Master Gardener: Northern cardinals cast a bright color against white winter
Skip to Main Content

Master Gardener: Northern cardinals cast a bright color against white winter

Dec 18, 2018

The northern cardinal is one of the most recognized songbirds and is a bright, cheery sight on a snowy, winter day. The bright red male certainly stands out against the white snow, and his feathers gleam in the sunlight. Maybe that is why cardinals frequently grace the front of Christmas cards and are used in other holiday décor. Or maybe it’s just because cardinals are red and red is a Christmas color. Whatever the reason, we are fortunate to have cardinals in our backyard year-round, as seeing one is sure to brighten your day.

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the state bird for Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio. It is not a migratory bird. In years past, cardinals were more common in the southeast U.S. and not so common farther north. They have managed to expand their range over the past few decades into the northeastern U.S. and even parts of Canada. Winter birdfeeders stocked with sunflower seed and its ability to adapt to parks and the suburbs may have helped it move north.

If you have cardinals visit your yard or bird feeders, you are likely to see more than one in the winter, as they may form fairly large flocks. It is quite a sight to have a dozen male cardinals under your feeder at one time. During the spring and summer, the crowds disperse, and you typically will see only one or two as they form breeding pairs. Both the male and female may seem obsessed with protecting their chosen territory during breeding season. They are known for attacking windows, car mirrors or anything shiny that they see their reflection in as they think it is a rival. They may keep this annoying behavior up for weeks on end.

Male cardinals are certainly handsome with their bright red feathers and black face mask. Apparently, the females think so, too. According to Cornell’s Birds of North America Online, brighter males have higher reproductive success, hold better territories and offer more parental care. The intensity of a cardinal’s redness is related to what he has been eating. When a female sees a bright red male, she knows that he is healthy and likely can hold a suitable territory. Rather than bright red, the female goes with muted colors, a dull reddish olive. This gives her and the nest some protective camouflage as she can blend in with her surroundings.

Northern cardinals have a varied diet, eating mainly fruits and seeds, including weed and grass seeds, dogwood berries, wild grapes, mulberry, hackberry, blackberry and sumac. Cardinals will come to bird feeders, especially for sunflower seeds. They also eat plenty of insects and nestlings have a diet of mainly bugs.

If you want to encourage cardinals to nest in your back yard, you need a spot that may look a little messy to humans. While they are habitat generalists cardinals like dense shrubs, vines or trees. They usually make their nests 1 to 15 feet above the ground. While the male may bring some supplies, the female is in charge of building the cup-shaped nest which is made of twigs, strips of bark and grass. She will line it with leaves, grass, or even hair. It can take 3 to 9 days to build the nest which they use once.

Cardinals typically have two broods in a season. They may have one in early spring and a second in the summer. The female lays two to five eggs, which are whitish to pale bluish or greenish-white, marked with brown, purple and gray. The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days with some help from the male. Hatchlings are blind and featherless and must continue to be carefully incubated by the female for many more days. Once the eggs hatch, the male goes into overdrive to find food to feed the nestlings, as they must be fed three or four times an hour. After the third day, the feeding frenzy increases up to eight times per hour. By the fifth day, the nestlings are large enough to swallow and digest larger food, such as grubs, so feeding frequencies can be reduced to three or four times per hour.

The young cardinals are nearly adult size by day eight. Nestlings typically make their first flights by day 10. The female leaves the family a few days after the nestlings fledge. The male takes over continuing to care for them. The female probably goes off to recover from the nesting process, so that she can recover her strength and weight for another round of nesting or for the coming winter.

Both the male and female cardinal sing, which is unusual in the bird world. Males sing to defend their nesting territory and like to sing from high perches. Females sing mainly in spring before the start of nesting. Females will also sing from the nest, in all likelihood to let the male know whether or not he should bring food to the nest. Cardinals sing a variety of different melodies and a mated pair share song phrases. The female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male. The young are also taught the repertoire of cardinal songs for their area. Cardinals have a distinctive alarm call, a short metallic chip, in case danger approaches. A pair may also use the chipping call to locate each other.

On average, northern cardinals live for about three years in the wild. Predation rates are high on nestlings and eggs. Only 15 to 37 percent of nests produce fledglings in a given year. Small hawks, owls and house cats will prey upon them. Blue jays, crows, chipmunks and snakes will raid nests for eggs and hatchlings. Northern cardinals compete with catbirds and mockingbirds for nesting sites, and cowbirds are common nest parasites.

You can attract cardinals to your yard by offering sunflower seed, black oil or striped. Their heavy bills can crack the larger seeds. Plant shrubs with red berries as the males get their bright red from carotenoid pigments found in red fruits. Evergreens or other dense plantings will make them feel at home. Cut back on pesticide use as they need plenty of insects to feed hungry babies. If your yard has plenty of food and cover, a cardinal pair may decide to call it home.


Have a garden question? Contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension Genesee County Master Gardeners for assistance. They may be reached by calling (585) 343-3040, ext. 127 from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. You can also stop in at our office at 420 East Main St., Batavia. For more information, visit

Jan Beglinger is the agriculture outreach coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

By Jan Beglinger, Batavia Daily News

Get your FREE Genesee County

Vacation Planner

Stay Connected

Sign up for our FREE email Newsletter