Northern Cardinal

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), often simply called “cardinals,” are a favorite backyard visitor for many people. Cardinals can be found throughout most of the eastern half of North America. It is the state bird for seven different states (IL, IN, KY, NC, OH, VA, WV), making it the most common species selected as a state bird. Their natural habitat is near the edges of woods or in shrubby, overgrown fields; but they also make themselves right at home in backyards and parks. Cardinals are non-migratory so the birds you see in the summer are likely the same birds you see in the winter.

Male cardinals are well-known for their year-round, bright red plumage. Photo credit: Dominic Sherony, cc-by-sa 2.0 

The male’s bright red feathers with its black mask and orange beak make it easy to recognize, especially since it keeps the same coloration all year. Even the female with her browner body, reddish wings and tail, black mask and orange beak is easy to identify. Both sexes have a crest of feathers on top of their heads that they can raise and lower.

Unlike many species of songbirds, both the male and female cardinal will sing. Their song is a distinctive, clear whistle. They also have a distinctive call note that sounds like a metallic “chip” which they use as an alert call. The chip calls and song can be heard in this sound clip from the Audubon website.

Cardinals sing to develop pair bonds between the male and female and to defend their territories. Cardinals can be very territorial, especially during the breeding season. This is why it is common to see them attacking windows or mirrors in the spring and summer – the cardinal thinks its reflection is a stubborn intruder which it needs to run off.

Female cardinals are not as brightly colored as the males, but they are still easily identified. Both sexes have a crest of feathers on their heads that they can raise and lower. Photo credit: RetyiRetyi, cc-0 

The female does most of the nest building in the spring, although the male will sometimes bring nesting materials. After the nest is built, the female lays 2-5 eggs which she incubates for approximately two weeks. The male bring her food while she is sitting on the nest. After the eggs hatch, both sexes bring food to the nestlings which fledge (leave the nest) after approximately a week and a half.

Both sexes may continue to feed the young after they leave the nest, or the male may continue to feed the young while the female starts another nest if it is relatively early in the summer. Cardinals rarely use the same nest twice, so “starting another nest” usually means building a new one from scratch before laying a second round of eggs.

Adult cardinals primarily eat seeds and use their large, strong beaks to crack open seed husks. They will also eat small fruits, as well as, insects. Nestlings primarily eat insects which the adults bring to them. Because cardinals primarily eat seeds, they are easily attracted to bird feeders. They’ll eat many different types of bird seed, but black oil sunflowers are definitely a favorite. With their bright colors and cheery song, it’s no wonder that cardinals are a long-time favorite among backyard songbirds.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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