Northern Cardinal

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Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis

Last updated: March 3, 2022
Verified by: IMP
Image Credit Bonnie Taylor Barry/

Males are a bright red color, also called “cardinal red”

Northern Cardinal Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Cardinalis cardinalis

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Northern Cardinal Conservation Status

Northern Cardinal Locations

Northern Cardinal Locations

Northern Cardinal Facts

Small insects, worms
Fun Fact
Males are a bright red color, also called “cardinal red”
Estimated Population Size
Biggest Threat
Insecticides, cats
Most Distinctive Feature
Raised crest
Other Name(s)
redbird, common cardinal
9.8-12.2 inches
Incubation Period
12-13 days
Wetlands, shrublands, gardens, woodlands
Birds of prey, snakes, cats
Common Name
Cardinal, red cardinal
Number Of Species
North America and South America
Nesting Location
Trees, shrubs
Age of Molting

Northern Cardinal Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
  • Red
  • Olive
Skin Type
Top Speed
37 mph
Up to 3 years
8.3-9.3 inches

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View all of the Northern Cardinal images!

Males are a bright red color, also called “cardinal red”

The northern cardinal is a mid-sized songbird also called by its common names cardinal, red cardinal, common cardinal or redbird. It lives in North and South America. Introduced to Bermuda in 1700, it was also introduced to southern Arizona, southern California and Hawaii. The bird is one of many species of cardinal, so named for having the northernmost range, plus its cardinal-red color.

4 Incredible Northern Cardinal Facts!

  • The term “redbird” refers to a cardinal, but “red bird” can mean any red-colored bird.
  • The “cardinal” in both its common name and scientific name refers to the red caps and robes that Roman Catholic cardinals wear, also known as cardinal red.
  • Male and female calls are sexually dimorphic due to hormonal differences.
  • It’s called a northern cardinal to distinguish its range from other species.

Where To Find Northern Cardinals

The natural habitat of the northern cardinal is wetlands, shrublands, gardens, and woodlands. You can find them in the southern half of Maine, Minnesota, the Texas-Mexico border, southern Canada, Mexico, northern Guatemala, northern Belize, Bermuda, Hawaii, southern California and southern Arizona. It nests in trees and shrubs. January through September is the mating season which is when people are most likely to see the bird.

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Northern Cardinal Nests

The habitat of the redbird is dense shrubs and low trees about 3.3-9.8 feet off the ground. It is mostly the female who builds the nest, with the male providing nesting material. The nest has a cup shape and is made up of four layers being coarse twigs, sometimes with pieces of trash, grapevine bark lining, and then pine needles, rootlets, stems and grasses. It takes three to nine days to build, with the completed nest measuring 2-3 inches in height, 4 inches across, and an inner diameter of about 3 inches. The pair usually uses the nest only once.

Northern Cardinal Scientific Name

There are 14 genera in the family Cardinalidae, also known as cardinal-grosbeaks and cardinal-buntings. There are 3 species in the cardinal genus Cardinalis. 19 subspecies of Cardinalis cardinalis exist, with C. cardinalis being the type species.

Northern Cardinal Size & Appearance

The northern cardinal is a mid-sized songbird characterized by its raised crest and bright beak featuring a coral color. It measures 8.3-9.3 inches in body length with a wingspan of 9.8-12.2 inches. Males are a cardinal red color and females are olive-brown with red accents; males are also somewhat larger in length and weight than females. Adults weigh 1.19-2.29 ounces with an average weight of 1.58 ounces. Due to their bright color (whether the red body of the males or the coral color of both of their beaks) they conceal their nests in dense trees and shrubs.

They do not migrate and do not molt their plumage into a dull color. Instead, they lose a few feathers at a time from their bodies, and often lose all the feathers on their heads. Molting occurs during late summer through mid-autumn. Baby cardinals are born featherless with grey scaling and pink skin, and during molting get a tan color which changes to light, mottled browns and soft reds before sexually dimorphic colors develop. Their beaks start off black and fade to a coral red color.

Northern Cardinal on a branch
Northern Cardinal on a branch

Bonnie Taylor Barry/

Northern Cardinal Behavior

The calls of males and females are sexually dimorphic due to hormonal differences. However, they are indistinguishable to the human ear. Northern cardinals have a variety of songs. Males are territorial, and one of their calls is a clear, high whistle from high up in a tree to defend their territory. Both sexes learn their songs and so their songs vary depending on their area. Their songs consist of clear whistles in repeating patterns at first which then become varied. They also make metallic, short chip sounds as warning calls against predators or for a pair to locate each other. When not mating, northern cardinals rejoin their flock.

Northern Cardinal Diet

The northern cardina’s typical food consists of grains, seeds, fruit, and insects. Insects include grasses, grains, tree buds, nuts, cutworms, caterpillars, grasshoppers, termites, spiders, and beetles, which it digs from the ground and bushes with its strong beak. Insecticides and other chemicals are toxic to them. For a complete list of the foods cardinals eat, check out our “What Do Cardinals Eat?” page.

Northern Cardinal Predators and Threats

Because the northern cardinal looks for food on the ground, and it has bright colors, other animals can easily see it. The search for food leaves it vulnerable to predators, especially birds of prey like eagles and owls, and even moreso during the winter in contrast with snow. Other birds of prey that hunt northern cardinals are hawks, falcons, and shrikes. Snakes and domestic cats also hunt them. Even squirrels and chipmunks can kill them, as can crashing into windows. Predators of eggs and chicks are domestic cats, chipmunks, squirrels, crows, blue jays, and snakes.

Northern Cardinal Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

Mating season for northern cardinals begins as early as January and ends as late as September. They usually mate for life, although they may have other mates between seasons, and when their mate dies, they find another one. Males feed females in order to bond with them, and also provide nesting materials. They sing together before nesting.

Females lay eggs one to six days after completing the nest, with a clutch size of three or four eggs each time and two to four broods each year, with the first brood around March and the second between May and July. The eggs are white tinted brown, blue or green, with brown, grey or lavender blotches which get thicker at the larger end. Their shells are smooth and somewhat glossy. They measure 1.02 x 0.75 inches in size. Females do most of the incubating, with the male incubating briefly on rare occasions, during the period of 12 to 13 days. While the females incubate the next clutch, males feed and care for the existing brood.

The bird reaches sexual maturity at 1 year, while its lifespan is an average of 3 years in the wild. Each year, 40 percent die, and many juvenile birds don’t live to adulthood, often only living about a year. The oldest wild cardinal was 15 years old, but in captivity, the oldest cardinal was 28.5 years old.

Northern Cardinal Population

According to the known facts about the bird, the northern cardinal is not endangered or threatened, but it can encounter many outdoor hazards. The IUCN Red List states its population is stable and listed as Least Concern.

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Northern Cardinal FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does it mean when you see a Northern cardinal?

Seeing any red cardinal symbolizes a ray of hope and represents good luck and new beginnings.

What is the difference between a cardinal and a Northern cardinal?

The geographical range in which they are found.

Where do Northern Cardinals live?

North and South America.

What does a Northern cardinal sound like?

It has several calls: “cheer, cheer, cheer, what, what, what, what,” , “purdy, purdy, purdy…whoit, whoit, whoit, whoit”, “cheeeer-a-dote, cheeer-a-dote-dote-dote,” and “what-cheer, what-cheer… wheet, wheet, wheet, wheet.”

What do Northern cardinals eat?

Seeds, grains, insects and fruit.

Do Northern cardinals migrate?


How many eggs do Northern cardinals lay?


How fast do Northern cardinals fly?

19-37mph with an average of 25mph.

What is Northern cardinal’s wingspan?

9.8-12.2 inches.

When do northern cardinals leave the nest?

10-11 days after hatching.

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  2. BioExplorer, Available here:
  3. What Birds are in My Back Yard?, Available here:
  4. Animalia, Available here:
  5. BirdWatching Buzz, Available here:
  6. Country Captures, Available here:
  7. Sciencing, Available here:
  8. Answers, Available here:
  9. Animal Diversity Web, Available here:
  10. Caring Cardinals, Available here:
  11. The Spruce, Available here:
  12. Answers, Available here:
  13. BirdWatching Buzz, Available here:
  14. Texas A&M AgriLife Research (1970) Jump to top

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