Saturday, March 7, 2020

Attracting Northern Cardinals to your backyard

Northern Cardinals are one of the most common and widespread backyard feeder birds in the Eastern and Southern United States. Everyone knows the Northern Cardinal--even non-birders--as they appear on decorations, are the State Bird of seven states, and are the mascot of many professional and scholastic sports teams.

This is one of the first birds I remember as a child growing up in Minnesota. I remember my mother showing me how to string popcorn with a needle and thread. When finished, we put the popcorn garland outside on a snowy day, draped over a tree or bush for the cardinals to eat. That's as far as my memories extend as to the practice.

My family moved away from Minnesota when I was 7 years old. I have been back East only a few times since. I saw several Cardinals in New York on a visit in October 2004. My most recent Cardinal was in San Diego, which was probably an escapee from Tijuana bird shops across the border. My photo of this bird is barely identifiable and I'm ashamed to post it here. So all of the photos in this and related articles will be those taken by others.

This page will serve as an overview of the Northern Cardinal. I will create additional in-depth pages for identification, nesting, diet, and range and habitat.

Photo of Northern Cardinal at bird feeder
Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Northern Cardinal Overview

The Northern Cardinal is a medium-sized songbird that is quite common in woodlands and gardens the Eastern and Southern United States, west to Texas. It is found in eastern and northern Mexico northwestward to Arizona and south to Guatemala. Cardinals are frequent visitors to backyard birdfeeders wherever they occur. They eat a wide variety of seeds, so are easy to attract to your yard!


Male Northern Cardinals are larger than females. Cardinals measure 8-1/4 to 9-1/4 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. The wingspan can be 9-1/4 to 12-1/4 inches. This makes them larger than a Spotted Towhee and quite a bit larger than a White-crowned Sparrow.

The shape of a cardinal is as a large sparrow. The body is fairly plump and the tail is full and rounded. The wings are broad and rounded. The bill is short and conical, typical of seed-eating birds, but even heavier and thicker than most. The tall crest is quite noticeable.

Male Northern Cardinals are brilliant all-over-red with a tall crest. That's enough to identify them. Black feathers encircle the bill and reach the eyes and form a bib down the throat. The bill is pinkish-orange, as are the legs and feet. The eye is brown.

Females are shaped as males, but are a buffy brown and olive in color. The large reddish bill really stands out prominently. They have a slightly smaller crest and some black on the chin. Female cardinals have some red edges to feathers in the wing and tail.

Both sexes sing clear whistled songs often composed of cheer-cheer, whoit-whoit, and birdy-birdy sounding notes strung together to form different songs that they learn as nestlings/fledglings from parents or other nearby birds when they are young. Cardinals also give a metallic chip call note.

Mated pairs often stay together year round.

Northern Cardinals use a flap-bound style of flight with several quick wing beats followed by a brief glide with partially open wings. (I don't want to send you away, but later you may like studying my tutorial article on How to identify birds in flight on my Greg in San Diego blog.)

For more in-depth identification tips on identifying Northern Cardinals by plumage and voice, please visit my page on this website: What do Northern Cardinals look like?

Range and habitat

Northern Cardinals are a resident species (they don't migrate) in the eastern and southern United States, most of Mexico, south to Guatemala. They barely reach southeastern Canada. In spring they sometimes show up in south-central Canada.

In the United States they are found from Maine to southeastern North Dakota. They are found south to Florida and Texas. Then they occur in southern New Mexico (rare) and Arizona.

These hardy birds remain all year in the same area. So they bring a bright delight to backyard bird feeders in winter.

Norther Cardinals are found in woodlands and backyards. They are found in streamside woods in drier and desert areas, as well.

Plants in your backyard that can attract cardinals include vines and shrubs. Some favorites are clematis, sumac, dogwood, mulberry. Some of these plants provide both shelter and food.

For a more in-depth look on where to find these birds, including what types of habitat they favor, please read my article: Where do Northern Cardinals live?


Northern Cardinals are granivorous, eating primarily grain and seeds. Their large conical bills can open large seeds and nuts with heavy shells that other birds may not be able to open.

Cardinals are ground-feeders, foraging for weeds seeds, berries, nuts, and other foods while hopping on the ground.

Even though the adults feed primarily on grain and seeds, parent cardinals feed their nestlings exclusively insects.

To attract cardinals to your backyard bird feeder, offer them sunflower seeds (black oil, striped, or hulled) and cracked corn. They are also one of the few birds that like safflower seeds. Most squirrels don't like safflower, so it has two benefits of attracting cardinals and discouraging squirrels at your feeder.

Because they are ground feeding birds, they will like platform or hopper feeders with a tray better than tube feeders.

For more information on the diet of cardinals and attracting them to your backyard feeder, please see my in-depth article: What do Northern Cardinals like to eat?

Nesting and reproduction

Northern Cardinals are monogamous. They form pairs that may endure several years before they break up and seek other mates.

Mated pairs often sing together in spring. Females build the cup-like nest, though the male may help gather nesting material. The nest is made of sticks, bark, grass, and pine needles. It is completed in 3-9 days.

The female lays a clutch of 2-5 eggs. The eggs are often colored pale gray with brown speckles, but may be tinted blue or green. Usually the female does all the incubation. The incubation period is about 12 days. The male frequently feeds the female during incubation.

Hatchlings are born naked with eyes closed and perhaps a couple small tufts of down. They grow fast, though. In 11-12 days they are ready to leave the nest.

Fledglings are fed and cared for by the father for a couple of weeks while the female goes about building another nest and starting a 2nd or 3rd brood in a single season. Cardinals rarely reuse their nests.

For more in-depth information on nesting and reproduction, please read my article: Where do Northern Cardinals like to nest?

Fun facts about Northern Cardinals

The scientific name is Cardinalis cardinalis. This Latin name means a door hinge upon which things turn, a principle or important person.

Cardinals were named after the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church who wear bright red gowns and caps.

A colloquial name for the cardinal is redbird.

The oldest known wild bird lived over 15-1/2 years; one in captivity lived 28-1/2 years!

Northern Cardinals may rarely raise 4 broods of young in a single breeding season!

A group of cardinals may be called a "college," "conclave," or "deck" of cardinals. ("A deck of cards," get it?)

Northern Cardinals were once a popular cage bird. But it has been illegal in the United States to have native birds as pets since 1918.

Males may sing all year, especially in the southern parts of the range.

Though they thrive in suburban backyards they are a bit wary around people.

Cardinals may visit your feeder at dusk for a late snack before heading off to roost for the night.

Formerly cardinals were classified in the finch family. Now they are grouped in a cardinal family with Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, Painted Bunting, and Dickcissel. [Note that there are other birds called grosbeaks (for instance, Evening Grosbeak and Pine Grosbeak) and buntings (for instance, Snow Bunting, Lark Bunting, and numerous Old World Buntings) that are now classified into different bird families.]

Cardinals can raise and lower their crested crown feathers at will.

The red color of male cardinals comes from carotenoids in their diet. Male cardinals will grow duller feathers if they don't get enough carotenoids in their diet during the molting period.

Northern Cardinals are very popular. They are the State Bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia! This bird represents more states than any other!

Male cardinals are highly territorial, singing and chasing intruders. They even try to drive their own reflections away in windows or car mirrors.

Northern Cardinals may form large flocks of 50 or more birds in winter.

Albino birds are known. Rarely a genetic defect causes the red to be replaced with yellow.

Feather mites, or normal rapid molt, may cause a bird to lose all its head feathers at once and be bald, for a few days. Who knew that the skin under the red feathers was blue? One such bird--red with a blue head--was misidentified by a newer bird watcher as a Painted Bunting! An understandable mistake.


Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Terres, John K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A Knopf, New York.


  1. Very much enjoyed this article. Moved to Indiana from California and am learning about the birds coming to my new feeder. Am going to keep my eye out for an albino!

    1. Birds seem to have albinos (or partial albinism) more frequently than other animals.

      Cardinals don't occur much California, except as escapees to San Diego from Tijuana bird shops.

      There may be some native cardinals along the Colorado River border with Arizona, though.

  2. Thank you for the interesting article. I have cardinals in my yard all the time. Two different years I have had a female make a nest in my bush, but never return to lay the eggs. Why does that happen?

    1. Thanks for the direct email. It may be the female either abandons the nest and builds another, or perhaps she's infertile and never lays eggs, just builds a nest.


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