10 Brilliant Facts About the Northern Cardinal

The northern cardinal is one of the most recognizable birds on the continent. . Carla_Davis/ MNN Flickr Group

The northern cardinal tops the list of North America's most identifiable birds, with 18 subspecies all sporting red feathers and short, cone-shaped beaks perfect for seed-eating. There is much discussion about dividing the Northern Cardinal into separate species. In 2015, one proposal recommended northern cardinals separate into six species. The governing ornithological society rejected the request based on a lack of acoustic studies. Those studies are underway, and research shows that cardinals most likely meet the threshold for species division.

They are found from Central America into North America into southern Canada, primarily in the Southeast United States. Here are 10 facts about this much-loved species.

1. Cardinals Are Sometimes Hard to Spot

Though the males are bright red year-round, cardinals can be hard to spot. They prefer to hang out in dense shrubs, and then tangled branches block the view of their feathers. Nests are constructed in well-sheltered areas of thick foliage and bramble, either in shrubs or trees. Cardinals nest as close to the ground as 1 foot or as high as 15 feet. Locate cardinals by listening for them instead. They particularly sing at the beginning of the day and around nightfall.

2. They are Territorial

Cardinals are very territorial, and males will defend their zone from intruders -- or even reflections. The males, and even sometimes females during the breeding season, will attack what they think is an intruder, but really it's their own reflection. Cutting down or eliminating reflective surfaces on windows and doors can protect the birds. Cardinals show anger with a sharp tink-tink-tink call, lowering their crest, and dive-bombing intruders. They are most territorial during the breeding season. During winter, they are more inclined to share territory.

3. They Are Common State Birds and Mascots

The cardinal is such a beloved bird that it has been named the state bird of seven states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. That makes it the most popular choice for state bird.

It is also the mascot for countless sports teams, including professional football and baseball teams. In the case of Iowa State University, the cardinal became the mascot after the team name "Cyclones" didn't translate well to a human in a costume.

4. Their Range is Expanding Northward

The range of northern cardinals has steadily shifted north since the middle of the 20th century. In 1963, journals were reporting the expansion of the range into New England. Now cardinals are well established in all parts of New England and southeastern Canada as well as Minnesota. The warmer winters due to climate change are likely part of the equation. Bird feeders also factor into range expansion and allow birds to find food even in winter.

5. They Are Easy to Attract to Yards

Feeders that allow the birds to face forward to feed easily attract cardinals. The species favors sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and peanuts. During the spring, a tray feeder with grubs, crickets, and other insects for the birds to take back to fledglings also helps attract birds.

Cardinals also 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 attracting and feeding the birds. Evergreens provide winter shelter to the birds. Speaking of shelter, cardinals do not nest in traditional birdhouses. Some tray-type birdhouses on the market will serve cardinals, but they prefer trees and bushes.

6. Their Diet Makes Their Feathers Red

Like flamingos, cardinals get their feather color from their diet. In the case of cardinals, that is 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 to red, producing a yellow cardinal.

7. They are Protected By the Migratory Bird Act

Like nearly all birds in North America, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) protects cardinals. This act makes it illegal to hunt them, chase them, disturb their nests, or sell them or their feathers. Even possessing a feather is unlawful, so it is best to leave them and teach children to leave them on the ground. The rules about possession prevent people from saying they found a feather when they bought it or obtained it by hunting or trapping the birds. Cardinals do not migrate in the traditional sense but require safety while seeking food and mates.

8. Both Male and Female Birds Sing

In songbirds, most species leave the singing to the males. This isn't true for Northern Cardinals. During courtship and nesting season, females sing as well. During courtship, the songs appear to establish and strengthen the pair-bond between the birds. While nesting, the song is thought to inform the male that she needs him to bring food. Male birds frequently sing, up to 100 songs an hour, 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. Some cardinal couples do mate for life. During courtship, a male cardinal proves his strength as a suitor by finding seeds for the female. He then feeds them to her one at a time. This beak to beak feeding appears to onlookers as kissing. If successful, the male will continue to bring seeds to his mate while she incubates the eggs.

This feeding is one factor a female considers when choosing a mate. They also receive information about the fitness of the male by the brightness of their feathers. Vibrant feather colors indicate the bird is healthy and better able to provide quality genetic material and care for the nestlings.

10. Female Cardinals Build the Nest

Nest of Northern Cardinal with four speckled brown eggs
AmyKerk / Getty Images

Following successful courtship, the female birds build a nest. This nest consists of four layers: twigs she has crushed with her beak to make pliable, followed by leaf padding, grapevine bark, and finally grasses and pine needles. Cardinals lay three or four eggs per nest and raise two to three broods per year. Remaining on the nest for the entire time, the female bird incubates eggs for 11-13 days. She leaves the chicks when they are around a week old to build a nest for her next brood. The male remains to care for fledglings. The young may remain alongside the parents through their first year.