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Male cardinals are bright red except for a black mask on their face. Females are light brown or light greenish-brown, with reddish highlights, and do not have a black mask (but parts of their face may be dark). Both males and females have thick, orange-red, cone-shaped bills, a long tail, and a distinctive crest of feathers on the top of their heads. Immature cardinals are similar in appearance to females, but have a gray-black bill.
A medium-sized songbird, the average cardinal is 8-1/4 to 9-1/4 inches long, with males being slightly larger than females.
Cardinals often sit with a hunched-over posture and with the tail pointed straight down.
Distribution and Habitat
Northern cardinals are found throughout eastern and central North America east of the Rocky Mountains, from southern Canada into parts of Mexico and Central America. They have also been introduced to California, Hawaii, and Bermuda. One of the relatively few animal species to benefit from the expansion of urban areas, the northern cardinal has developed a preference for the edges of woods, hedgerows, and vegetation around houses. In fact, changes in habits caused by humans have made more areas available to the cardinal and made it easier for it to survive in colder climates.
Pair formation begins in early spring, and is initiated with a variety of physical displays. The male performs a variety of displays to attract a female, including courtship feeding. Pairs may stay together throughout the winter, but up to 20 percent of pairs split up by the next season.
Breeding pairs usually raise two broods a year, one beginning around March and the second in late May to July. A week or two before the female starts nest-building, she starts to visit possible nest sites with the male following along. The pair call back and forth and hold nesting material in their bills as they assess each site. They prefer dense thickets, but will also use small trees, bushes, shrubs and thick vines that are no more than three to eight feet off the ground. The cup-shaped nest has four layers: coarse twigs (and sometimes bits of trash) covered in a leafy mat, then lined with grapevine bark and finally grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles. Cardinals usually use a new nest for each brood.
Once the nest is completed, the female lays 1 to 5 (usually 3) white to greenish eggs that average about one inch in length and one-half inch in diameter. Incubation begins when the last egg is laid, and is performed solely by the female for 11 to 13 days. The male brings food to the incubating female. The female broods the chicks for the first 2 days. Both parents feed the chicks a diet of insects. The chicks begin leaving the nest 7 to 13 (usually 9 to 10) days after hatching, but the parents will continue to feed them for another 25 to 56 days. After leaving or being driven out of their parents' territory, young birds often join flocks of other juveniles. They may begin breeding the next spring.
Northern cardinals can live up to 15 years or more in the wild.
The vast majority of the northern cardinal's diet consists of weed seeds, grains, insects, fruits, and sunflower seeds. They prefer seeds that are easily husked, but are less selective during winter when food is scarce, and have even been known to feed on carrion.
Northern cardinals are year-round residents throughout their range, and most live within a mile of where they were born.
Cardinals are song birds, and the male uses its call to attract a mate. Unlike most northern songbirds, the female cardinal also sings. Females will often sing from the nest in what may be a call to her mate. Cardinal pairs often have specific song phrases that they share.
Although northern cardinals often form into flocks of a dozen to several dozen birds in the fall and winter, they are aggressively territorial during the breeding season. Once a nesting territory has been established, both sexes will defend it from intruders, and will even attack their own reflections.
During foraging, young birds give way to adults and females tend to give way to males. Cardinals sometimes forage with other species.
They fly somewhat reluctantly on their short, round wings, taking short trips between thickets while foraging.
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This page was last updated on September 25, 2017.