Red birds, Common cardinals, Virginia nightingales, Cardinal grosbeaks, Cardinal-birds, Cardinal red-birds, Virginia redbirds, Crested redbirds, Top-knot redbirds
The Northern cardinal is a medium-sized very popular songbird of North America. Seven eastern states have it as their official state bird. The male is perhaps most responsible for their popularity, being the perfect combination of conspicuousness, familiarity, and style, featuring a very appealing shade of red. The brown females even have a sharp crest and red accents. These birds do not migrate and they do not molt to a dull plumage, so in the winter snow they still look stunning. In summer, one of the earliest sounds in the morning is their sweet whistling.
Northern cardinals are common throughout central and eastern North America, and south from Florida and Mexico down to Belize and Guatemala. This species has also been introduced to Bermuda, California, and Hawaii. They inhabit woodland edges, streamside thickets, swamps and vegetation near houses in suburban areas.
Habits and lifestyle
This species is not migratory but is a year-round resident within its range. During the day, these birds are active, especially in the morning and evening. In winter they feed in large flocks of as many as 60 to 70, mainly in open thickets on the ground, but they also forage in bushes and trees. In winter, most will roost and flock together. Males are very territorial and will defend their territory from other males. If they see their own reflection, they may attempt to fight this intruder. These birds primarily use physical displays and vocalizations to communicate. Both male and female cardinals sing, with beautiful, loud whistled phrases, sounding like "whacheer whacheer" and "whoit whoit whoit". They sing for courtship and to defend territories. "Chips" is their contact call or alarm. They also use many visual displays for signaling alarm, including "tail-flicks" and lifting and lowering their crest.
college, deck, radiance, conclave, Vatican
Diet and nutrition
Northern cardinals are serially monogamous and pairs remain together for only one breeding season, rarely more. During the season, male and female engage in courtship displays, swaying from side to side with necks outstretched, crests erect, while singing softly. They may offer the other bird a seed, touching beaks briefly as they do so. Northern cardinals breed from March to September. They usually have two broods per year, one starting around March and the other late May to July. The nest is built by the female within a dense tangle of twigs or vines in a shrub or small tree. Eggs are greenish or bluish and spotted with brown, numbering 1 to 5. Incubation is for around 11 to 13 days, and just by the female, though the male feeds her. She broods her altricial chicks for the first two days, both parents feeding them. Chicks start to fledge when they are about 7 to 13 days old, and are fed for about a month after leaving the nest. They then join a flock of juveniles. They are reproductively mature when they are one year old.
Over the past 200 years, this species has increased in geographic range and number. However, habitat loss at their edge of their range, in southeastern California, may lead to the loss of the cardinal population in this area.
According to the Animal Diversity Web (University of Michigan-Museum of Zoology) resource, the total population size of the Northern cardinal is around 100 million individuals. According to the All About Birds resource, the total breeding population size of the species is 120 million birds, with 77% resident in the U.S., while 22% are in Mexico. Overall, currently Northern cardinals are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today remain stable.
As these birds eat lots of seeds and fruit, they may act as seed dispersers for some plants. They also may influence the composition of the plant community through their seed eating. They also sometimes raise Brown-headed cowbird chicks from eggs that have been laid in their nests, helping populations of these birds.
Fun facts for kids
- Male Northern cardinals that are a brighter red have territories that have denser vegetation, feed at levels that are higher and have more success with females than males who are less bright in color.
- The Northern cardinal features as the state bird of these seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
- A group of cardinals is known by many names including a "college", "deck", "radiance", "conclave", and "Vatican" of cardinals.
- Female Northern cardinals sing often when sitting on the nest, which may give her mate information about bringing food to the nest.
- People are puzzled each spring when they see a cardinal attacking its reflected image in a window, mirror, or shiny surface. Males and females both do this, most often in the spring and early summer, in order to defend their territory against intruders. They spend hours fighting without giving up. As their aggressive hormones subside a few weeks later, these attacks should stop. One bird, however, kept up this behavior for six months.