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Who hasn’t been attracted to the brilliant red of a cardinal, especially in contrast to the snowy white of winter. So, why is their plumage so bright? Here are fun facts about this favorite backyard bird—plus, hear the cardinal’s sweet birdsong!
The cardinal is sexually dichromatic in that the male has flashy colorful feathers but the female is a quieter tan color. Both the male and female do sport a crest on top of their heads and long tails. However, the male (pictured above) is a very vivid red with a black face around its thick red bill and the female cardinal (pictured below) is a pale brown with attractive warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest.
Why Are Cardinals So Red?
The plumage color is due to its diet during molt when its diet is rich with foods containing carotenoid pigments found in plants, insects, seeds and some fruits such as blackberry, hackberry, wild grape, sumac and dogwood. Current research indicates brighter males have increased reproductive success. It also indicates success with care of young.
In addition, cardinals do not migrate nor molt, so they keep that red plumage all year, which makes their vivid hues especially striking against the greys and whites of winter.
Where to Find Cardinals
A highly adaptable species, cardinals are found in eastern/central North America as well as southern Canada, parts of Mexico, and Central America.
Interestingly, the cardinal was once known as a Carolinian species, but it has dramatically expanded its range over the past fifty years. The breeding range has expanded north since the mid 1800s for three reasons:
Clearing of forests, increasing edge habitat
Winter feeding stations
It is not a bird of the forest and has advanced north following the clearing of forests, which provided tangles in shrubbery and in city parks. It is believed that cardinals moved from the south of Ohio, then to southern Canada, then east to New England. They’re now a common bird in brushy areas near adjoining woodlands, often located in suburban areas.
What do Cardinals Eat?
Cardinals are not especially picky eaters. Their main foods include both insects (29%)—such as beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, moths, flies, butterflies and crickets—and plant matter (71%) including berries, plants, and fruit. The bird will often forage on the ground around feeders and it particularly loves black oil sunflower seeds.
Cardinal Nests and Baby Cardinals
Cardinals do not migrate; they spend the year where they breed. Females construct the nest after both adults select the site. Often it will be found in honeysuckle shrubs, blackberry briars, or multiflora rose. The nest is a bowl-shaped structure of 4 layers including a rough outer layer of twigs crushed together, a leafy mat, grapevine bark, and then a lining of fine grasses.
The average clutch is 3 eggs, buffy greenish-white with medium brown spots. The last egg laid is always more lightly spotted. The eggs hatch in 11 to 13 days and the young birds fledge in 9 to 10 days.
The babies need to eat soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars. Make sure that your garden includes butterfly host plants such as dill, fennel, hollyhock, mustard greens, and snapdragon!
The life span of most cardinals is usually 4 to 5 years with the longest wild female nearly 16 years old. The birds are predominately monogamous and will often often mate for life, though they’ve also been known to “break up” and look for new mates, especially if their mate dies.
A Strange Cardinal Story
A cardinal was a participant in one of the strangest bird behaviors ever observed. A female cardinal once fed worms to a goldfish in an ornamental pond where people had fed goldfish! The cardinal was used to drinking water in the pond.
Both the goldfish and the cardinal became an attraction. A photograph of this appears in Wetty’s The Life of Birds.
Cardinal Bird Sound
At the top of this page, you’ll find the audio file of a cardinal’s song. The bird makes a clear, repetitive whistling that you’ll often hear first thing in the morning. Here’s a cool fact: Both males and females sing! For most songbirds, it’s just the male. The cardinal’s duets seem to strengthen their bonds. The female sings from the nest while incubating eggs and apparently communicates to the male when to bring food to her nest.
Aside from its song, a cardinal’s most common sound is a loud, metallic chipping sound that you’ll hear during breeding when the birds are defending their territory from predators. Despite their bright color, you won’t see cardinals as often as you might expect because they hide in dense tangles. The best way to find them is often by listening for their pierce chipping sound.
If you’ve seen or heard cardinals, please share below. Be sure to let us know where you live or where you’ve heard this bird sound before!