Northern cardinal, cardinals
Favorite Birds

10 Cool Facts about Cardinals

Arguably North America’s most memorable and beloved bird, the bright red Northern Cardinal is always a welcome sight.

Here are a few cool facts you might not know about them.

Why are cardinals red?

Only the males are red, and that’s because because they eat plants containing carotenoids – red, orange or yellow colors (or insects that have eaten these colorful plants.

Female cardinals are a light, dull brown with a red beak and some muted red feathers on their wings, tails and crests.

Once in a long while, a rare mutation produces a male cardinal that is bright yellow.

Can cardinals sing?

Yes! In many species only males can call or sing but both male and female northern cardinals can sing, especially during courtship and nesting.

Not only that, the females are superstars having up to 24 different calls!

Here’s a short recording of cardinal song that was captured by Rolf A. de By, XC469588. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Do cardinals migrate?

No, they stay in their home area all year round, although helpful human feeders may have expanded their range to the north a bit. By converting forests to agricultural and suburban areas, and supplying food at winter feeders, human development has increased nesting habitat and enabled cardinals to remain during winter in areas not suitable in the past.

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When do cardinals mate?

Cardinals mate at any time between March and May, and again between April and late June.

During courtship, you may see the male cardinal feeding a female beak-to-beak. This behavior has often been said to be an expression of dominance by the male over the female.

However, Susan M. Smith, PhD,1 says this away-from-nest feeding is actually strongly linked with female dominance! Go figure.

Photo by Linda Hartong (CC BY 2.0)

Do cardinals mate for life?

A lot of people make this claim, but I haven’t found any scientific evidence to back it up.

Cardinals are “socially monogamous” though, which means that in any given year a mated pair of cardinals tend to stick together.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a little hanky-panky on the side: genetic research2Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America accessed 6 February 2020 has revealed that between 9 and 35 per cent of the cardinal babies studied were not fathered by the male that hangs out with their mother.

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Where do cardinals nest?

Cardinals don’t use nest boxes; they prefer to nest in places where there are deep tangles of branches, vines and foliage.

You may be able to attract cardinals to nest by planting honeysuckle, grapevines, rose bushes and blackberry or blueberry bushes and allowing their vines and branches to grow dense.

Cardinals will also nest in small trees or shrubs that are covered in vines, such as grape vines.

About two-thirds of cardinals will return to the same nesting area following years.

When do cardinals lay eggs?

Cardinals start building their nests between the end of February and mid-April. It takes them about 2 to 3 weeks to complete the nest, and females lay their eggs about one week after that.

Male cardinals will protect and feed the female while she’s incubating the egg, which takes 11 to 13 days. After the chicks hatch, males will help feed the babies.

Northern cardinal hatchling with egg. Photo by Parsons1 via Flickr. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

How long do baby cardinals stay in the nest?

Fledglings are mature enough to leave the nest at about 10 days.

How long do cardinals live?

Cardinals can live 12 to 15 years unless they get sick, injured or preyed upon, but most probably survive only four years or so in the wild. The oldest known Northern Cardinal was female and lived to be 15 years and 9 months old, which is known because she was banded when young and tracked throughout her life.

How many cardinals are there and where do they live?

There are three species (and 18 subspecies)3Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America accessed 6 February 2020 of cardinal:

  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), which lives in south-eastern Canada and throughout the US eastern and mid-western states except the Dakotas, northern Michigan and northwest Nebraska. Their natural range extends down through Mexico into Guatemala and Belize.  
  • Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) or desert cardinal, which is found in the US Southwest and northern Mexico,
  • Vermillion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus), a brilliant red bird found in South America.

Cardinals are found from southern Canada all the way down to Columbia and Venezuela in South America.

About the author

Joy Thurlow

Joy Thurlow lives in the Pacific Northwest and enjoys watching birds in her back yard. She strives to find accurate, science-based information to share with other bird lovers.

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