Everything You Need to Know About a Cardinal Nest

Ever wonder about the cardinal nest in your backyard? Learn how (and when) cardinals build their cup-shaped nests with twigs and bark.

What Does a Cardinal Nest Look Like?

cardinal nest babyCourtesy Kellie Pascucci
Three baby cardinals in a nest

There are different types of bird nests, such as platform nests, cavity nests and ground nests. A cardinal nest falls under the category of cupped nest. When you think of a typical bird nest, you probably imagine a cupped nest: twigs bent and shaped into a little bowl. Northern cardinals build the structure of their nests with grass, twigs, stems and strips of grapevine bark.

Learn how to recognize northern cardinal eggs.

How Do Cardinals Build Their Nests?

cardinal with nesting materialDebraCarrPhotography/Getty Images
One male cardinal building a nest. Sitting on branch. Spring. Canada.

The female northern cardinal is the primary builder. Her male counterpart helps by finding and bringing her nest-building materials. He may occasionally assist with construction, too. Because the female cardinal is busy building, the male also keeps an eye out for predators, such as hawks and squirrels.

The female cardinal uses her beak to crush and soften the twigs. That makes them more flexible and easier to bend into shape. To create a warm interior for future fledglings, she lines it with leaves, grass, pine needles and hair or fur. Then she turns around inside the nest and stamps her feet to get that distinctive cup shape. This also makes her cup nest the perfect custom fit for when she starts incubating eggs.

Discover interesting cardinal bird facts you should know.

Where Do Cardinals Build Their Nests?

Female cardinal in the nestWoodysPhotos/Getty Images
A female cardinal bird sits in her nest

You’ll find cardinal nests 5 to 10 feet off the ground and tucked away in the dense foliage of shrubs and trees. Nests built higher than 15 feet are rare. A cardinal nest is usually 4 inches wide and 2 to 3 inches tall. Its diameter is about 3 inches. Cardinals construct their nests wedged snugly into the branching forks of trees. Some of their favorite trees and shrubs include: dogwood, hawthorn, spruce, rose bushes, elms and blackberry brambles. They tend to choose nesting sites that are at the edges of woods, fields, suburbs and backyards.

You’re not likely to find cardinal nests in open grasslands with no shrubs or in deep forests. Cardinals never build their nests in birdhouses.

What Time of Year Do Cardinals Build Nests?

Newborn Baby cardinal in a Nest.T-STUDIO/Getty Images
Cardinal nesting season starts in early spring

Nest-building begins as early as February for northern cardinals, because their breeding season kicks off in March and early April. (The season ends in late August.) It takes from three to nine days for cardinals to build a nest. The majority of nest-building happens between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m. but later in the season, nest-building hours might happen later in the day.

Northern cardinals don’t usually reuse the same nest twice. Cardinals build new nests every year — and more than once in a single year.

Next, learn about what foods cardinals eat and how to attract them.

Kaitlin Stainbrook
Kaitlin Stainbrook has been writing about birding and gardening for nearly a decade. As the associate editor of Birds & Blooms magazine, she wrote and edited articles across a wide range of topics from houseplants to hummingbirds. She's worked closely with top birding and gardening experts and continues to learn everything she can about the natural world around us.