Bright Red Cardinals: Is Red Their Super Power?

There is no mistaking a male northern cardinal sighting. They have bright, vibrant red all over, black faces, bring orange beaks. There are so many other wild birds out there that are lovely, pretty, and even beautiful but few so breathtaking as the male cardinal.

If you’re curious like me you might wonder “why is the male northern cardinal this amazing, bright red color?”. Followed by many more questions about the red male cardinal.

With the support of scientific studies and my hero, Gary Ritchison, Wildlife Biologist and author, I’ll answer these questions.  

Throughout this article, I will reference the red color as either “bright” or “dull” as a way to identify the red quality I’m talking about. To be honest, even the “dullest” of male northern cardinals is still a sight to behold!

Skip ahead if you’re dying to know the answer to a particular question.

Why do male cardinals have bright Red coloring?

A front look at the male northern cardinal looking badass
Male northern cardinal. Photo by AJ Small.

The primary reason the male cardinal is red, or any red bird for that matter, is their diet. For you science nerds out there, the red color comes from “carotenoid” pigments. Carotenoids can only be obtained from food – the bird cannot make it.

Carotenoids are available in many different types of foods but especially those that are orange or red. For the northern cardinal, the foods they’re known to consume that contain carotenoids include wild grapes, dogwood fruits, blackberries, and raspberries.

When the cardinal molts its old feathers (which is an annual event) they simultaneously grow new feathers. During this time scientists believe the bird’s diet – quality and quantity of carotenoids – determines how bright or dull their feathers will be. (Similar experimentation with male house finches proved this to be true).

Are Brighter Red Northern Cardinals Healthier?

No. The bright or dullness of red the male cardinal displays does not correlate with its health. Their red coloration is determined by how much of their diet included foods that contain the carotenoid pigment.

This was verified by a team of researchers from the Ohio State University who discovered the bird’s health/condition was not related to their color. What the researchers at Ohio State University learned:

Even though urban birds consumed more bird seed, vs. carotenoid rich foods, they sported duller red feather but were healthier than their rural counterparts who sported a bright red plumage yet consumed a lot of honeysuckle, a food rich in carotenoids.

Ohio State University

A bird’s health is determined by the quality of its diet and carotenoids are clearly part of its diet but not all of its diet. In fact, a diet of only carotenoids would be of very poor quality. Like most wild birds, cardinals require a diverse, varied diet of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to be healthy.

Benefits of being Red

Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

According to a study published in Behavioral Ecology, the brighter red male cardinals do have benefits when they sport a brighter plumage. They’re able to secure better territories and attract better-quality females.

Brighter Red Male Cardinals Get Better Territories

Interacting with other male northern cardinals birds is a fact of life for a male northern cardinal. They have to establish a territory in which to attract a mate, nest, and raise their young. The prime territory has ideal foraging opportunities (more food and water) as well as greater protection from predators (more dense shrubs).

Sometimes there are disputes with other male cardinals over territories. In the end, only one bird will win the northern cardinal territory, which leaves at least one loser. The study showed that brighter male cardinals were able to secure better territories than their duller counterparts.

If you’re interested in baby cardinals, check out my article Baby Cardinal Facts from Egg to Fledgling which reveals all.

Brighter Red Male Cardinals Attract More Ladies

Researchers have known for a while now that female wild birds’ prefer males that sport attractive plumage – in this case female northern cardinals prefer brighter red males.

The study from Behavioral Ecology further showed the females that selected the brighter males were “early breeding” females and in the end, the pair wound up having better reproductive success over the duller males (and presumably later breeding females).

Is there an advantage for a female cardinal to choose a brightly colored male as her mate?

Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.

Yes. Brighter red cardinal males produce more offspring in a breeding season, a fact revealed in the Behavioral Ecology, so female cardinals that choose a bright red male have the reproductive advantage. This is likely due to a circle of events that start with the brighter red male landing the best territory, then the early breeding female choosing the brighter red male, followed by the pair breeding earlier thus having a longer breeding season thus laying more eggs and raising more young who have the greatest chances of survival due to the high-quality territory.

This is especially important for northern cardinals as they have a terrible survival rate. I talk about this in-depth in this article: 7 Proven Ways to Attract Northern Cardinals to Your Yard – Guaranteed!

Why are some male cardinal birds brighter red than others?

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

Some male northern cardinals are bright red, others are duller in color. Their coloration is derived from a pigment called carotenoids which comes from foods that contain this pigment. The foods cardinals are known to eat which contain carotenoids include wild grapes, dogwood fruit, blackberries, and raspberries. The more of these foods they consume, especially when molting old feathers and growing new, the brighter red their plumage will be.

Does the Brightness of Male Cardinal’s Red color help it get food?

No. There is no evidence to suggest the bright vs dull red color of a male cardinal is correlated with the quantity or quality of food they find. It simply means the brighter red male cardinals likely had more carotenoid-containing foods available to them.

Do cardinals lose their color as they age?

No. There is no evidence to suggest male cardinals lose their red color as they get older. Their red color is determined by their diet. The more carotenoid-rich foods they consume, the brighter red their plumage will be and vice versa.

Why would a red cardinal lose their red color?

During a season where the male cardinal has consumed fewer foods that contain the carotenoid pigment, their new fall feathers will be a duller red color. (Each fall cardinals molt, or lose, their feathers and grow new ones).

Cardinals that are sick with “feather parasites” or some other disease can lose their feathers giving the appearance of a loss of red. If they recover the feathers will grow back.

Don’t Judge a Male Cardinal by His Color

Male cardinals with bright red feathers have all the power – a superpower that is. They are the most handsome among their peers, they get more ladies, produce more babies, and are most admired by humans. Next time you see a male cardinal with a duller red appearance remember it’s not their fault. It’s not a judgment of their character, it just means they didn’t eat enough red and orange food.

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More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers. Read more about Tammy