Bird Sounds and Calls of the Northern Cardinal | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Bird Sounds: Northern Cardinal

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Vibrant cardinals in Louisiana winter

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Bonnie Taylor Barry
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Northern Cardinal Calls

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Why do Northern cardinals sport such vivid red colors? Here are fun facts about one of the most easily recognizable birds in North America—plus, hear the cardinal’s sweet bird song!

Members of the finch family, Northern cardinals are about 9 inches long with a wingspan of 12 inches. Both males and females sport a crest on top of their heads and long tails. The male is a flashy red color with a black face around its thick red bill; the female cardinal is a pale brown with attractive warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. 

The female cardinal with its pretty red accents

Why Are Cardinals So Red?

The cardinal’s plumage color is due to its diet during molt which 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.

During courting, the male brings the female seeds, a method known as “beak to beak.” Credit: Samir Husni

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:

  1. Clearing of forests, increasing edge habitat
  2. Warmer climates
  3. 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 particularly love seeds, especially black oil sunflower seeds. Their short, strong beaks are great seed and nut crackers! Due to their fondness for seeds, cardinals will often forage on the ground around feeders.

That said, cardinals are not especially picky eaters. As well as plant matter (seeds, berries and fruit), the birds also eat insects (29%)—such as beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, moths, flies, butterflies and crickets.

See the Almanac’s chart of what different wild birds eat.

Here’s a fun fact: Ever noticed that cardinals are often the last birds to visit the bird feeder in the evening? While their bright colors are good for mating, the birds are probably less visible to predators as the light dims, plus they avoid competition for food from bigger birds.

Why Are The Birds Named Cardinals?

The name “cardinal” reflects the birds’ bright red plumage which is the same red color of the clothing worn by cardinals of the Catholic clergy.

Interestingly, these non-migrating birds operate as a flock in the winter time to better forage and this is called a “Vatican of cardinals.”

Why Are Sports Teams Named the Cardinals?

The “Cardinals” are a popular name for sports team mascots. Think of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals football team and MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Also, the cardinal mascot represents many college teams. Why? Perhaps it’s related to the male cardinals’ aggressiveness, similar to the blue jays.

Male cardinals are very defensive of the nesting territory. They are not only close to their mates but also help in the raising of the chicks, so will defend their family at all costs.

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! See which shrubs and trees attract and support birds.

How Long Do Cardinals Live?

The life span of most cardinals is 3 to 5 years, on average, with the longest wild female living to 15 years old. These birds have to deal with a lot of predation as well as disease, accidents, and hunger.

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.

What is the Cardinal’s Bird Sound?

At the top of this page, you’ll find the audio file of a cardinal’s song. Cardinals are unusual in that they are one of the few non-migratory songbirds. The bird makes a clear, repetitive whistling that you’ll often hear first thing in the morning. Listen for the “cheer, cheer, cheer” or “birdy, birdy, birdy.” Aside from its song, a cardinal’s most common call is a loud, metallic chipping sound that you’ll hear during breeding when the birds are defending their territory from predators. 

Here’s a cool fact: Both males and females sing! For most songbirds, it’s just the male. Even more surprising is the way that cardinals couples will sing as a pair to each other as they are very close partners and parents. The cardinal’s duets seem to strengthen their bonds. The female sings from the nest while incubating eggs and communicates to the male when to bring food to her nest; the male will sing during courtship but also signal a predator to the female when she’s in the nest.

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 sounds.

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!

And go here to hear the sounds of other birds, compliments of The Macaulay Library at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

2023 Almanac Club