals
Baby northern cardinal birds are born bald and blind and eat a lot. In fact, they feed up to ten times an hour. They have to rely on their parents to bring them food until they can fly well enough to be independent. Baby cardinal birds start flying after about two weeks, but it’s another few weeks before they become independent.
Young cardinal’s beaks are dull in color until they mature.
Habitat and nesting
The northern cardinal bird prefers woodland but you’ll also find them in parks, forest edges, and overgrown fields. Of course, you’ll find them in your backyard too if you’re lucky and follow our advice on how to attract cardinals. They tend to nest in dense tangles of vines and shrubs. When nesting, it’s the female who does most of the building work using twigs, leaves, branches, grass and bark.
The cup shaped nests have four layers – twigs covered with a leafy mat, then lined with bark and finally grasses and other materials. Cardinals can take over a week to build a nest and they will nearly always build a new nest each time they breed.
Cardinal bird houses
Normal bird houses are enclosed and this type of house is not the most appealing to cardinals birds as they are open nesters, which means that their nests are usually built on tree branches or in shrubs. The best cardinal bird houses are the platform type houses that have roofs to give cover from the weather. If you wish to provide nesting areas for cardinals then these are the type of bird houses you should put in your yard.
The best place to put them is quite close to the ground, no more than five or six feet high.
Alternatively, of course, you can plant trees and shrubs for the cardinals birds to nest in, if you have the space in your yard.
Watching Cardinal birds
The northern cardinal bird is an early morning and late evening feeder, so these are the best times if you wish to watch them in your backyard.
During the nesting period, the female cardinal bird may quit her nest building and move to a different location if she feels under threat. For this reason, it’s best to take care when watching them at this time and make sure you only watch from a safe distance so you don’t disturb them.
The Northern Cardinal – the state bird
The northern cardinal bird is so popular that it’s the official bird of no less than seven states – Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
For more information on how to identify the northern cardinal bird and many other birds in your yard, see our guide here. And you may also like our article on the Blue Jay bird.