Birding Basics: Interesting Facts About Cardinals

Add a splash of red to your backyard. Learn facts about northern cardinals, including what cardinals look like and what cardinals eat.

What Do Northern Cardinals Look Like?

It’s hard to resist northern cardinals—they’re lively, bright and amazing songsters. At about 9 inches, these flashy members of the finch family are easy to spot, if not by the males’ scarlet plumage, then by the long tails and crested heads of both the males and the reddish-tan, less showy females. Check out 15 simply stunning photos of northern cardinals.

What Do Cardinals Eat?

Cardinals aren’t picky about food or how you offer it. They are frequent backyard visitors, stopping at all kinds of feeders. Although they eat mostly seeds and fruit, cardinals supplement their diet with insects and will go after bugs to feed their nestlings. Feeders full of sunflower seeds and gardens with fruit-bearing plants such as sumac, hackberry and dogwood are surefire ways to keep them happy. Discover 6 ways to attract more cardinals.

Female Northern Cardinals

If you spot a male, chances are his mate is nearby, especially in breeding season. This is one of the few species whose female sings. Psst—this is what a cardinal’s call sounds like. A pair of cardinals might even share song phrases, using them to communicate at nesting time.

We asked the experts: Do cardinals mate for life?

Birding Basics: PyrrhuloxiaNagel Photography/

Cardinal Look-Alike

The pyrrhuloxia, sometimes called the desert cardinal, can be found in the Southwest and has the same impressive crest as the northern cardinal. The coloring is a bit different, though: Male pyrrhuloxias are mostly gray with red accents. Want to spot a cool pyrrhuloxia? Visit the southern regions of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Next, check out the best bird feeders and birdseed for cardinals.