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Cardinal Northern Cardinals

Identification and Pictures

Male Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are all red with the exception of the black patch around their thick triangular or conical bill.  Their bright color, and the pointed crest make them instantly identifiable by bird enthusiasts.  They keep this bright red plumage year round, and it is very striking in snow.  
   photo by Hollingsworth us Wildlife

Norther Cardinal male
The female is brownish with some red on the wings, and tail.  Just like the male, the female has a dark face, and heavy red bill, good for eating seeds.  Adults are 7 to 9 inches.  Young birds look much like the female, with darker bills. Norther Cardinal female
by Menke, Dave US Wildlife

At one time cardinals were kept as caged pets, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned the practice in the U.S.

Cardinals have several variations of repeated whistles (whe-cheer-cheer or whertee-whertee-wherte).  A contact or alarm call sounds like chip.  Female cardinals sing while they are on their nest.  A pair will have song phrases they share.

Cardinal song  Click to hear Sound

Range and Habitat

The Northern cardinal is a year round resident of the eastern U.S., and continues to spread north.  It is so well liked that more states have adopted it as their state bird than any other bird. These states are: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

They like the edges of wooded areas, river thickets, and gardens.  You can find them in areas near people such as parks, and backyards.

Nesting and Breeding

Breeding season begins in late March to early April.  Cardinals will breed in a wide variety of areas.

Once he develops a territory the male cardinals will aggressively defend it.  They have been known to attack their reflections in windows, mistaking them for other males.

The male feeds the female during courtship.  Cardinals will mate for life, and remain together throughout the entire year.

The male usually follows the female as she searches for a nest site.  They carry nesting material in their beaks, as they call back and forth to each other.  They prefer to build their nest in shrubbery or a thickly branched tree.  Males may bring nesting material to the female, who will build a cup shaped nest in 3 to 9 days.Cardinal gathering twigs  Nesting materials are twigs, weeds, and grasses, bark fibers, dead leaves, moss, rags, and other debris.

Cardinal egg

The female will lay between two, and five white or greenish eggs with dark streaks, and spots on them. Usually the female will incubate the eggs for 11 to 13 days.  The young will be fed by both parents for around 10 days, and will be able to fly well in about 20 days.

Two, three, or four broods may be raised in a breeding season.  The male will tend the brood while the female starts the next brood.

Feeders and Food

Natural foods
In the wild, Cardinals eat fruit, seed, and insects.  Their heavy conical bills allow them to eat a wider range of seeds than birds with smaller bills such as sparrows or finches.

They search from the ground for food and can be heard foraging in bushes when they are out of sight.  As they hop around they will scratch the ground with both feet searching for insects and other food.

Attracting Cardinals to your Backyard


Because Cardinals are not migratory you can attract them to your yard all year long with feeders, water, and shrubs.  Many kinds of shrubs and trees will attract them to your yard. Some are, blueberry, cherry, dogwood, mulberry sumac.

In addition to eating any fruit these may provide, they may nest and raise their young in the dense shrubs.
Get a Cardinal puzzle.
If you put out feeders they will eat almost any kind of fruit, and seeds you offer them.  Good food choices are cracked corn, millet, bread, nutmeats, safflower, peanut butter mixes, and suet.  A favorite is un-hulled black-oil sunflower seeds.

If you watch them at the feeder you will see them touch beaks as they offer each other seeds.

In addition to food; provide a source of water for drinking and bathing.  Many birds will come to clean their feathers in a birdbath.  Running or dripping water will also attract them.  Birds love to bathe in a slow sprinkler.

For more on food and feeding click here.
For more on feeders click here.
To learn about other favorite birds click here.

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