10 Brilliant Facts About the Northern Cardinal

Male northern cardinal sitting on a leafy branch
The northern cardinal is one of the most recognizable birds on the continent. .

Carla_Davis / MNN Flickr Group

Northern cardinals top the list of North America's most identifiable birds, with 18 subspecies all sporting vivid red feathers and short, cone-shaped beaks perfect for seed-eating. There is much discussion about dividing the northern cardinal into as many as six separate species, and while research shows the bird most likely meets the threshold for species division, the governing ornithological society has rejected previous requests based on a lack of acoustic studies. 

Northern cardinals are found from Central America up into southern Canada, but primarily reside in the southeastern U.S. Here are 10 facts about the beloved, widely recognizable species.

1. Cardinals Are Sometimes Hard To Spot

Though males maintain their bright red coloration year-round, some cardinals can be hard to spot. They prefer to hang out in dense shrubs where tangled branches conceal their pigmented feathers. Nests are constructed of thick foliage and bramble in well-sheltered areas such as shrubs or trees. Cardinals nest as low as one foot or as high as 15 feet off the ground. One of the best ways to locate cardinals is by listening for them. They sing mostly at the beginning of the day and around nightfall.

2. They Are Territorial

Cardinals are very territorial, especially during the breeding season. Males — and sometimes even females — will sometimes even injure themselves by fighting with their own reflections when they think they're fighting with intruders. They show their anger with a sharp tink-tink-tink call and a lowering of their crest, then they attack by dive-bombing. Reducing the number of reflective surfaces on windows and doors around your home can help protect the birds.

3. They Are Common State Birds and Mascots

The cardinal is so treasured that it is the most popular choice for state bird, adopted by a whopping seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. What's more, it is also the mascot for countless professional football, baseball, and other sports teams. In the case of Iowa State University, the cardinal became the mascot after the team name "Cyclones" didn't translate well to a costume.

4. Their Range Is Expanding Northward

The northern cardinal's range has steadily shifted north since the middle of the 20th century. In 1963, journals reported the expansion of the range into New England. Now, cardinals are well established in all parts of that region, plus southeastern Canada and Minnesota. The impact of climate change on winter temperatures are likely part of the equation. Bird feeders also factor into range expansion as they make it easier for the birds to find food during winter.

5. They Are Easy To Attract to Yards

Bird feeders can help you attract cardinals to your space. The species favors sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and peanuts. During spring, a tray feeder with grubs, crickets, and other insects for the birds to take back to fledglings is also helpful.

Cardinals look for yards with plenty of brush and leaf cover. Choosing shrubs and trees with berries such as dogwood, blackberry, and serviceberry does double duty to shelter and feed the birds at the same. Evergreens also make for great winter shelter. Cardinals do not nest in traditional birdhouses.

6. Their Diet Makes Their Feathers Red

Male northern cardinal on a berry branch eating red berries
Stan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer / Getty Images

Like flamingos, cardinals get their feather color from their diet: dogwood berries, grapes, and other berries. These foods contain carotenoids, the source of phytonutrients like beta-carotene and lutein. Cardinals have an enzyme that converts yellow carotenoids to red before depositing them in the feathers. Some cardinals have a defect that fails to convert the carotenoids, causing the birds to be yellow instead of red.

7. They Are Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Like nearly all birds in North America, northern cardinals are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which makes it illegal to hunt, chase, or sell them and their feathers, or disturb their nests. The rule against feather possession prevents people from saying they found a feather in the wild when they actually bought it or obtained it by illegal hunting and trapping. Cardinals do not migrate in the traditional sense, but they — like the other bird species included in the act — require safety while seeking food and mates.

8. Both Male and Female Cardinals Sing

With most songbird species, only the males sing. This isn't the case for northern cardinals, whose females also belt out tunes during courtship, to establish and strengthen the pair's bond, and the nesting season, when a female's songs are thought to inform the male that she needs him to bring food. Male birds frequently sing, too — up to 100 songs an hour, all year round.

9. They Sometimes Appear To Kiss

Cardinal courtship: red male cardinal offers female bird a seed and birds are beak to beak on a narrow tree branch
Howard Cheek Photography / Getty Images

Cardinals are serial monogamists that pair up for a year or longer, although some couples do mate for life. During courtship, a male proves his strength as a suitor by finding seeds for the female. He then feeds them to her one at a time, from his beak to hers, in an endearing ritual that looks a lot like kissing. If successful, the male will continue bringing seeds to his mate while she incubates the eggs.

Of course, this is only one factor a female considers when choosing a mate. She also gathers information about the fitness of the male by the brightness of his feathers. The brighter the colors, the healthier (and therefore more apt to provide quality genetic material) the male.

10. They Flock Together in the Winter

Despite their territorial nature, northern cardinals will let their guards down after the breeding season ends, sometimes forming flocks of up to several dozen birds for the winter. Being in these big groups helps them forage when insects and other food sources are scarce. They will often be seen foraging alongside dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, goldfinches, and other birds.

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