Scientific name: Cardinalis cardinalis
Common name: Northern Cardinal
(Information in this Species Page was compiled by Tim Burg in Spring, 2001
and Mindy Beale in Spring 2004 for Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington)
The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is one of the most
recognized birds of North America. The bright red body feathers and distinctive
black mask of the male and the more subdued but equally elegant olive brown and
red-tinted females stand out clearly in their wide range of preferred habitats.
They are very abundant in the edges of woods and thickets, in open fields, in
suburban yards and gardens, and in a wide variety of urban green spaces.
northern cardinals of both sexes are between 7 and 9 inches long and weigh
between 1.4 and 1.8 ounces. Both sexes have distinctive, feathered head crests,
and stout, orange-red beaks. Immature cardinals have the olive, “female”
plumage. Males will develop their bright-red colorations by their first fall or
winter. Immature cardinals are also easily recognized by their black beaks.
The northern cardinal is found throughout the eastern United States and on south
into Mexico and Central America. Historically, cardinals were most numerous in
the southern portions of their geographic range, but they have been steadily
increasing in numbers in the north and are even expanding their distribution
northward into northern New England and southern Canada. The western boundary of
their range is roughly along a line from the Dakotas to western Texas although
there are cardinal populations in New Mexico, southern Arizona, and California.
The expanding distribution of the northern cardinal has been described by some
as another ecological consequence of global warming. Some researchers, though,
feel that the increasing popular habit of providing birds with seed in feeders
may have allowed this species to survive and thrive in regions previously too
marginal or harsh for their existence. Further, the ongoing fragmentation of
natural forest habitats by human activity and the proliferation of suburban
shrub and conifer plantings have created increasingly abundant “edge” ecosystems
which are greatly favored by this species.
The northern cardinal eats a wide variety of seeds (including those from pine
trees, smartweed, bindweed, foxtail, dock, thistle, chickweed, button weed,
sorrel, and a great variety of grasses), fruits (including grapes, dogwood
fruit, blackberries, cherries, and raspberries), and even the buds of some trees
(including elm and chokecherry). They also eat insects and, in fact, rely almost
exclusively on insects as food for their rapidly growing young. Cardinals are
also very common visitors to backyard bird feeders and avidly consume large
quantities of sunflower seeds. The northern cardinal is not migratory and will
remain even in the most northern parts of its geographic range throughout the
winter especially if it is sustained by human-maintained birdfeeders.
Mating and Reproduction
By early spring, male cardinals have aggressively claimed their territories and
will court and mate with a chosen female. Cardinals are predominately monogamous
and will mate for life. The females build the shallow-cupped nest with some
assistance from the male. Small twigs, strips of bark, grasses, and leaves
gathered by both the male and female are woven together by the female and then
lined with soft grasses and animal hair. Nest building takes between 3 and 9
days to complete. Prime nesting sites are dense bushes and shrubs.
The female lays between 3 and 4 eggs which she then incubates (with only
occasional help from the male) for 12 to 13 days. The hatchlings are blind and
featherless and must continue to be carefully incubated, also predominately by
the female, for many more days. After the eggs hatch, the male enters into a
period of manic food gathering and feeding. The nestlings initially must be fed
3 or 4 time each hour! This rate increases after the third day to up to 8 times
per hour. As mentioned previously, most of the foods gathered for the nestlings
are insects. By the fifth day the nestlings are large enough to swallow and
digest larger food (like grubs etc) and so feeding frequencies (but not
quantity!) can be reduced to 3 or 4 times per hour. The feeding behaviors
displayed by the parents are so intense that cardinals have frequently been
observed compulsively feeding other bird’s nestlings and even other willing
species (including goldfish!).
After 8 days, the young cardinals are nearly the size of the adults. By day
10, they typically make their first flights. A few days after the nestlings
fledge the female leaves the family group and the male takes over the feeding
and nurturing of the young. This nurturing includes teaching the young the great
variety of songs and dialects typified by this species. The parental female
probably goes off to recover from the birth and brooding process and to recover
her strength and weight for the next reproductive event or for the stresses of
the coming winter. Typically, cardinals have two broods in a season: one in the
early spring (March or April) and a second in the summer (June or July).
Life Span and Predation
Northern cardinals are preyed upon by owls, small hawks, and house cats. Their
nests may be raided by chipmunks, blue jays, crows, and a variety of snakes.
Also, cowbirds are common nest parasites, and northern cardinals complete with
catbirds and mockingbirds for nesting sites.
On average, northern cardinals live for 3 years in the wild although several
individuals have had life spans of 13 to 15 years. The longevity record for a
captive northern cardinal is 28 ½ years!