21 Interesting Facts About Cardinals

Cardinals are one of the most recognizable birds that you’ll see, not only in your backyards and at your feeders but pretty much anywhere due to their beautiful red feathers. Anytime we see a cardinal at our feeders, especially the males, we run to get our camera or binoculars to try and get a closer look. Because they are so popular there are a million questions people have about them. In this article we’ll answer 19 questions that will provide some interesting facts about cardinals.

1. Do cardinals mate for life?

According to this article by Penn State University, cardinals are monogamous birds and will typically mate for life. Both the female and male will work together during mating season to build their nest together, which takes about 8-9 days.

2. Where do cardinals build nests?

cardinal at nest

Cardinals are open nested birds and will build their nests out of twigs, pieces of grass, and other plant materials. They prefer building their nests in bushes, dense shrubbery, or low branches that are typically less than 10 feet from the ground.

3. Do cardinals reuse their nests?

Like most birds cardinals do not use the same nest twice and will build a new nest each year, but may use pieces of old nests to build their new nests.

4. Do cardinals migrate?

Cardinals do not migrate and will stay permanent residents throughout their range, even in colder climates. They will however stay in the same general area year round.

5. Why are male cardinals brighter red than females?

male and female cardinal
photo credit: Mike’s Birds | CC 2.0

The likely reason that males are so much brighter red than females is probably what you’d guess, so they can display their colors to females and show them what a good mate they would be! As for the science behind it, there is a compound found in foods that cardinals like called carotenoids which gives them their red color. In humans it’s melanin that gives us our skin color.

6. What do cardinals eat?

cardinal with seed in mouth
photo credit: Pamela D Waller | CC 4.0

Cardinals will enjoy several different types of bird seed including black oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds as well as cracked corn, peanut pieces and some fruits such as fresh berries. Se our article on what kind of bird seed cardinals like or our bird seed guide which also shows what types of feeders are best for their preferred bird seed.

7. Where do northern cardinals live?

northern cardinal range map
map source: wikipedia

The northern cardinal’s range is all of the eastern half of the U.S., Texas, some southwestern states, Mexico, and parts of Central America.

8. Will cardinals use a birdhouse?

As I mentioned above, cardinals are open nesters and build their own nests. Any attempts to attract them with a nest box will likely be wasted as cardinals are not cavity nesters and will show no interest in birdhouses.

9. How many times a year do cardinals lay eggs?

cardinal nest with eggs
photo credit: marti175 | CC 3.0

Cardinals will have one to two broods a year, typically two but as many as three on occasion each season. The female will lay 2-5 eggs each time and those eggs will hatch in approximately 11-13 days from the time she lays them.

10. How long do baby cardinals stay in the nest?

Baby cardinals grow very fast are usually out of the nest in just 9-11 days. This means from the time the mother cardinal lays her eggs that the babies are off on their own in less than 4 weeks.

11. Do cardinals move their babies?

Once the fledgling cardinals have left the nest, the parents will teach them how to fend for themselves and find food. During this period the male cardinal may take charge of the young birds while the female goes off to build a new nest for the next brood of the season.

12. When do baby cardinals turn red?

young cardinal not yet red
photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotography | CC 2.0

Cardinals hatchlings start their lives with pink skin with a grayish scaling. When the fledglings grow their feathers in the fall they will begin to look brown with some red undertones but it won’t be until the males reach maturity and molt at around 12 months old that they gain the beautiful red colors that we associate with cardinals.

13. When are baby cardinals born?

baby cardinals in nest

As we touched on above, baby cardinals hatch about 11-13 days after the mother lays the eggs. The first brood is usually in March sometime with the next one immediately after those babies have left the nest, typically in May.

14. How long do cardinals live?

In the wild the average lifespan is only around 3 years for the northern cardinal, but this isn’t due to old age. There are a number of predators and other things that can end a cardinals life. They have been known to live up to 15 years in the wild in some cases and there is one report of a cardinal living 28 years in captivity (last sentence).

15. What does it mean when you see a red cardinal?

If you see a red cardinal in your dreams it is seen as a good omen and is usually associated with good fortune. Cardinals are also thought to be good luck and associated with the number 12, which is considered good luck to native americans. Seeing a cardinal gets much more spiritual if you are interested in that type of thing.

16. Are cardinals territorial?

Especially during mating season, male cardinals can be very territorial when protecting their breeding grounds and their young. While the female incubates the eggs it is the males duty to protect both the female and the nest from any predators and intruders in the area, and they will do so fiercely.

17. How many types of cardinals are there?

There are 4 different types of cardinals but the northern cardinal is the one most people think of whenever the bird is mentioned. Between the 4 species they can be found in areas of North, Central, and South America.

18. Do all cardinals have orange beaks?

close up of male cardinal's orange beak

Both the male and female cardinal have reddish orange beaks. Juvenile cardinals are easily recognized by their black beaks. When the young cardinals transition to adults, after their first molt, their beaks will change to the orange beaks you are used to seeing.

19. Do cardinals feed each other?

male cardinal feeding female
photo credit: John Wisniewski

Yes, you may have seen this before. The male cardinal is known for feeding the female cardinal beak to beak as part of the mating behavior. This sort of bonding between the male and female is very common and makes for a great picture if you can catch them in the act!

20. Are cardinals scared of blue jays?

We know that blue jays have a reputation for being bullies at feeders and are even known for going after other birds’ eggs, but do they scare cardinals away. Blue jays have an easier time bullying the smaller birds like titmice and perhaps sparrows. So my answer here would be that cardinals may not be scared of blue jays but they may also not always share feeders. See the video above showing a male cardinal and blue jay politely taking turns on a feeder.

21. Why do cardinals tap on windows

As I mentioned, cardinals are known to be territorial birds and may see another bird as a threat. Any time you see a cardinal, or any bird, pecking or tapping on a window he has most likely seen his own reflection and is challenging himself!

25 thoughts on “21 Interesting Facts About Cardinals”

  1. What happens if the newly hatched chicks fall out of the nest? Will the cardinals lay additional eggs in the nest?

    Reply
    • Hi Suzanne – Depending on how old they are the adults might try to continue feeding them, this is more likely if they are close to being able to fly on their own. But if the babies are too young it might sadly be a lost cause. The cardinals probably will not lay another set of eggs in that same nest. In general, cardinals like to build a new nest for each clutch. If you ever spot babies that have fallen, you can carefully put them back in the nest and help the cardinals out 🙂

      Reply
    • We’ve been watching a female cardinal sit on her three eggs and one slightly larger blue egg (definitely not a cardinal egg) Tonight our camera caught tragedy strike, a small rat snake ate one of the cardinal eggs before I intervened to spare the other eggs. Mom hasn’t returned, how long do we wait for her to come back and will she? I was surprised she left the nest unattended tonight prior to the snake arrival.

      Reply
      • In most cases birds that are scared away will return. They will also leave the nest periodically to find food for themselves. Many birds also don’t start the incubation process until all their eggs are laid, and will be away from the nest more frequently until all eggs are laid to try and get them all to hatch around the same time. Hopefully she will come back, but there’s no way to be sure. We just have to trust that when birds abandon their eggs they have a good reason and have determined their chances of success were minimal. But either way, it is not advised to ever take the eggs out of the nest or move the nest, so there isn’t really anything to be done but wait and see.

        Reply
  2. My mama cardinal laid three eggs and was a great mom for several days laying on them and only leaving for 15 minutes at a time. The other night we had a tornado like storm with a lot of torrid rains and horrible winds. I noticed the next morning when I wanted to ensure she had survived, when she left the nest, there were only two eggs and I searched below for the third egg but never found it. she stayed on the eggs that day after the storm and up into the night when I went to bed but when I got up the next morning she was gone and never came back, which was yesterday. Today she has never come back to the nest either. I’m assuming the winds and rain really moved the eggs around if she was not there to protect them and even if she was, I’m thinking they were no longer viable and that’s why she left. What do you think? My heart is so broken because I loved watching her from a second story window in her nest.

    Reply
    • Hi Judy – don’t give up hope just yet, sometimes birds can get spooked for whatever reason but return a day or two later. Birds certainly don’t like to abandon nests after the hard work of laying eggs, so if she did we just have to trust that “mother knows best” and the parents either feel the eggs are not safe (you noticed one gone, perhaps a predator got at it) or not viable. I would leave the nest and eggs undisturbed for at least a week just in case they return. If not, maybe they will come back to your yard someday to try again.

      Reply
    • It’s possible. Northern Cardinals reach sexual maturity around 1 year of age. So if the male was about that old and changing into his red feathers, he might be ready. If it was still under a year old and following it’s parents around, then no.

      Reply
  3. I see a Cardinal on my feeder when it is almost too late to see. They then fly home into the shrubs where it is very dark. Has any research been done on their night vision?

    Reply
    • Birds are certainly better equipped to see in the dark than we are. While cardinals may not see in the dark as well as owls, rest assured if they are still out and about at dusk then they can navigate just fine. In fact many songbirds migrate in the middle of the night. I don’t know about any specific cardinal studies but this article on the research of night migrating birds might be of interest to you.

      Reply
    • Hi Celi – yes usually. How quickly they do this depends on the time of the season. If it’s early in the breeding season they may have a better chance of finding at mate for that season. If it’s too late they may wait until winter when cardinals come together in larger groups to scope out potential new mates for the following spring.

      Reply
  4. We have a red bird in our shrub who hatched her babies on mothers day. It was so sweet. I looked this morning as they haven’t been at the nest, and I don’t see the babies! They do seem to still be protecting the nest though. I went to look and big daddy red flew down closer to me as I was peaking in. Would they have moved them or is it more likely that a predator got all 3 babies?

    Reply
    • If you know they hatched on May 10th and you aren’t seeing them on May 13th then unfortunately it is likely something happened to them. The parents will not / are not able to move babies to a different nesting location, and baby cardinals aren’t old enough to leave the nest on their own until about 9-11 days after hatching. That’s sad but I’m sure they will try again soon. Cardinals can have 2-3 broods per year.

      Reply
  5. I was afraid that’s what happened. I just hoped that maybe there was some other bit I didn’t know 🙁
    Thank you for the reply, I do hope they try again?

    Reply
  6. I have basically the same situation as Erin described – 3 cardinal eggs hatched the end of last week, yesterday we peeked in and there was only one chick left. As of this morning, the nest is empty. They built their nest in a vine on a trellis that is right by our back porch. I can only assume that something got them, but what predators could do that? We have a fenced in yard, no snakes, so I’m guessing another bird. It’s odd to me that they would come get the babies when they are so close to the house and pretty well hidden.

    Reply
    • Sadly newly hatched baby birds are sought after by many predators. If not a snake or mammal like a raccoon, then other birds such as jays or crows or even sometimes squirrels. I knew someone with a robin nest on their windowsill just a few weeks ago and before the babies could fledge a crow got to them. It’s a tough thing to witness but all part of the natural order.

      Reply
    • Wow Tom, you are getting to witness something pretty rare! I saw one other person post on a gardening forum that they had witnessed the same thing. There is a reference in the book The Cardinal by June Osborne where she writes “occasionally two females of the same species lay their eggs in one nest and then share incubation duties.” She referenced a documented occurrence of this where it was believed the two female cardinals had both mated with the same male, which is unusual as cardinals tend to be monogamous for the whole breeding season. I think it is currently unknown why they do this. Could have something to do with a male choosing to mate with two females, or the cardinals believing that in their particular environment it would greatly increase their chances of having a successful brood to nest communally. Whatever the reason, it is pretty uncommon, and very cool you get to see that phenomenon. Enjoy watching their progress and let’s hope all six eggs do well!

      Reply
  7. I had a cardinal nest in my hanging plant. She laid 4 eggs. Two hatched about a week ago. Are the other two no longer viable? Should we remove the other two eggs from the nest to make more room?

    Reply
    • I wouldn’t mess with the eggs. They might have been laid at a later time or by another bird, and will still hatch. I wouldn’t want to risk handling them or upsetting the mom and babies that are still in the nest. If they really aren’t viable it won’t be a problem space-wise and the cardinals will move on to build another nest if they lay again. It’s also technically illegal to remove eggs from the nest of a native bird.

      Reply
  8. Thank you for your answers to all questions. WE have many cardinals and I have multiple Bird feeders. We had two fledglings one of lesses strength and feathers that was accidently stepped on . Workers were by nest and birds kept jumping out of nest so while they were working I placed them in a temporary box where parents could see them. Husband (with dementia saw box and before workers could tell him went to destroy box and accidently stepped on a baby. I was inconsolable…. Other fledgling was kept safe. Placed bird back in his nest which he kept jumping out of. Put him back in a straw basket in the thick bushes next to nest . He stood on rim and let mom/dad feed him. BIg storm came up at night…. We lost him during the storm last night and parents were not with it. Cannot find it today😢. Cardinals only came by once to see where it was and haven’t been back. Yesterday it was not flying , so dont know about today. Just going to pray … I love these birds…well all birds…….. I checked ALL bushes in my immediate area…..

    Reply
    • It’s nice that you are looking out for the well-being of all the birds in your yard. When birds start to leave the nest, they are a little clumsy and appear pretty helpless, but that’s just part of the process. You have the right idea, if you think they have landed themselves in an unsafe area, you can place them under some cover (like in bushes) or in a basket close to the nest site to try and protect them a little while letting the parents care for them. Perhaps the young bird just got swept by the wind into another location during the storm. If so the parents will find it. It’s always a little heartbreaking to see abandoned eggs or babies that aren’t going to make it, but just remind yourself that’s part of the natural process and the adult birds will try again. I read a quote from the Massachusetts Audubon Society that said “young birds face naturally tough odds. Only 30% of young songbirds survive their first year of life. This is nature’s way of maintaining population sizes that the environment can support.”

      Reply
  9. Hi
    I have a female cardinal in a bush right by my house and I saw 3 eggs in nest initially. Now the bush has grown in more and I can’t see into it from my upper window. It seems she’s been sitting on the eggs for much longer than two weeks and I haven’t seen any signs of babies but I still noticed the mom on nest often. Is it possible that there are not eggs there or that they are not viable but that she would still continue to sit in the nest? I see Dad in nest occasionally, too. Would she still be sitting on the nest if the babies were born and I just can’t see them or hear them? I wish I took note of exact day of eggs. I may take a ladder to look into nest but I didn’t want to disturb her.

    Reply
    • It’s unlikely the pair would continue to sit on the eggs if they were not viable. It’s possible they are a little late, or maybe they had a fourth egg and didn’t start to truly incubate them until after that fourth egg. If the babies hatched and are very young the parents may still be sitting on the nest and protecting them. You may not be able to see or hear them for awhile while they are very young.

      Reply

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