Northern Candinal male and female in winter

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

  One of the most popular birds in Wisconsin, the Northern Cardinal is abundant and it now brightens winter days with its color and its whistled song.

  Cardinal Calls

The cardinal’s song means spring is coming! You might hear a northern cardinal when you’re out shoveling snow or refilling a bird feeder. Since mid-January, adult cardinals have begun trying out their songs. Last year’s young are learning and practicing theirs as they hear and imitate the adult cardinals around them. Both male and female cardinals sing.


Northern Cardinal
Cardinalis cardinalis
Lifespan 3 years
Weight 1.58 ounces
Length 8.3 – 9.3 inches
Color Male: brilliant red
Female: pale brown
with reddish tinges
Sexual Maturity 1 year
Number of Broods 2 -3 broods
Gestation Period 9 - 11 days
Clutch Size 2 - 5 chicks
Adult Predators Hawks, squirrels,
owls, snakes, blue
jays, and dogs

Mostly seeds, insects, berries although it diet is quite varied. Feeds on many insects, including beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, flies, and many others, also spiders, centipedes, and snails. Most of diet is vegetable matter, including seeds of weeds and grasses, waste grain, leaf buds, flowers, and many berries and wild fruits. Young are fed mostly insects.

  Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly while hopping on ground or in low bushes, sometimes higher in trees. Readily comes to bird feeders, where it favors sunflower seeds.


Usually well hidden in dense shrubs, vines, or low trees, placed 3-10 feet above ground, sometimes higher. Nest which is built by the female is open cup made of twigs, weeds, grass, bark strips, leaves and rootlets lined with fine grass or hair.

The female northern cardinal is the primary builder. Her male counterpart helps by finding and bringing her nest-building materials. He may occasionally assist with construction, too. Because the female cardinal is busy building, the male also keeps an eye out for predators, such as hawks and squirrels.

The female cardinal uses her beak to crush and soften the twigs. That makes them more flexible and easier to bend into shape. To create a warm interior for future fledglings, she lines it with leaves, grass, pine needles and hair or fur. Then she turns around inside the nest and stamps her feet to get that distinctive cup shape.

Read more: How to provide spring nesting material for birds.

  Mating Behavior

Northern cardinal chicks in their nest.

Male cardinals, with red body feathers as opposed to the tan body feathers of females, have been known to show courtship behaviors, like turning and twisting their bodies while a female cardinal is present.

Northern cardinals are monogamous - one male mates with one female. However, they often choose a different mate each breeding season.

Northern cardinals begin forming breeding pairs in early spring. The male tries to attract a mate by performing courtship displays that show off his crest and his bright red feathers. He will raise his crest and sway side to side while singing softly. Once he finds a female that may be interested, the male feeds the female to show that he would make a good provider for young cardinals.

  Care For Young

Northern cardinal eggs in their nest.

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 9-11 days after hatching. Male may feed fledglings while female begins next nesting attempt. Norther cardinals have 2-3 broods per year, rarely 4.

As baby cardinals move through the development stage they’re referred to as hatchlings, nestlings, fledglings, juveniles, and finally adults.

Cardinal Development
Hatchling 0 – 3 days old. Naked and pink with grayish scaling, sparse bits of gray down, eyes closed. Completely dependent on parents.
Nestling 3 – 13 days old. Some feathers on the wings, eyes are open, still dependent on parents.
Fledgling Leaves the nest after 7-13 days. Has all its feathers. Has left the nest at least once, is learning to fly, and hops around very well. The male cardinal typically cares for fledglings but the female also helps.
Juvenile Once the bird is able to gather food on its own but retains juvenile plumage.
Adult 1st fall after hatching. Juvenile feathers have molted and adult feathers have grown in.

  Conservation Status

Least concern.


Articles On

Bees flying footer graphic