Northern Cardinals: Your Ultimate Guide

Male northern cardinal sitting on a branch
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Kathleen Balsamo.

If you’re fascinated with northern cardinals, you’re in the right place! This article is a deep dive into the red bird that has captured the hearts of many in North America. From the exploration of its family and subspecies to the rarest of rare versions of the northern cardinal, you’ll find it all here.

Back when I started backyard birding (25+ years ago) and first set my eyes on this red bird in my yard, I knew there was something special about it. So special I dedicated my time to learning everything about this bird. Where the information wasn’t available, I dove head first into scientific research to reveal more fascinating facts about the northern cardinal.

I hope you enjoy it…

De­scrip­tion & Size

Northern cardinals are medium-sized about 8 1/2″ long on average with an average wingspan of 9 to 12 inches.

They have bright orange triangular-shaped beaks, distinctive tall crests, long tails, and a mask around their mouth.

The male is a bright red bird with a black face mask, red crown, and black tinges on his wings and tail.

red male cardinal
Male cardinal. Photo compliments of Pixabay.

The female is buffy brown with tinges of red on her wings, and tail, and has a brown and red-tinged crest. Her mask is a more subtle, charcoal shade than the male’s.

female cardinal with wings outstretched
Female cardinal. Photo by Michael Vincent.

Some newbie birders think the cardinal looks like a robin. It won’t take long for them to realize she has a unique look of her own.

Sexual Dimorphism

The male and female northern cardinals have different colored plumage, a term called sexual dimorphism. While they’re not the only species that are dimorphic, they’re probably the most noticeable since their colors are so different (red vs brown). 

Molting

Every year the northern cardinal releases its feathers and grows new ones. It’s a process called molting.

molting male cardinal sporting bald head
Molting male northern cardinal Photo by Nhat Vu.
Female northern cardinal after molting
Molting female northern cardinal. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

If you ever see one that looks weird or downright scary because it’s missing its crest, fret not. While they’re supposed to lose the feathers gradually and not all in one place (e.g. the crown), sometimes they fall out faster or in one spot.

There’s an excellent chance the new feathers will grow normally and all will be well in a few weeks.

Male Cardinal vs Female Cardinal

Male Cardinals

The male northern cardinal has a bright color but also has many other unique characteristics that make him an exceptional bird! Here are just a few:

  • He’s stunningly beautiful and stands out among all other species.
  • His song is consistently loud and clear singing ‘cheer-cheer-cheer’ throughout the morning lighting up the yard with his presence.
  • He has a very strong loyalty towards his mate, often mating for life.
  • He feeds his partner when she’s incubating eggs or tending to their young, and protects her from danger at any cost.

Female Cardinals

female cardinal feeding baby
Female cardinal feeding her baby. Image by Scottslm from Pixabay

The female northern cardinal is also a one-of-a-kind bird. Here are a few of her unique attributes: 

  • She scouts out and chooses a nesting site for each brood – even while still taking care of an earlier brood.
  •  She builds each of the nests! Yes, the male will help by bringing materials but she is the primary builder.
  • She’s the primary food provider of the nestlings and hatchlings.
  • While most songbirds leave the singing to the males, female cardinals sing right alongside the males, helping to defend their territories. Click the play button below to hear her sweet sounds.

Distribution Range

The northern cardinal has an extensive distribution range across North America. It can be found across the eastern United States, the southwestern United States, parts of Mexico, and the southeasternmost parts of Canada.

Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

Taxonomy

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) belongs to the family Cardinalidae of the order Passeriformes of the class Aves. Here’s the hierarchy within the animal kingdom:

ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyCardinalidae
GenusCardinalis
SpeciesCardinalis cardinalis <– Northern Cardinal

Subspecies: Family Cardinalidae / Genus Cardinalis

The northern cardinal’s closest relatives are in the family Cardinalidae and genus Cardinalis. There are only 3 species in this taxonomy including:

  1. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
  2. Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus), also known as the desert cardinal.
  3. Vermilion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus)
Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.
Male pyrrhuloxia
Male pyrrhuloxia. Photo by Kitsie Johnson.

Because they’re in the same genus, they look remarkably alike!

Of the three birds in the Cardinalis genus, only the northern cardinal and pyrrhuloxia are found in North America. The vermilion cardinal resides in South America.

Subspecies: Family Cardinalidae

A little further out on the northern cardinal’s family tree is the subspecies within the family Cardinalidae.

There are 15 birds in this subspecies – we already talked about the northern cardinal, pyrrhuloxia, and vermilion cardinal. Here are the remaining 12:

  1. Hepatic tanager (Piranga flava)
  2. Summer tanager (Piranga rubra)
  3. Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)
  4. Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)
  5. Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)
  6. Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
  7. Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)
  8. Lazuli bunting (Passerina amoena)
  9. Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)
  10. Varied bunting (Passerina versicolor)
  11. Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)
  12. Dickcissel (Spiza americana)
Summer tanager
Male summer tanager. Photo by Renee Kramer.
Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak. Photo by Donna Cooper.
Male indigo bunting eating seed
Male indigo bunting. Photo by Kim Eberly Photography.

Because they’re in a different genus than the northern cardinal, they only have a faint resemblance, if any. Here are a few of photos of birds in the Cardinalidae family:


Did you know? Northern cardinals were once called just “cardinals”. This became confusing since there were 2 others in the same family, so in 1983 their name was changed to the northern cardinal.


Migration

Northern cardinals are permanent residents and do not migrate. They may move around seasonally, such as during winter, or lack of food becomes too harsh, but don’t go too far.

Cardinals prefer to stay close to the same area year-round and their movements are largely dictated by how secure their habitat is.

Habitat

Northern cardinals are commonly found in wooded areas, woodlands dominated by oak and hickory trees, forest clearings, forest edges, and backyards lush with berry-producing shrubs such as juniper, holly, serviceberry, and viburnum.

In order to avoid predators, they seek out places with plenty of vegetation comprised of shrubs and tree treelines with thick foliage. These habitats are ideal as they provide plenty of food sources like invertebrates, live insects, fruits, and grains.

They can also be found in wetlands as well as residential backyards as long as there’s enough coverage. 


Did you know? Predation is a major factor in the short life of the northern cardinal. The better they’re able to camouflage themselves, the better chance they have to live another day. 


Sounds: Songs & Calls

Northern cardinals are known for their songs and calls, which vary depending on the context.

For example:

  • Male cardinals sing frequently to attract mates and define territorial areas.
  • Females typically give short calls to communicate with family members or potential mates. 
  • Males or females also use songs to act as warning signals.

Their repertoire consists of whistles, warbles, chips, trills, and clear notes that have been observed to last up to five minutes. Each song is distinct enough to help identify the singer even when at a certain distance away.

Below is audio from a pair of cardinals singing.

Audio compliments of Macaulay Library.

Did you know? Seasoned bird watchers describe the northern cardinal’s signature whistle-like sound as one loud “chip” followed by several softer chirps


Diet

best birdseeds for cardinals
Black-oil sunflower seed, safflower seed, birdseed mix, and sunflower seeds.

The northern cardinal is primarily a seed-eating bird, though they will supplement their diets with fruits (e.g. mulberry berries, black cherry berries), insects (e.g. grasshoppers, caterpillars, and beetles), grains, and grasses.

During the breeding season, they opt for more protein-rich items like insects and snails to feed their growing young.


Did you know? The vibrant red feathers of male cardinals are from carotenoid-rich foods in their diet –  especially orange and red fruits. 


The Breeding Season

Northern cardinals usually begin breeding in late February and finish by early September depending on climate and regional location.

As spring approaches, the days get longer and female cardinals get ready to lay eggs. For all wildlife, successful reproduction is everything!

Mating

cardinal pair haven't left yard
Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

Male Northern Cardinals try to win over a mate by displaying their colorful feathers, bobbing up and down, and singing. If a female cardinal is interested, the male will perform a courtship flight with chirps and flying in circles.

Male cardinals face fierce competition when it comes to securing a mate. During this time they can be seen aggressively fighting with other male cardinals. It’s normal, but still a little unnerving to witness.

When they choose each other, they remain together for many breeding seasons. In many cases, they mate for life (but not always).

Nesting

cardinal and nest of nestlings in a cedar tree
A cedar tree provides the ideal nesting place for a mama cardinal and her nestlings.

The female cardinal aims to create the perfect environment to raise her young by carefully selecting a nesting site. She looks for a warm and protected spot located in dense foliage, high off the ground, and close to food sources

She searches for a hidden spot that gives her and her mate easy access but is well concealed from predators.

She constructs the multi-layered cup-shaped nest using twigs, dead leaves, bark strips, and grapevine weaved together. Additional nest materials used are hair, thread, grasses, and other soft items. They’re incorporated into the inner layer to make it secure for eggs and young chicks. 

The typical cardinal pair has several broods each season. Each brood gets a different location and uniquely formed nest – all following the similar construction process mentioned above. 

Young Northern Cardinals

Eggs

Over a period of about two days, the female cardinal lays about 2-5 eggs that are either light gray, light green, or ivory with gray or brown specs.

They’re about 1″ long and .75″ wide. She tirelessly incubates them for 12-13 days while her mate brings her food.

Hatchlings

3 cardinal eggs and hatchling in a nest
Three cardinal eggs and one hatchling. Photo by Gates Wildlife Control.

When the eggs finally hatch, the hatchlings weigh only a few grams and measure around 2 inches in length. Blanketed in natal down and scarcely larger than a walnut, hatchling northern cardinals are tiny and fragile. They have closed eyes and are completely reliant on their parents for survival.

Nestlings

Over the next 7-13 days, the baby cardinals remain in the nest fed by their attentive parents as they gradually start to develop feathers. (Parent care is provided by both parents).

At this stage, the fledgling is still very dependent on its parents for food, warmth, and protection.

Fledglings

Cardinal fledgling nestled in a tree
Cardinal fledgling. Photo by Susan LeMay Mercer.

Once fully feathered, the young cardinals begin to explore beyond the confines of their nest and that’s when they become fledglings. 

At this age, they still depend heavily on their parents for flying and food-sourcing guidance. They may even return to the nest a few more times. 

Juveniles

baby juvenile cardinals feeding each other
Juvenile cardinals sharing at the feeder. Photo by Sharon Walter.

Once officially fledged, and never to return to the nest again, the young are considered juveniles. 

At this stage, they look like super fluffy versions of their mom. Buffy brown with tinges of red. Their beaks are brown or black at this point but are slowly transitioning to the signature orange. 

Juveniles keep close contact with their parents and other brood mates during this time. They’ve also been known to help with later broods to offload some of the work from mom and dad. 

They remain juveniles until they acquire their adult plumage which occurs in the late summer/early fall.

Predators

Northern cardinals have a range of predators, including great-horned owls, hawks, and smaller birds like jays. They are also at risk from cats, which are known to cause significant mortality in the population.

domestic cat hunting wild birds in tall grass
Keep kitty inside. Image by Sue Rickhuss from Pixabay

Small mammals such as skunks and raccoons may also become predators if their food sources or habitat overlaps with that of the northern cardinal.

Other potential threats include snakes and larger mammals such as foxes and coyotes who can catch them on the ground.

Additionally, nest parasites like cowbirds lay their eggs in unguarded nests, leading to competition for resources and decreased survival rate for cardinal chicks.

Backyard Tips

female cardinal perched on platform bird feeder
A female cardinal perched on a platform feeder, dining comfortably. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

If you live inside their range map, you have a good chance of seeing cardinals in your yard. Still, there are steps you can take to get an even closer look. 

1. Set up a cardinal-friendly bird feeder and offer a variety of high-quality food. This includes sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, black-oil sunflower seeds, and suet (in winter).

2. Set up a feeding station close to trees or shrubs, but away from windows, so northern cardinals feel safe and comfortable while they eat.

3. Provide fresh water for drinking and bathing regularly as this will keep local cardinals coming back for more food and other resources.

4. Plant native plants to attract insects, which are an important source of nutrition for these wild birds.

5. Keep the area clean from debris, as messes like food waste can attract predators which would threaten the safety of cardinals in your backyard setting.

6. Keep the kitty inside. No wild bird will venture into your yard with Fluffy roaming around. Cardinals will leave your yard in a heartbeat if they spot her.

The Northern Cardinal as a State Bird

Male cardinal with image of united states overlay

The northern cardinal is the most popular choice for a state bird.  Also known as the “red cardinal”, a whopping seven states in the United States consider the cardinal their state bird including:

  1. Illinois
  2. Indiana
  3. Kentucky
  4. North Carolina
  5. Ohio
  6. Virginia
  7. West Virginia.

Who wouldn’t want the northern cardinal as their state bird? But why did so many states not choose something else? Why not be original?

With this in mind, I dug into exactly when each state officially decided on its state bird. The first state to choose the northern cardinal as its state bird was Kentucky – in 1926.

Here’s when all the states decided to adopt the bird:  

StateYear the Northern Cardinal Became State Bird
Kentucky1926
Illinois1929
Indiana & Ohio1933
North Carolina1943
West Virginia1949
Virginia1950

Rare Cardinals

While northern cardinals are relatively popular birds – since they exist in large numbers across much of the eastern and central United States – there are a few types of cardinals that are very rare including:

  • Half-male/half-female cardinals
  • White cardinals 
  • Yellow cardinals

Half-Male/Half-Female Cardinals

Half-male half-female cardinal
Northern cardinal with bilateral gynandromorphism. Photos by Shirley Caldwell.

The most unusual cardinal variant is the half-male, half-female cardinal which displays both male and female characteristics from its head to its tail!

The male appearance can be on the left or right side with the female on the opposite side. Not only do they look half-male/half-female, but physiologically and biologically they are half-and-half. The male side has testees and the female side has ovaries.

This condition, formally known as bilateral gynandromorphism, is due to a genetic mutation. There have only been less than a dozen sightings of cardinals with this condition. If you were to see one, it would literally be a one-in-a-million sighting!

White Cardinals

leucistic female cardinal
Leucistic female northern cardinal (cardinalis cardinalis) lacking color in the facial area.

White cardinals are also rare. Just how rare depends on the particular condition causing the whiteness – albino vs fully leucistic vs partially leucistic.

Albino northern cardinals are extremely rare and distinctive; they have no pigment in their feathers that gives normal cardinals their striking red color.

Lecustic cardinals are the 2nd rarest form of white birds.

Fully leucistic cardinals are the 2nd rares form of white birds. They have black eyes, flesh-colored legs, white feathers, red crowns, wings, and/or tails.

Partially leucistic cardinals are the least rare of the white birds. They have have black eyes, flesh-colored legs, and scattered patches of white feathers along with normal-colored feathers. White areas are usually grouped in the head, wings, and/or tail.

While many people first become aware of the existence of these birds because they stand out so much, they can be harder to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Yellow Cardinals

Yellow cardinal spotted in Gainesville.
Yellow cardinal spotted in Gainesville. Photo by Wendy Chasalow Milstein.

Another rare variant is the yellow cardinal.  Due to a genetic mutation, the northern cardinal displays yellow feathers anywhere red feathers would normally be.

Since males and females both have red feathers, although the male has much more of them, either is susceptible to this condition. As you might imagine, it’s far more noticeable in a male since the majority of their body is yellow.

People have reported spotting these extraordinarily bright yellow variants in all seasons although sightings remain very infrequent.

Blue cardinal?

It’s not uncommon for people to report seeing a blue cardinal.

Rest assured, the blue cardinal is not real. At least there’s no science that supports its existence.

In most cases, someone has mistaken another bird for a cardinal. The blue jay is often the culprit. After all, both birds have strikingly tall and robust crowns. It’s a mistake easily made.

Strange Behavior

Cardinals are one of many species that engage in “anting”, a phenomenon that helps them clean their feathers. Proper feather maintenance is crucial to their survival so if you witness this strange behavior rest assured the bird is taking a natural bath.

Relationship with humans

We love our cardinals! Seeing my first northern cardinal more than 25 years ago strongly influenced me to begin backyard birding. And, this bird has since become a beloved symbol of my daughter, who passed unexpectedly a few years ago. When I see a cardinal in my yard I’m reminded of my angel in heaven.

Humans and northern cardinals share a mutually beneficial relationship: Northern cardinals find homes in our habitats, entertaining us with their beautiful songs and colorful plumage, while we feed the cardinals and provide them with shelter.

Conservation

Even though the Northern Cardinal is not endangered, it’s important to get involved in the conservation of wild birds. The preservation of these species helps keep entire ecosystems healthy and well-balanced.

Conservation also helps keep entire habitats as well as predator/prey cycles in check, which otherwise can become unbalanced if left unchecked. By getting involved in conservation efforts, you can help protect the Northern Cardinal and other birds from becoming endangered as a result of urbanization and climate change.

You can also help to ensure that future generations will have a chance to experience this beautiful bird species as its population remains healthy and strong.

More Resources

I have an unconventional passion for northern cardinals. I love this species and am always in research and learning mode when it comes to any topic related to them. That’s why you’ll find a huge variety of articles on my site specifically about the northern cardinal

If ever you’re looking for additional information or a different perspective I encourage you to check out these websites:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Audubon Society

I also highly recommend a book that’s solely about northern cardinals and my field guide to this species. It was written by Gary Ritchison, an ornithologist who dedicated a great deal of time to researching, studying, and writing about this species. You can find it here on Amazon: Wild Bird Guides: Northern Cardinals.

Also, sign up on my mailing list because I frequently write topics about the northern cardinal that you will not get anywhere else. Sign Up Now

What do you think? Is the northern cardinal your favorite? Do you have questions about the cardinal I’ve not addressed? Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!


2 thoughts on “Northern Cardinals: Your Ultimate Guide”

  1. Would like to know why the male cardinal for the past two weeks has been flying towards a large window and what seems that he is trying to come into the house. I have tried to place things around the window to stop this from happening but it seems that it doesn’t help.
    Any suggestions

  2. Hi John! Cardinals and other birds seemingly flying into windows is rather common – especially in spring. Check out this article that explains it all: title=”Why Cardinals Peck on Windows and What to Do About it”>https://www.onthefeeder.com/stop-cardinals-from-attacking-window/

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