With its instantly recognizable plumage and jaunty head crest, the northern cardinal is one of the most desirable backyard birds in North America.
Northern Cardinal, Cardinal, Virginia Nightingale
- Bill: Thick short cone shape, red or pink coloration
- Size: 7-9 inches long with 11-inch wingspan, long thin tail
- Colors: Bold red, black, buff, tan
- Markings: Northern cardinals are dimorphic, with male birds a brilliant red color all over that may be slightly duller on the wings. Males also have a black narrow facial mask around the eyes, bill and chin. Females are a buff golden tan with a red tinge to the wings and tail, and their facial mask is smaller and less distinct. Both genders have a prominent head crest.
Insects, seeds, fruit, nuts, sap, berries, cracked corn
Habitat and Migration:
Northern cardinals are common throughout the eastern United States from Maine to Florida and continuing west to southern Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and the eastern half of Mexico. These birds prefer dense woodland cover but can easily be found in suburban areas. Northern cardinals do not migrate.
Northern cardinals have distinctive and beautiful songs with more than two dozen variations depending on the situation and the birds’ geographical region. Both male and female birds sing in courtship duets, and males will sing to advertise or defend their territory. Common sounds include an undulating pitch “cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer” song as well as sharp, high “chip” calls.
Male northern cardinals are noted for their aggression, which can be observed through feeder domination or chasing other cardinals away from different territories. Northern cardinals will also fight their own reflections in windows, mirrors and other reflective surfaces, often exhausting or injuring themselves in the process if the surface is not covered.
Cardinal pairs are monogamous and have a feeding courtship ritual in which the female bird mimics the behavior of a nestling and the male bird offers her seeds or berries. The male will also care for the female while she tends the nest. One pair of birds may raise 2-4 broods annually of 3-4 eggs each. Eggs are incubated by the female for 12-14 days, and the altricial hatchlings will leave the nest in 9-12 days.
Attracting Northern Cardinals:
Northern cardinals can be shy backyard visitors and are most likely to visit suburban yards that offer low ground cover such as privet and honeysuckle hedges. Offering cracked corn, safflower seeds and black oil sunflower seeds in ground or platform feeders will help attract cardinals, and they can also be tempted by bird baths. In time, cardinals may be hand-fed by patient birders.
Have you seen northern cardinals in your backyard or in the field? Submit Your Northern Cardinal Photos!
- Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinals sinuatus)
Photos – Northern Cardinals – Male, Female © Ed Schneider