Northern Cardinal

Photo Credit: Bill Horn

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Cardinalis cardinalis

DESCRIPTION:   Northern cardinals are a medium-sized songbird well known for their brilliant red coloration and beautiful songs. Males are nearly all brilliant red in color with a coral red, conical shaped bill that is surrounded by a black mask. Legs and feet of the cardinal are reddish black and their wings are short and rounded. Cardinals also have a long tail and a distinctive crest of feathers that adorns the top of their heads. Approximate length is eight to nine inches and average weight of adult cardinals is one to two ounces. The female cardinal is a buff brown with red on their crest, wings, and tail. The bill of the female is also surrounded by a black mask. Immature cardinals resemble the female, but have a gray-black rather than a coral red bill.
DISTRIBUTION:   The northern cardinal can be found throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada to Mexico and Central America. Northern cardinals are not migratory; they are year round residents throughout their range.
HABITAT: Typical habitat for the northern cardinal includes woodland edges and clearings, brushy areas, thickets, riparian woodlands, parks, suburban gardens, and residential areas.
FEEDING HABITS: The northern cardinal diet consists of a variety of seeds, grains, insects, leaf buds, berries, and fruit. Up to one third of the cardinals summer diet can be insects with the winter diet consisting mostly of large seeds. Young cardinals are fed a diet consisting largely of insects.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:   Northern cardinal pair formation begins in early spring with a variety of physical displays. The male cardinal performs a variety of displays in order to attract a mate. Breeding pairs may remain together throughout the year and may breed together for several seasons. Northern cardinals are socially monogamous, though polygyny occasionally occurs. The breeding season begins in March and continues to September. Nest construction is completed by the female who then lays one to five greenish-white eggs. Incubation begins and is performed solely by the female. The male cardinal is responsible for bringing food to the incubating female. Cardinal eggs hatch after 11 to 13 days of incubation and are then fed by the male and female a diet consisting mostly of insects. The chicks leave the nest 7 to 13 days after hatching and continue to be fed by the male and female for up to 56 days. Juveniles are often pushed out of their parent’s territory and often join flocks of other juveniles. These juveniles will begin breeding the following spring. In the 1800’s, northern cardinals were highly valued for their color and song that led to widespread trapping in the south in the winter and sent to northern markets for use as cage birds. Passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 ended this trade and the use of cardinals as caged pets.  The current range of the northern cardinal is expanding to the northeast due to moderate temperatures and an abundance of supplemental food sources available in backyard bird feeders.
AUTHOR: Chris Jaworoski, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, September 2006

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