Do Cardinals Mate for Life?

Isn’t it romantic to think animal couples, such as cardinals, mate for life? It’s not like they have more important things to deal with, right? They can find a partner and fly through life happily ever after. I bet they wish that were true.

Do cardinals mate for life?
The simple answer is “Yes, cardinals are predominantly monogamous and generally mate for life”, but the accurate answer is more complicated than that. For example, a female cardinal may choose a different partner from one season to the next or mate with another male other than the one she is currently paired with.

Asking if cardinals mate for life is sort of like asking if humans mate for life. We’d like to think people date one person at a time, marry one person, have one or more kids, and stay together faithfully until the day they die. Sometimes that happens, other times not.

It’s similar for cardinals. While they are predominantly monogamous and generally mate for life, sometimes they engage in shenanigans such as cheat on their partner, choose a different mate, and sometimes get back together.

Actually, it’s not really fair to compare a human and a cardinal’s romantic relationships. Cardinals are animals and when it comes to choosing and staying with a significant other, they have completely different priorities. Their sole concern is successful reproduction – as many healthy offspring as possible.

In order to understand the how and why behind cardinal pairing, we need to understand their mating behavior.

How Cardinals Choose Mates

Each spring the male will choose a territory. The ideal territory is abundant in food options, has the best nesting sites available and protection from predators. This is important because, in order to attract a female, the male needs the best territory he can find.

The male will sing and dance within their territory to attract a female. Apparently he thinks this is attractive – you be the judge:

Next, the female cardinal chooses the male she wants to pair and mate with. Studies indicate the brighter red males are considered better choices. There are several reasons behind this which you can read about in this article: Bright Red Cardinals: Is Red Their Super Power? In general, the brighter male, the better territory, and the better chances for reproduction success.

Female northern cardinal.

Once the female chooses her mate, the rest of the breeding season goes something like this:

  1. The female chooses a nesting site;
  2. She builds the nest;
  3. The pair copulates – a lot;
  4. She lays eggs & incubates them;
  5. The eggs hatch;
  6. The pair feed the nestlings;
  7. The nestlings fledge;
  8. The male continues to feed and nurture the fledglings;
  9. The female scouts for the nest nesting site;
  10. Rinse and repeat.

OK, that’s a condensed version of what really happens. You can check out How to Attract Cardinals which includes a more expanded version of their mating process.

Cardinals are primarily, but not Strictly, monogomous

Male and female cardinals. Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

Like most wild birds, cardinals’ lives revolve around predictable and consistent activities that happen every single year – like clockwork.

  • Spring & Summer: Breed & raise young.
  • Fall: Molt (release old feathers, grow new) and prepare for winter.
  • Winter: Find food, stay away from predators, and overall just survive. Interested in how cardinals survive the winter? Check out How Cardinals Survive Winter & How You Can Help.

Each spring begins with cardinals pair-bonding as described in the previous section (the female chooses her mate). Now, back to the question “Do cardinals mate for life?”. The statement “cardinals are primarily monogamous” doesn’t really answer the question. To explain, let me first define monogamy as it relates to animals.

Monogamy in the animal kingdom is defined as “pair bonding between a male and female, which exclusively mate with one another, raise offspring together and spend time together”.

National Science Foundation

If we examine a couple of pair-bonding scenarios and relate them back to the question “Do cardinals mate for life?” and the answer pertaining to monogamy, I think you’ll understand why it’s not cut and dry.

Scenario 1: Female Cardinal Chooses the Same Male Every Year

The typical scenario is the female chooses the same male every year. This is especially the case for older cardinals. The female again chooses the same male, who continues to defend the same territory, and they mate.

In this scenario, “Are the cardinals mating for life?” Yes – as far as we know. “Are the pair monogamous?” Yes – as far as we know.

Scenario 2: Female Cardinal Chooses a Different Male Than Prior Year

While older cardinals will often continue to pair with previous years’ partners, it’s not always the case. If the female wasn’t impressed with the reproduction and/or parenting abilities of last year’s partner, she may seek out a better quality male. Although this is not the norm, it does happen.

In this scenario, “Are the cardinals mating for life?” No – she had a previous partner. “Are the pair monogamous?” Yes. The new season brings a new opportunity to choose a mate to be monogamous with.

Scenario 3: Female Cardinal Chooses The Same Male But She is Unfaithful

A study conducted at the University of Kentucky by researchers Gary Ritchison, Paul H. Klatt, and David F. Westneat, entitled Mate Guarding and Extra-Pair Paternity in Northern Cardinals, revealed that female cardinals have been unfaithful on occasion. DNA testing of cardinal offspring from the same brood confirmed different fathers. This can only mean one thing – she was unfaithful! However, this is not the norm. The study calculated a 13.5% instance of extra-pair fertilization.

In this scenario, “Are the cardinals mating for life?” Yes – as far as we know. “Are the pair monogamous?” No. Lady cardinal cheated.

What about the male cardinal – does he cheat? I cannot tell a lie. I’ve found no scientific evidence that a paired male cheats on his partner.

What happens if a cardinal mate dies?

The next logical question is, what happens if a cardinal mate dies? Remember, the bird’s primary objective in life is to reproduce, so if their mate dies they will find a new one. Wish I had more to say on this matter but it’s that simple.

So, while humans may think of our partners in terms of love, romance, and marriage, cardinals consider their bond serious business. While we ask “Do cardinals mate for life?”, the cardinals ask “will this mate provide lots of thriving babies?”. They’re animals after all and it’s strictly a matter of reproduction success.

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Tammy Poppie

More than 20 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her back yard (and repel others). In her free time, she can be found in nature kayaking, hiking, and biking always hoping to see a bird in the wild.