(photo gallery below)
Northern Cardinals are popular songbirds; they are the state bird in seven states: Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Virginia. They get their name from the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church who wear red robes and pointy hats. They are also sometimes called “Redbirds.”
The male Northern Cardinal is an all red bird with a pointed crest and a stout triangular bill. The bill is red and is bordered by a patch of black at the base of the bill. Male Cardinals in the southwest have a bushier crest, larger bills, and have less black on their faces, especially across the forehead. Females are more variable in color. They are a warm brownish color with a reddish-pink bill; their masks are grayer. They have buffy-brown heads with some red in the wings, tail, and crest. Juveniles have a dark gray bill and are similar to the female, but are browner in color. Young males molt into all-red feathers in late summer and their bills turn red.
Range and Habitat
These songbirds are found in eastern North America and southern Canada. They also can be found in the southwestern deserts and into Mexico. They have been introduced into areas of Hawaii. Their habitat is woodland edges, river thickets, desert washes, swamps, streams, and in towns and parks.
Cardinals live within a mile of where they are born. They use their crests as a way to communicate. The crest is raised and lowered when they are frightened, nervous, exited, just resting, or ready to attack. They will tail-flick when threatened. They feed in trees and bushes, but mainly like feeding on the ground. Their beaks are designed for seed cracking, but they also will eat insects, fruit, snails, buds, and nectar. They can be frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders. Both males and females sing spring and summer from perches. Their song is loud and long and sounds like “what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer,” and “birdy, birdy, birdy” repeated. They have a “chip” call. They are non-migratory and do best in areas where there are mild winters. They can be social birds and will gather in flocks which sometimes include other species of birds.
Breeding and Nesting
Males mark their territory with their song. Brighter red males have denser territories, more food, and are able to attract more females than the duller males. When trying to attract a female, a male will puff up his feathers, stretch out his neck, raise his crest, spread his tail, and sway his body from side to side. During courtship the male feeds seeds to the female, tilts his head sideways, and places the seed in her mouth. The pair sings together, matching songs and repeated phrases. Cardinals are very secretive when they are nesting. The nest is built only by the female. It is a bowl of twigs and grass, about 5 feet off the ground in a thicket or bush. The female lays 3-4 eggs and incubates them for 12-13 days. Incubation is done mostly by the female with the male bringing her food while she is on the nest. She sings from the nest telling the male when the chicks need food. Mean while, he protects the nest and his territory. He can be so protective of his territory that he will fight his image in a window for hours! Both adults feed their young. The young can fly in about 20 days. After leaving the nest, the young are taken care of by the male for about 3 weeks. Cardinals may have several broods a year.
In the southwestern desert, the Cardinal may hybridize with its close relative, the Pyrrhuloxia. While the Cardinal has a red to red-orange beak, the Pyrrhuloxia has a more curved whitish beak.