Orignally published on critters360.com
The flash of an all red bird seen in a hedgerow or thicket, or at an open tree- top perch is easily recognized as the northern cardinal. Commonly called just cardinal, it is one of the best-known birds in eastern North America. Its bright vermillion red color and crested head make it unmistakable. It adds a brilliant touch of color to the drabness of late fall, or hedges and snow- covered ground of winter.
Range of the Northern Cardinal
The formal name for Cardinalis cardinalis in English is the Northern Cardinal, This is curious, as it was historically a southern bird. Other common names in the past include crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, and Virginia nightingale. Its popularity has made it the state bird of North Carolina, Virginia and five Ohio Valley states.
The range of the northern cardinal has expanded northward since the mid 20th century. It is now common throughout the east from New Brunswick to Florida and west to the to the Great Plains east of the Rockies, Texas, into Arizona and much of Mexico. The Great Lakes are a general northern boundary of its range in the Midwest.
The northern cardinal has a distinctive crested head, with a short conical beak designed for cracking seeds. It is about 7.5 to 9 inches long, with a wingspan of about 10 inches. A black mask offsets the brilliant red of the male. This surrounds its bright orange-red beak, extending into the eye and the throat. The female is duller in color, a buffy olive green with red streaks on the wing and tail. The black mask on the female is not quite as extensive as on the male. The young birds are similar to the female in coloration.
Cardinals are non-migratory, remaining within their range year round. This does not mean, however, that the individuals seen at the feeder are the same that might breed in the neighborhood. During breeding season they are usually seen singly or in pairs, while in winter they may be in small flocks. Their nesting territory is usually from a few acres to a city block or two in area.
Prior to breeding, as with many other birds, the male will often chase the female. He will also fight males that are invading his territory. Either of these circumstances might involve swooping flight, not as commonly seen during the rest of the year.
Nesting and Young
The female builds the nest. It is loosely constructed of small twigs, bark, weed stems, and leaves, held together by grass, fine rootlets, or horsehair. This is most commonly found about three to ten feet above the ground in thickets, hedgerows, cedars, and grape arbors, but could be as high as 30 feet in a fork of tree branches. There are usually 2 to 4 eggs, bluish or greenish-white with flecks of buff, chestnut, brown or purple.
The incubation period is just under two weeks, incubation usually done by the female. The young are altricial, or completely helpless, when hatched. Both parents feed them during the 9-11 days of confinement to the nest before fledging. Northern cardinals typically have two to three broods a year, with perhaps four broods in southern areas of its range.
Natural Food and Bird Feeders
The northern cardinal eats a wide variety of fruit, seeds, grasses, and grains. Sunflower seeds are a favorite food. It may take sap from holes in trees made by woodpeckers. Insects form about a third of its diet. These include cicadas, boll weevils, scale insects, beetles, and various caterpillars.
It feeds from trees or thickets at times, but is frequently seen foraging on the ground under feeders or sunflowers. At the feeder, the northern cardinal likes seeds and suet, especially sunflower seeds. It is usually the first bird seen at the winter feeder in the dim twilight before dawn, and often the last bird seen near dusk.
Calls and Songs
The northern cardinal has a wide variety of songs. Most common is a descending “what cheer … what cheer…” often in pairs, sometimes three to five times. This is often immediately followed by a “whoit-whoit-whoit-whoit” that ascends in pitch. This might also be transliterated as an ascending “Cheer-up, cheer-up.” These two syllables (or perhaps more accurately described as a one syllable diphthong) are repeated several times in rapid succession. Sometimes the second part of the call is a more rapid short clear trill, repeated perhaps 20 times over two or three seconds.
Most songs are clear whistles with distinctive tremolo. Parts of the songs seem to either ascend or descend in pitch, but remain a very clear and bright whistle. While there are many variations, these songs are easily learned with a little careful observation. Frequently, their songs continue for several minutes from a tree top perch. With their bright red color, they are easily seen from this usually exposed location.
A single note call is more commonly heard when the bird is foraging in thickets or trees. This is a single sharp “pik” or “chip” sometimes in a cluster of two or three notes, but often with several seconds between notes, repeated several times per minute. This is also commonly heard in cedars and hedges near dusk.
While they call year round, the northern cardinal is heard more frequently starting about mid-February in my upstate New York location. From late winter until mid August they are usually an early singer, starting perhaps a half hour before sunrise. This singing continues for most of the day. Less frequently heard in mid afternoon, they begin singing again in earnest about two hours before sunset until just past sunset.
A common visitor to winter bird feeders, the northern cardinal is usually silent during these visits. Sunflower seeds are sure to attract his bright red colors to the often-drab winter scenery. When one begins to hear more frequently the “cheer-up” call in late winter, it is time to follow his advice. Cheer up. Spring cannot be too far behind after surviving another long northern winter.
Alsop, Fred J. III. Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York: DK Publishing, 2001.
Mahnken, Jan. The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor. Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.
Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980. (Eastern North America)
Proctor, Noble, PhD. Song Birds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs.
Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1988.
Northern Cardinals Sounds, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornitholody
Northern Cardinal Identification – All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Bird song sample and range map