Physical TraitsFairly large, long-tailed finch with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. Often sits with a hunched-over posture and with the tail pointed straight down. The male cardinals are brilliant red all over, with a reddish bill and black face immediately around the bill while females are pale brown overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. They have the same black face and red-orange bill.
HabitatBackyards, parks, woodlots, and shrubby forest edges. They nest in dense tangles of shrubs and vine. The brilliant red of a male calls attention to itself. Away from backyards, cardinals are still common but inconspicuous owing to their affinity for dense tangles
DietEat mainly seeds and fruit, supplementing these with insects (and feeding nestlings mostly insects). Common fruits and seeds include dogwood, wild grape, buckwheat, grasses, sedges, mulberry, hackberry, blackberry, sumac, tulip-tree, and corn. They eat many kinds of birdseed, particularly black oil sunflower seed. They also eat beetles, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers, cicadas, flies, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, and moths.
BehaviorNorthern Cardinals tend to sit low in shrubs and trees or forage on or near the ground, often in pairs. They are common at bird feeders but may be inconspicuous away from them, at least until you learn their loud, metallic chip note. Many people are perplexed each spring by the sight of a cardinal attacking its reflection in a window, car mirror, or shiny bumper. Both males and females do this, and most often in spring and early summer when they are obsessed with defending their territory against any intruders. Birds may spend hours fighting these intruders without giving up. A few weeks later, as levels of aggressive hormones subside, these attacks should end (though one female kept up this behavior every day or so for six months without stopping).
Nest Building TechniquesMales sometimes bring nest material to the female, who does most of the building. She crushes twigs with her beak until they’re pliable, then turns in the nest to bend the twigs around her body and push them into a cup shape with her feet. The cup has four layers: coarse twigs (and sometimes bits of trash) covered in a leafy mat, then lined with grapevine bark and finally grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles. The nest typically takes 3 to 9 days to build; the finished product is 2-3 inches tall, 4 inches across, with an inner diameter of about 3 inches. Cardinals usually don’t use their nests more than once.
Migration and RangeThe Northern Cardinal is a year round resident of New Jersey. The map shows that it is a non-migratory species in much of the Eastern United States as well a large portion of Northern Mexico. Resident. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.
Cool FactsA perennial favorite among people, the Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven states.
Only a few female North American songbirds sing, but the female Northern Cardinal does, and often while sitting on the nest. This may give the male information about when to bring food to the nest.
A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male.
The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was 15 years 9 months old.