11 Interesting Cardinal Bird Facts You Should Know

Cardinals are popular backyard birds. Learn cardinal bird facts, including why male cardinals are red, and where to find cardinals.

What Does a Northern Cardinal Bird Look Like?

It’s hard to resist a northern cardinal bird. They’re lively, bright and amazing songsters. At about 9 inches, with a 12 inch wingspan, these popular birds are flashy members of the finch family. Both males and females have long tails and crested heads. Cardinals, affectionately known as redbirds, are often featured on Christmas decorations, in snowy scenes that take on vibrancy thanks to the dash of red.

Check out simply stunning pictures of cardinals.

Male Cardinal Bird

Northern cardinal rests on a branchCourtesy Michelle Summers
Male cardinals stand out with their red feathers

It’s easy to identify a male cardinal, with his bright red feathers and a black face mask. He also has a prominent spiked crest and a pink or orange bill.

See 9 birds that look like cardinals.

Female Cardinal Bird

female cardinalCourtesy Shawn Parson
Female cardinals are less colorful than males

If you spot a male, chances are his less-showy female mate is nearby, especially in breeding season. A female cardinal is fawn colored with red accents. Although the female is more subdued, she is no less adored.

If you see a cardinal, here’s what it means.

Cardinals Have a Large Bird Range

Bnbbyc19 Tom MangelsdorfCourtesy Tom Mangelsdorf
A male Northern Cardinal perched on the decayed remains of a Saguaro cactus in Scottsdale, Arizona

Northern cardinals are abundant in the East, Midwest and Southwest. These birds are not migratory, so lucky residents of the eastern half of the U.S. get to enjoy these birds all year. Cardinals may show up anyplace with dense low cover, such as backyards, parks, forest, swamps, even deserts. These birds thrive in towns and suburbs and the species has expanded northward from its historic range.

There are some regional variations in the species, especially in the Southwest and Mexico. Some scientists suggest that cardinals in the Sonoran Desert might be a different species from those found elsewhere in the United States, despite their proximity to northern cardinals in other southwestern deserts. Cardinals in the Sonoran Desert are somewhat larger, with longer crests, and the males are a paler red color. They also have slightly different songs.

Northern Cardinal Bird Species

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

Learn what cardinals eat and how to to attract cardinals.

Both Male and Female Cardinals Sing

cardinal meaning and symbolismCourtesy Ava Huffman
Female cardinals sing to communicate with males.

One fascinating northern cardinal bird fact—mostly male birds do the singing, but this is one of the few species whose female sings. A pair of cardinals might even share song phrases, using them to communicate at nesting time. Female cardinals will sing back and forth to reinforce pair bonding early in the breeding season.

Males sing at least nine months a year. Only during the deepest of winter months do they take a break from singing.

cardinal birdCourtesy Marty Maynard
Cardinals are very vocal songbirds

Cardinals sing more than 24 different songs. The most common is “What cheer! What cheer! What cheer!” Also listen for a repetitive pew, pew, pew, pew song. A cardinal’s call sounds like a high-pitched “chip!”

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Psst—we found cardinal gifts for redbird lovers.

Cardinals Eat Seeds From Bird Feeders

what do cardinals eatCourtesy Sharon Cuartero
Female and male cardinal at a bird feeder

Hang up a tube feeder to attract cardinals almost immediately. They seem to recognize the shape of the feeder, and their presence attracts other birds. Serve black oil sunflower seeds or safflower seeds. They are also comfortable eating on a platform feeder or foraging right off the ground.

Psst—here’s how to choose the best cardinal bird feeders and birdseed,

Cardinals Are Early Nesters

cardinal nest and babiesCourtesy Amy Volovski
Baby cardinals and egg in a nest

Cardinals generally stay in the same area, which helps get a jump-start on nesting, with some laying eggs by February. For their first nests in early spring, cardinals often choose the protection of evergreens. This long breeding season allows for multiple broods each year and ensures the survival of at least a few offspring. Cardinals aren’t too particular when it comes to nest location, and this generalist approach makes them susceptible to predation.

It takes three to nine days for a cardinal pair to build a nest, with the female cardinal doing most of the work. She lays three to four whitish-gray bird eggs with brown speckles in a nest of twigs and grasses hidden in a dense tree or shrub. Compared to other birds, their nests are low, only 4 to 8 feet off the ground.

Northern cardinals are territorial during breeding and the male cardinal bird dad stays near the nest. Young baby cardinals are pretty demanding—in the first days after they hatch, their parents feed them up to eight times an hour!

About 20% of mated pairs separate each year; however, most cardinal couples stick together for several breeding seasons. During the winter they are not as attentive to each other, and often feed separately.

Don’t miss these magical pictures of cardinals in snow.

Plant Dense Shrubs for the Ideal Cardinal Habitat

northern cardinal birdsCourtesy Cindy Lang
Adult male cardinal and a juvenile on a gardenia shrub

Thick cover provides good habitat for cardinals throughout the seasons. Hedgerows, shrubby stands, overgrown fields and forest edges all make suitable winter roosts. Planting a mix of small, dense trees and shrubs is ideal. Some cover trees and plants to try are box elder, eastern red cedar, nannyberry, and shrub roses. Wild grapevine is a good addition, too, because cardinals use its bark for nesting material.

Will a cardinal use a bird house?

Why Are Male Cardinal Birds Red?

northern cardinal in snowCourtesy Anne Duvall
Cardinals’ bold red coloring comes from eating berries.

Another interesting cardinal bird fact—the male’s bold red coloration is thought to help attract mates. The brightness of plumage is related to diet. Male cardinals’ vivid red color comes from carotenoid pigments, which are found in red fruits. Eating more of these scarlet-hued berries, especially during molting, helps a male form brighter red feathers. Studies indicate that the showier males tend to hold better territories, provide extra parental care and show higher nesting success.

Do cardinals eat suet from bird feeders?

Look for Rare Cardinal Birds in Other Colors

leucistic cardinalCourtesy Diane Atterson
This leucistic male cardinal is mostly white.

Rare genetic variations called xanthochroism can cause cardinals to be yellow instead of the familiar red. You may also be lucky to spot white cardinals and other leucistic birds.

A similar looking species in the southwest, the pyrrhuloxia, is sometimes called a desert cardinal. In Hawaii, South America and Puerto Rico, you may see the red-crested cardinal.

Is there a blue colored cardinal bird?

How Did the Cardinal Bird Get Its Name?

cardinalCourtesy Sheila Babin
The cardinal bird name has historic origins.

The source of the cardinal’s name may not be as obvious today, but in the 1600s and 1700s it was a well-known reference to the red garments worn by cardinals of the Catholic clergy.

This cardinal bird rescue story is simply amazing.

Can You Own Pet Cardinals?

276008529 1 Charles Rogers Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Charles Rogers
It is against the law to keep wild birds as pets, including cardinals.

While you definitely can’t own a cardinal for a pet bird today, surprisingly, there was a time when it was OK to do so. Before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it was legal to keep wild birds as pets. Likely because of their color and sweet songs, northern cardinals were a popular choice.

Why does a cardinal raise its crest?

Cardinal Sports Team Mascots

Nfl: Oct 28 49ers At CardinalsIcon Sportswire/Getty Images
Arizona cardinals football team

Cardinals are known to fiercely defend their territories, which has made them a fitting mascot for athletic teams. In professional sports, two teams are named for this bright red bird and its fighting spirit: the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals.

Next, check out more small red bird species you might see.

Ken Keffer
Professional naturalist and award-winning environmental educator and author Ken Keffer has penned seven books connecting kids and the outdoors. Ken is currently on the Outdoor Writers Association of America Board of Directors. Ken was born and raised in Wyoming. He's done a little bit of everything, from monitoring small mammals in Grand Teton National Park to researching flying squirrels in southeast Alaska. Ken enjoys birding, floating on lazy rivers, fly fishing, and walking his dog.