Bird of the Week: Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinals are one of the most popular birds in North America, and many people confess that the Cardinal is the bird that got them started in birding. They do not migrate, so we enjoy their company year-round. They are popular wherever they live, and they are the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. Some believe that when you see a cardinal, you’re being visited by a loved one who has passed on.

I love to photograph birds, and I have more photos of Northern Cardinals than any other bird. Their plumage is beautiful, males often perch atop trees (which provides great photo composition), and they are bold and curious, so they will appear quickly when you’re on a bird walk. They prefer dense areas of growth such as forest edges, thickets, and ornamental landscaping.

You can easily attract them to your backyard feeder, and they are especially partial to sunflower seeds. They visit my backyard feeder probably more than any other birds, and they tend to hide among the bushes and forage for seed on the ground. During mating and nesting season, you may find them attacking their reflection in your windows or your car’s rearview mirror. They are extremely territorial and raise their crest when agitated.

During breeding season, they spend most of their time with their mate – the male will often feed the female as part of pair bonding. The female determines the nesting site after making a tour of possible locations with the male accompanying her. She is also the primary nest builder, although the male will bring her nesting materials. She builds a four-layer nest: coarse twigs with leafy mat layered over it lined with grapevine bark then topped with grasses, stems, and pine needles. It takes her up to 9 days to build the nest with the final product being two to three inches tall and four inches across. Once nesting season is over, they will abandon the nest and build a new one the following year.

The female lays up to 5 eggs that will incubate up to two weeks before hatching. The nesting pair will generally raise one to two broods per season. The nestling will remain in the nest up to two weeks before venturing out to forage.

After breeding season is over, Norther Cardinals may molt, often losing all their head feathers at once. Although it gives them a sickly (and what has to be an embarrassing) appearance, they are fine. Their new feathers will come in, and they’ll be handsome once more.

Fun fact: the “Cardinal” in this bird’s name was inspired by the similarity of the bird’s color to the robes and caps worn by cardinals in the Roman Catholic church. A group of Northern Cardinals is often referred to as a college, a conclave, or a Vatican.


Compiled by Lisa S. Graham.  Sources include All About Birds (Cornell) and Audubon Field Guide.

Photo credit:  Lisa S. Graham