Cardinalis cardinalisnorthern cardinal

Geographic Range

Northern cardinals are native to the Nearctic region. They are found throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada into parts of Mexico and Central America. They have also been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda. Cardinals have expanded their range considerably since the early 1800’s by taking advantage of moderate temperatures, human habitation and supplemental food available at bird feeders. (Halkin and Linville, 1999; Sibley, 2000)


Northern cardinals have a preference for the edges of woods, hedgerows, and vegetation around houses. This may be partially responsible for the increase in their population since the early 1800's. Cardinals also benefit from the large numbers of humans who feed them and other seed-eating birds with backyard bird feeders. Cardinals prefer to build their nests in dense thickets. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

Physical Description

Northern cardinals are medium-sized songbirds. Males 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. Males are slightly larger than females. Males are 22.2 to 23.5 cm long whereas females are 20.9 to 21.6 cm long. The average weight of adult cardinals is 42 to 48 g. Average wingspan length measures 30.5 cm. Immature cardinals are similar in appearance to females, but have a gray-black rather than orange-red bill.

There are 18 subspecies of Cardinalis cardinalis. The majority of these subspecies are distinguished based on the color of the face-mask in females. (Kielb, et al., 1992; Sibley, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    42 to 48 g
    1.48 to 1.69 oz
  • Range length
    20.9 to 23.5 cm
    8.23 to 9.25 in
  • Average wingspan
    30.5 cm
    12.01 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.5163 W


Northern cardinals are serially monogamous, though polygyny occasionally occurs. Despite being monogamous, northern cardinals frequently engage in extra-pair copulations. In one study, 9 to 35% of nestlings were the result of extra-pair copulations. 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. Breeding pairs may remain together year-round, and may breed together for several seasons. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

Northern cardinals breed between March and September. They usually raise two broods a year, one beginning around March and the second in late May to July. The second nest is often parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds. Nests are built by the female in dense tangles of vines or twigs in shrubs and small trees. 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. The male brings food to the incubating female. The eggs hatch after 11 to 13 days of incubation. The female broods the chicks for the first 2 days. Both parents feed the chicks a diet of insects. Both parents also remove fecal sacs from the nest. The chicks begin leaving the nest 7 to 13 (usually 9 to 10) days after hatching. The parents continue to feed the chicks for 25 to 56 days after they fledge from the nest. 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. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Northern cardinals usually raise two broods a year, one beginning around March and the second in late May to July.
  • Breeding season
    Northern cardinals breed between March and September.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    11 to 13 days
  • Range fledging age
    7 to 13 days
  • Average fledging age
    9.5 days
  • Range time to independence
    25 to 56 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

The female northern cardinal builds the nest, incubates the eggs for 11 to 13 days, and broods the altricial chicks for the first 2 days or so. During incubation, the male brings food to the incubating female. Both parents feed the nestlings a diet of insects and remove fecal sacs from the nest. The parents continue to feed the chicks for 25 to 56 days after they fledge from the nest. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female


The oldest wild cardinal banded by researchers lived at least 15 years and 9 months. Annual survival rates for adult northern cardinals have been estimated at 60 to 65%. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)


Northern cardinals are not migratory; they are year-round residents throughout their range. They are active during the day, especially during the morning and evening hours. In winter, most cardinals flock and roost together. During the breeding season, they are quite territorial. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • Average territory size
    0.212 km^2

Home Range

In one study in northern Kentucky, the winter home ranges of northern cardinals were estimated to be about 0.212 square kilometers. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Northern cardinals primarily use vocalizations and physical displays to communicate. Male and female cardinals both sing. Their songs are loud, beautiful whistled phrases. Their songs have been described as sounding like "whoit whoit whoit " and "whacheer whacheer." These songs are used to defend territories and to court mates. Male and female cardinals use "chips" as contact calls and alarms. They also have many visual displays to signal alarm. These include "tail-flicks" and raising and lowering the crest.

Food Habits

About 90% of northern cardinals' 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. According to one observer, a cardinal was seen feeding on a dead black-capped chickadee on a cold snowy day. Northern cardinals also eat some insects and feed their young almost exclusively insects. (Halkin and Linville, 1999; Searles, 1989)

  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


Adult northern cardinals are predated by domestic cats, domestic dogs, Cooper's hawks, loggerhead shrikes, northern shrikes, eastern gray squirrels, long-eared owls and eastern screech-owls. Nestlings and eggs are vulnerable to predation by snakes, birds and small mammals. Egg and nestling predators include milk snakes, black racers, pilot black snakes, blue jays, fox squirrels, red squirrels and eastern chipmunks. Brown-headed cowbirds also remove eggs from the nest, sometimes eating them.

When confronted with a predator near their nest, both male and female northern cardinals will give an alarm call that is a short, chipping note, and fly toward the predator in an attempt to scare them away. They do not aggressively mob predators. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

Ecosystem Roles

Because northern cardinals eat large quantities of seeds and fruits, they may act to disperse seeds for some plants. They may also influence the plant community composition through seed eating.

Northern cardinals provide food for their predators. They also sometimes raise the chicks of brown-headed cowbirds that parasitize their nests, helping local brown-headed cowbird populations. Northern cardinals also host many internal and external parasites.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Northern cardinals affect humans by dispersing seeds and eating insect pests such as boll weevils, cutworms, and caterpillars. They are also an attractive visitor to backyard bird feeders. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of northern cardinals on humans.

Conservation Status

Northern cardinals appear to have increased in number and geographic range over the last 200 years. This is probably the results of increased habitat due to human activities. There are an estimated 100,000,000 individuals worldwide. This species protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)

Other Comments

Northern cardinals are also known as common cardinals, cardinal grosbeaks, red-birds, Virginia nightingales, cardinal-birds, cardinal red-birds, Virginia redbirds, crested redbirds and top-knot redbirds. (Halkin and Linville, 1999)


Tanya Dewey (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, George Hammond (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

Jonathan Crane (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


flesh of dead animals.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


Farrand Jr., J. 1988. Western Birds. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Halkin, S., S. Linville. 1999. Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Pp. 1-32 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 440. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America.

Hickman, C., L. Roberts. 1995. Animal Diversity. Boston: William C. Brown.

Kielb, M., J. Swales, R. Wolinski. 1992. The Birds of Washtenaw County, Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Reiner, L. 1989. High altitude capture of a northern cardinal. North American Bird Bander, 14 (4): 125.

Searles, R. 1989. Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Passenger Pigeon, 51: 236.

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc..