Why do Cardinals Have a Short Lifespan? 6 Reasons + How You Can Help

Author: Tammy Poppie
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a northern cardinal perched on shepherd's hook

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Why do Cardinals Have a Short Lifespan? 6 Reasons + How You Can Help

Author: Tammy Poppie
Reviewed by:
a northern cardinal perched on shepherd's hook

This post contains affiliate links, and we will be compensated if you buy after clicking on our links.

Why do cardinals have a short lifespan? This article explores the many reasons for their shortened life as well as ways we can help them live longer. Or at least not cut their lives short due to human intervention.

The northern cardinal is a beautiful and beloved songbird so it’s sad to know they don’t live long enough for us to get to fully appreciate them.

So what are the factors that affect a northern cardinal’s (Cardinalis cardinalis) lifespan? Well, there are many. They range all the way from predation to window collisions and everything in between.

Understanding this majestic bird’s short lifespan starts now – let’s go!

The Average Northern Cardinal Lifespan

The average lifespan of wild cardinals is anywhere from three to five years. However, some birds have been recorded to live up to 15 years in the wild.

In captivity, these birds typically enjoy longer lifespans since they have consistent access to food and water, a temperature-controlled environment, and protection from their predators.

The Oldest Northern Cardinal Lifespan

According to the Cornell Lab, a female cardinal in Pennsylvania lived to be 15 years and 9 months in the wild.

The record for the oldest cardinal in captivity is 28 ½ years!

Factors that Influence the Cardinal Lifespan

Many factors influence how long a cardinal will live in its natural habitat, including the availability of food and water, natural predators, the safety of its habitat, disease, and human interference in the form of window collisions.

1. Food Availability

The availability of food is one of the most important factors that influence the lifespan of a cardinal bird. Without access to a sufficient amount of food, these birds won’t survive for long.

Cardinals primarily feed on seeds and insects, so they need regular access to these food sources in order to stay alive.

They rely on natural foods such as chickweed seeds and pine tree seeds to survive. These food sources provide nutrients essential for the long-term health of the cardinals and help them endure harsh northern climates.

If there is lots of food around, they can stay healthy and live a long time because they get all the nutrition they need.

2. Water Availability

Having access to clean water is needed to extend their life expectancy – or at least not cut it short.

Water helps cardinals stay hydrated and is one way they’re able to keep their feathers clean and in top condition.

Fresh water can become scarce in times of extreme temperatures – especially in warmer climates. All it takes is one heat wave to evaporate the water leaving birds extremely vulnerable to dehydration. 

The same is true for winter time – especially in northern climates. Much of the water is frozen leaving none to drink. The birds cannot survive for too long if these conditions.

3. Predation

A key factor to the cardinal’s short lifespan is predation.

They’re common targets for predators including hawks, owls, and other prey birds. Especially when you consider the male cardinal’s bright red coloration makes it a challenge to hide.

They also face significant challenges from domestic cats which includes pets, strays, and even feral cats.

According to a study published in Nature Communications, almost 4 billion wild birds are killed by domestic cats a year. While it’s not known how many of those birds were cardinals, it’s safe to assume it’s a lot.

Predation affects young as well as adult birds. It’s heartbreaking to think of vulnerable cardinal eggs and babies as easy prey during the breeding season. While moms instinctively choose nest sites that provide ample vegetation for camouflage, it’s not always enough. Eggs and young cardinals are stolen from the nest by snakes, raccoons, larger birds, and other wildlife.

4. Habitat Safety

Another factor that contributes to the cardinal’s short lifespan is how safe its habitat and environment are.

Cardinals prefer living in wooded areas with plenty of trees and shrubs where they can find shelter and protection from predators. If they’re living in an area with limited resources or too much human interference, then their lifespan may be shortened due to a lack of nutrition or increased stress levels caused by environmental changes.

Another important factor that influences their lifespan is their habitat. If they have access to safe places to nest and rest, they will be less likely to fall prey to predators or succumb to environmental stressors such as extreme temperatures or storms.

Additionally, having plenty of vegetation around provides shelter from predators, offers more opportunities for finding food sources, and makes ideal nesting sites.

Adults have a survival rate of 60% from one year to another.

5. Disease

Another factor that contributes to the cardinal’s short lifespan is disease.

Cardinals are fairly resistant to most diseases, but there are a few that can significantly reduce their lifespan if left untreated. The most common diseases increasing adult mortality in these birds include Salmonellosis, Newcastle Disease Avian Pox, Avian Conjunctivitis, Avian Cholera, and fungal diseases.


Salmonellosis is an illness caused by Salmonella bacteria. This bacterial infection can be spread to humans, birds, and other animals. In severe cases, the illness can lead to death in both humans and animals.

Cardinals are susceptible to salmonellosis as are all songbirds. Infected birds may suffer from drastic weight-loss due to lack of appetite or egg production failure if the female is infected.

Premature death is even a possibility for young birds as they lack the immunity to fight it. 

Newcastle Disease

Newcastle Disease is caused by a virus and can have serious impacts on the bird’s health, including respiratory difficulties, reproductive problems, and even death in some cases. Infection occurs primarily through contact with contaminated water or soil and can spread quickly among birds in areas with large flocks.

Avian Pox

Avian Pox is a type of skin disease caused by a virus that causes growths to form around the face, feet, beak, or wings of infected birds. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of balance, weight loss, respiratory issues, and excessive thirst.

cardinal with avian pox disease
Cardinal with avian pox. Photo by David Aber.

There is no cure for this disease but the disease can be managed through treatments such as supportive care and dietary changes.

Avian Conjunctivitis

Avian Conjunctivitis is an infection of the eye found in many species of birds, including northern cardinals. This can be caused by bacteria, a fungal infection, or other agents that irritate the eye and cause it to become inflamed or swollen. Infection often results in discharge from one or both eyes. The condition also causes redness due to blood vessels expanding in response to irritation.

YouTube video

Avian Conjunctivitis can have a severe effect on the lifespan of northern cardinals. It affects their sight, which may prevent them from finding food or avoiding predators and obstacles. If left untreated, it can lead to ulceration of the eye tissue due to infection or abrasion, which ultimately can result in permanent blindness or even the death of the bird.

Avian cholera

Avian cholera is a highly contagious bacterial disease that affects many birds including wild and captive species, caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida.

Northern cardinals are vulnerable to Avian cholera due to a lack of pre-existing immunity. This deadly bacterial infection breeds rapidly in crowded, unsanitary conditions, spreading through contact and ingestion of contaminated food or water.

This exposure is further worsened when combined with human-contributed factors such as habitat loss.

Fungal diseases

Fungal diseases are infectious agents caused by fungi that can affect any organism, including northern cardinals. These diseases are typically spread through contact with spores and can quickly become fatal if untreated.

Northern cardinals can be infected via direct or indirect contact with spores in the environment or from other birds, resulting in organ damage, growths on the skin, feather loss, and other serious health issues.

If left untreated, these fungal infections have the potential to be fatal for northern cardinals.

6. Window Collisions

Female cardinal attacking a car window
A female cardinal sees her reflection in a car window and goes on the offensive. Photo by Bobby Glenn Lanier.

Many people are surprised to learn a substantial threat to the cardinal’s lifespan is window collisions.

When cardinals collide with windows or fly into glass doors, it can render them stunned or injured for a few hours. 

Some birds attempt to fly away afterward but are unable to due to the extent of their injuries. As a result, they die slowly as predators come in search of an easy meal.

And those that manage to survive the impact remain and even fly away, eventually succumbing to their injuries

When Cardinal’s lives are most vulnerable

During the breeding and nesting season, cardinals are particularly vulnerable to a range of risks. As their reliance on the nesting site increases, so does their exposure to the dangers that come with it.

Mating pairs

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

Male and female cardinals are especially vulnerable in spring when they’re forming pairs and mating because this is when there’s a high amount of aggression.

Males are competing for territories and mates. Females are protecting their nests and young.

In either case, the birds are at high risk of serious injury or even death. 

As mentioned earlier, window collisions are a key cause of death for these birds. When they get a glimpse of themselves in the window it can be mistaken for another bird. Even in these circumstances the birds may become injured or killed (yes, fighting against themselves!)


Cardinal nestlings 6 days old
Cardinal nestlings 6 days old. Photo by Pamela Jean.

Nestlings in particular, who are unable to fly or scavenge for food are at the mercy of predators such as crows, mammals, and snakes.

To protect their young, adults may place themselves between a predator and their nest giving them less time to feed and leaving them open to hunger and exhaustion.

Additionally, during these times adults need access to high-caloric foods as they produce more energy when brooding; if food is scarce survival is threatened.  


Male juvenile cardinal
Male juvenile cardinal. Photo by Keith Calhoun.

Juvenile cardinals are particularly vulnerable because they lack the experience and knowledge of adult cardinals in escaping predators. Most of the younger birds cannot identify potential threats and cannot accurately determine when danger is present.

Also, their lack of ability to fly quickly away from danger leaves them exposed as easy targets for predators.

Juvenile birds rely on their parents for nutrition and protection, meaning that if one or both parents are killed, the juvenile becomes orphaned which places them at an increased risk of mortality.

Ways You Can Help Cardinals Live Longer

Helping cardinals live longer is really about avoiding the things that contribute to the cardinal’s shortened life. In other words, many factors that affect their lifespan are out of our control. We can help them by taking action on things that are within our control including.

Let’s explore in more detail…

Setup a Bird Feeder

These birds are common backyard visitors. You can help them when food is scarce – especially in winter, by setting up a bird feeder.

female cardinal perched on platform bird feeder
Female cardinal on platform feeder. Photo taken by Tammy Poppie.

It can be as simple as hanging a platform feeder from a tree branch or as elaborate as a bird feeding station with multiple feeders.

They’ll eat most types of bird seed, although black-oil sunflower seed is one of their favorites. In addition they’ll also eat include:

  • Safflower seed (I love to offer safflower because squirrels and house sparrows usually don’t like it)
  • Striped Sunflower seed (their beaks are no match for cracking these big touch seeds)
  • Mealworms
  • Peanuts (out of the shell)
  • Suet

Offer Water

All birds need fresh water to drink and bathe in, cardinals are no different. Be sure to refresh the water every few days – or more frequently in the heat of summer.

Keep Your Bird Feeders and Birdbaths Clean

Do your part to prevent the spread of bird diseases by cleaning feeders and baths regularly.

Many of the avian illnesses mentioned earlier do not show obvious signs that the bird is sick. That’s why it’s especially crucial to keep your feeders and baths clean. You never know when a sick bird has visited.

Feeders and birdbaths should be properly cleaned at least every 2 weeks with a 1:9 bleach/water solution.

Go organic

Bird feeder food is great but birds prefer natural food such as insects especially in spring and summer when feeding their young.

When you spray fertilizer and plant killers around your yard you kill off the insects and plants. Go organic and those plants will grow to offer much needed seeds and attract the insects they rely on.

Keep Bird feeder stations at a safe distance

To help prevent window collisions place your bird feeders at a safe distance. A distance shorter than 3′ or further than 30′ from your windows is ideal.

In addition, put decals on your windows to break the reflection of themselves which can put them in fight mode.

Don’t linger around their nests

If you find a cardinal nest in one of your trees or shrubs, try not to linger around it. Doing so could alert your dog, cat, or even other wildlife that some tasty nestlings are inside. 

Keep Kitty Inside

Keeping cats indoors helps too – we should keep our fuzzy friends safe inside where they can still be just as happy without disrupting nature’s fragile balance.

If there are feral cats around, implement a non-toxic deterrent method such as scattered fresh orange or lemon peels in the area.

If you’re really gung ho, consider trapping the feral feline and taking it to a human society that offers free neutering/spaying. This may prevent the next person from having to deal with a feral cat harassing the cardinals in their yard.


Northern cardinals aren’t the only cardinal species. If you’re wondering how long other bird species live, read on…

How long do desert cardinals live?

The Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus), often referred to as the desert cadinal, has an average life expectancy of 8-9 years. However, the longest recorded lifespan of any species of desert cardinal was 16 years in the wild and 21 years in captivity.

Male pyrrhuloxia sitting on the edge of a feeder
Male pyrrhuloxia – also known as the desert cardinal. Photo by Tina Glidden.

Pyrrhuloxias thrive in semi-arid or desert habitats such as scrublands, dry forests, and grasslands with some amount of water. These areas provide them with the necessary resources for food and protection from potential predators.

Predators that may target these birds include larger birds such as hawks, as well as mammals like cats or coyotes. To survive these threats, they use their high agility and swiftness to make quick escapes – a favorable trait to have in harsh environments such as deserts!

How long do red-crested cardinals live?

Red-crested cardinals (Paroaria coronata) have an average lifespan of 7 years in the wild. The oldest recorded red-crested cardinal lived to be 11 years old.

They typically inhabit open fields, lakeshores, and other grassland areas and can also be found in urban parks, gardens, bushy residential areas, and woodlands.

They often build their nests in shrubs or trees close to the ground for protection from predators such as hawks and snakes. Predators present a significant mortality threat for the species, making it difficult for the red-crested cardinal population to thrive at times.

How long do vermilion cardinals live?

Vermillion cardinals (Cardinalis phoeniceus) are small songbirds native to southern South America. On average, they live for around three to four years in the wild. The longest known lifespan for a vermillion cardinal recorded in the wild is eleven years; however, captive birds may have longer lifespans of up to fifteen years.

These birds prefer to inhabit marshy areas and edges of dense forests near bodies of water like lakes and streams. They typically build their nests close to the ground from leaves and small twigs. Common predators of this bird include hawks, other large birds, snakes, and mammals like cats and skunks.

To protect themselves, these birds often form flocks that can easily be dispersed in multiple directions if threatened by a predator.


Northern cardinals have a lifespan of around 3-5 years on average in the wild. Female northern cardinals typically live slightly longer than males.

Factors that affect their lifespans include predation, diseases, availability of food & water, window collisions, and more.

Humans have little control over how long these birds live, but we do have some. For example, we can ensure proper cleaning of our feeders and birdbaths to prevent the spread of disease. We can also offer food and fresh water during winter when these resources are scarce.

Placing feeders away from our home’s windows help reduce window collisions that can lead to the untimely death of these birds. We can also stop using so many poisonous fertilizers and weed killers in our yards so native plants and insects are able to flourish and feed the bird naturally.

We can’t control everything but we owe it to our feathered friends to take steps to help them when we can – especially where human intervention is concerned.

Happy Birding!

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