Monday, March 9, 2020

Where do Northern Cardinals like to nest?

Northern Cardinals live in woodlands and backyards in the eastern and southern United States. They are resident birds; they do not migrate. Thus, they nest in the same areas where they are found in winter.

Do you have Northern Cardinals at your feeders in winter but don't see them in summer? There are some things you can do to make your yard more attractive to nesting cardinals.

Female Northern Cardinals build their cup nest in dense thickets and vines.

This page is a supplement to my Overview page on attracting Northern Cardinals. That overview page leads to other pages on food and diet, range and habitat, and identification. This page discusses nesting and reproduction.

Photo of female Northern Cardinal feeding her fledgling on a branch
Female Northern Cardinal feeding her fledgling
Image by Scottslm from Pixabay

Nesting habits and reproduction of Northern Cardinals

The nesting season for Northern Cardinals in the United States runs from March to August. Cardinals raise from one to four broods each year, though usually two to three at most.

Pair bonds are usually strengthened through the winter for those birds who retain the same mate. Otherwise, courtship begins in the early spring for those selecting new mates. Males start singing in mid-February in the north part of their range. Singing may occur year-round in more southerly locations.

The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. Both males and females feed the young. After the young fledge the male takes care of them for a couple of weeks until they are on their own. The female, however, goes right back to work. She builds a new nest and lays another clutch of eggs. Then the male returns to help again with the new nestlings and fledglings.

Courtship and mating

Male Northern Cardinals start singing more frequently in late winter, declaring their territory from a tall open perch. 

Songs are learned by young birds from the male parent as well as other birds singing locally during the previous breeding season. Songs thus vary across the range of the species. All are recognizable, though, as belonging to the cardinal. 

The song is made of loud repeated clear single or doubled whistles. It sounds to some people like whoit-whoit-whoit, birdy-birdy, cheer-cheer, or other similar notes in varied combinations.

They defend their territories vigorously from other males. Fights between male cardinals on adjacent territories are common. The males are so aggressive that they even attack their own reflections. You may see them battling their reflections in windows and external car mirrors. In the past they attacked reflections in car hub caps, though car wheel designs have changed in recent years. They may return every morning to attack the reflection they couldn't vanquish the day before.

Female Cardinals also sing. The song is softer than the males. Sometimes the male and female of the pair sings together. The female cardinal also sings from the nest.

Some courtship activities include the male feeding seeds to his mate. Since the bills touch briefly, this has been called a kiss.

Other courtship behaviors include raising one wing and the head crest. A similar behavior includes raising one wing, lowering the crest and swaying back and forth. Sometimes the male performs a short hop-flight toward his mate, flying slowly and singing with crest raised and plumage fluffed fully.

Nest building

The female Northern Cardinal does most of the nest building. The male may bring some nest material to her, though.

The nest is usually built in the fork of a branch of small tree or dense bush. Thick vines such as honeysuckle, rose bushes, or young conifer trees are common plants in which cardinals build their nests. You may encourage cardinals to nest in your yard if you have such dense shrubby plants for them to hide away their nests.

Nests may be built as low as 2 feet off the ground, up to 12 feet high. Most are 4-5 feet off the ground, though.

The cup-shaped nest is made from twigs, weed stems, bark strips, pine needles, grass, and leaves.

Even though cardinals nest multiple times in a season they usually do not reuse their nests. The female builds a new nest each time.

Nest boxes

Northern Cardinals do not use enclosed nest boxes. They may, however, use an artificial nesting shelf.
A 3-sided nest box or a simple shelf may be accepted as a nesting platform by Northern Cardinals or American Robins.

These should be hidden and concealed in a shrubby plant or vine. Place them 4-5 feet high. They should be placed so that they are shielded from afternoon sun. I know you want to look at the nest, but it should be as concealed as possible so that predators don't eat the eggs or nestlings. Predators include house cats, jays, crows, raccoons, etc.

If the female cardinal likes the location, she will build her nest in the box. Clean it out after the season is over. She may reuse the box later in the same season or the next year. If you put the nest shelf out in early winter they may use it right away the first spring. Otherwise you may need to wait until the following spring for them to discover and get used to it.

Here is a cardinal nest box from Amazon. You may also search Amazon for robin nest boxes, which will work equally well.


Cardinals lay their eggs from March to August. Northern birds don't start nesting any later than southern ones. This range accounts for 2 or more nesting attempts.

The number of eggs laid per clutch is usually about 3-4 eggs. Clutch sizes range from a low of only 2 eggs to a high of 5 eggs.

Northern Cardinal eggs are about 0.9-1.1 inches long. Eggs are gray, buff, or greenish-tinged. They are spotted with brown, gray, and purple markings, especially on the larger end of the egg.

The female does most of the incubation for 11-13 days before the eggs hatch. The male feeds the female while she incubates the eggs.

Young--nestlings and fledglings

Young cardinals at hatching are naked except for small tufts of down. The eyes are closed. They are very helpless and clumsy. The only act they can perform at first is raising their heads with mouths wide open and peeping for food.

Both parents feed the young. The mother cardinal continues to spend quite a bit of time in the nest with the nestlings, keeping them warm or cool, depending upon need.

Though the adults mostly eat seeds, they feed insects to the nestlings.

Nestlings grow brownish juvenile feathers while in the nest. The young are ready to leave the nest about 10-11 days after hatching. They soon start molting again (preformative molt), slowly getting new adult-like feathers. Young males may have patches of new "adult" red feathers and patches of brown juvenile feathers. These "hatch year" birds slowly get a reddish bill after starting with a gray bill.

Now it's the father's turn. Males care for the recent fledglings for a week or so until they are able to fly and take off on their own. Then the male returns to his mate who has started nesting again. By this time she has built a new nest and laid eggs that may be ready to hatch soon.

This video of baby Northern Cardinals shows how quickly these birds grow! 12 days from eggs to leaving the nest!

Back to the overview page for Northern Cardinals.


  1. Thanks for the info about nesting boxes/shelves. I have several Cardinals that are regulars at my feeders but wasn’t sure if they’d nest nearby, Great video!

  2. Its a great pleasure reading your post.Its full of information I am looking for and I love to post a comment that "The content of your post is awesome" Great work. Birdwatching

    1. Thanks Brett.

      Your recent article on squirrels at bird feeders is amazingly thorough.

  3. Hello! I have a hanging fern on my front porch with a cardinal nest. Will the porch light light at night bother it (momma and babies)? I’d turn off if a “turn off” to momma. She just built the nest two days ago.

  4. Hello! I have a hanging fern on my front porch with a cardinal nest. Will the porch light light at night bother it (momma and babies)? I’d turn off if a “turn off” to momma. She just built the nest two days ago.

    1. td,

      I don't think the light will make much difference, either way. Just use it the way you usually do and the birds will accept it.

  5. This was interesting and informative. I've had Cardinals nesting in a vine next to the house. This year there are 5 eggs. Hopefully they all hatch. I saw what looked like a cat bird stalking the nest. The Cardinals have come to trust this same area the last several years.


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