Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis

The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They're a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can't take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don't migrate and they don't molt into a dull plumage, so they're still breathtaking in winter's snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.

Interesting Information

  • Only a few female North American songbirds sing, but the female Northern Cardinal does, and often while sitting on the nest. This may give the male information about when to bring food to the nest. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male.

  • Many people are perplexed each spring by the sight of a cardinal attacking its reflection in a window, car mirror, or shiny bumper. Both males and females do this, and most often in spring and early summer when they are obsessed with defending their territory against any intruders. Birds may spend hours fighting these intruders without giving up. A few weeks later, as levels of aggressive hormones subside, these attacks should end (though one female kept up this behavior every day or so for six months without stopping).

  • The male cardinal fiercely defends its breeding territory from other males. When a male sees its reflection in glass surfaces, it frequently will spend hours fighting the imaginary intruder.

  • A perennial favorite among people, the Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven states.

  • The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was 15 years 9 months old.


Adult Description

Size & Shape

The Northern Cardinal is a fairly large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. Cardinals often sit with a hunched-over posture and with the tail pointed straight down.

  • Weight: 45 g (1.6 oz)

  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)

Color Pattern

Male cardinals are brilliant red all over, with a reddish bill and black face immediately around the bill. Females are pale brown overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. They have the same black face and red-orange bill.


Photo taken from: The Sibley Field Guide by David Allen Sibley

© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Look for Northern Cardinals in dense shrubby areas such as forest edges, overgrown fields, hedgerows, backyards, marshy thickets, mesquite, regrowing forest, and ornamental landscaping. Cardinals nest in dense foliage and look for conspicuous, fairly high perches for singing. Growth of towns and suburbs across eastern North America has helped the cardinal expand its range northward.


Northern Cardinals hop through low branches and forage on or near the ground. Cardinals commonly sing and preen from a high branch of a shrub. The distinctive crest can be raised and pointed when agitated or lowered and barely visible while resting. You typically see cardinals moving around in pairs during the breeding season, but in fall and winter they can form fairly large flocks of a dozen to several dozen birds. During foraging, young birds give way to adults and females tend to give way to males. Cardinals sometimes forage with other species, including Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, other sparrow species, Tufted Titmice, goldfinches, and Pyrrhuloxias. They fly somewhat reluctantly on their short, round wings, taking short trips between thickets while foraging. Pairs may stay together throughout winter, but up to 20 percent of pairs split up by the next season.


Northern Cardinals eat mainly seeds and fruit, supplementing these with insects (and feeding nestlings mostly insects). Common fruits and seeds include dogwood, wild grape, buckwheat, grasses, sedges, mulberry, hackberry, blackberry, sumac, tulip-tree, and corn. Cardinals eat many kinds of birdseed, particularly black oil sunflower seed. They also eat beetles, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers, cicadas, flies, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, and moths.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Cardinalidae
Genus: Cardinalis
Species: Cardinalis cardinalis
    Subspecies: Cardinalis cardinalis affinis
  Cardinalis cardinalis canicaudus
  Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis
  Cardinalis cardinalis carneus
  Cardinalis cardinalis clintoni
  Cardinalis cardinalis coccineus
  Cardinalis cardinalis flammiger
  Cardinalis cardinalis floridanus
  Cardinalis cardinalis igneus
  Cardinalis cardinalis littoralis
  Cardinalis cardinalis magnirostris
  Cardinalis cardinalis mariae
  Cardinalis cardinalis phillipsi
  Cardinalis cardinalis saturatus
  Cardinalis cardinalis seftoni
  Cardinalis cardinalis sinaloensis
  Cardinalis cardinalis superbus;
  Cardinalis cardinalis townsendi
  Cardinalis cardinalis yucatanicus

Similar Species

Pyrrhuloxias are grayer than female Northern Cardinals and have a more rounded, yellow bill without the black face. Female Phainopeplas lack any redness to their plumage and have much more slender bills.

  • Male Scarlet Tanagers have jet-black wings.

  • Male Summer Tanagers lack the male cardinal's crest and have a longer, straighter bill.

  • Canyon, California and Abert's towhees lack the female cardinal's reddish tinges as well as its crest.

Bird Sound

"whoit cheer, whoit cheer, cheer-cheer-cheer; cheer, whoit-whoit-whoit-whoit; wheat-wheat-wheat-wheat", "bir-dy,bir-dy,bir-dy,bir-dy"

Eggs look like this

Photo taken from: ARCTOS Collaborative Collection Management Solution