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.

Cool Facts

Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
  • 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.


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.

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.

Range Map
Taxonomic Hierarchy


© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Cardinalidae
Genus: Cardinalis
Species: Cardinalis cardinalis
  • 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
"whoit cheer, whoit cheer, cheer-cheer-cheer; cheer, whoit-whoit-whoit-whoit; wheat-wheat-wheat-wheat", "bir-dy,bir-dy,bir-dy,bir-dy"

Identification and Information
See Anatomy of a Bird
  • Weight: 45 g (1.6 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: Red
  • Underparts: Red
  • Upperparts: Red
  • Back Pattern: Solid
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: Cone
  • Eye Color: Deep brown, sometimes appearing black.
  • Head Pattern: Plain, Masked, Crested or plumed
  • Crown Color: Red
  • Forehead Color: Red
  • Nape Color: Red
  • Throat Color: Red and black.
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Alternates several rapid wing beats with wings pulled to sides., Short flight just above vegetation or below canopy.
  • Wingspan Range: 25-30 cm (10-12 in)
  • Wing Shape: Rounded-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Rounded Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Streaked
  • Upper Tail: Red
  • Under Tail: Red
  • Leg Color: Gray
  • Breeding Location: Bushes, shrubs, and thickets, Grasslands
  • Breeding Type: Solitary nester
  • Breeding Population: Abundant
  • Egg Color: Green, blue or gray with purple and brown marks
  • Number of Eggs: 3 - 4
  • Incubation Days: 12 - 13
  • Egg Incubator: Female
  • Nest Material: Twigs, weeds, grass, bark strips, and leaves., Lined with hair and grass.
  • Migration: Nonmigratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down, eyes closed, clumsy.

Other Names

Similar Species

  • Cardinal rouge (French)
  • Cardenal rojo, Cardenal norteño, Cardenal común (Spanish)
  • 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.

Conservation Status

Populations are generally in good shape. The expansion of people and their backyards over the last two centuries has been good for cardinals. However, habitat loss in southeastern California, at the edge of the cardinal’s range, may cause the disappearance of the cardinal population there.


Sources used to Construct this Page:

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.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
  • Halkin, Sylvia L. and Susan U. Linville. 1999. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Longevity Records:
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.
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.

Adult Male

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Additional Photos & Video

Adult Male

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Adult Female

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All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.

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