Interesting Cardinal Bird Facts You Should Know

Cardinals are one of the most popular backyard birds. Learn interesting cardinal bird facts, including why male cardinals are red, and if cardinals migrate.

What Does a 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 flashy members of the finch family are easy to spot, if not by the males’ scarlet red plumage, then by the long tails and crested heads of both the male cardinals and the reddish-tan, less showy female cardinals.

Check out simply stunning pictures of cardinals.

Male Cardinal Bird

Northern cardinal rests on a branchCourtesy Michelle Summers
Male cardinal

The male cardinal is bright red with a black face. He also has a prominent crest and pink or orange bill.

Female Cardinal Bird

female cardinalCourtesy Shawn Parson
Female cardinal

If you spot a male, chances are his female mate is nearby, especially in breeding season. A female cardinal is fawn colored with red accents.

We asked the experts: Do cardinals mate for life?

Do Cardinal Birds Migrate?

Northern cardinals 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.

Northern Cardinal Bird Species

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

Learn what cardinals eat and more ways to attract cardinals.

Both Male and Female Cardinals Sing

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

One fascinating 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 with a potential suitor.

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

Listen to the northern cardinal’s song.

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Find out if cardinal sightings have meaning.

Cardinals Visit 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.

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

Cardinals Are Early Nesters

cardinal nest and babiesCourtesy Amy Volovski
Cardinal babies and eggs in a nest

Cardinals generally stay in the same area, which helps get a jump-start on nesting, with some laying eggs by February. This long breeding season allows for multiple broods each year and ensures the survival of offspring. About 20% of mated pairs separate each year; however, most cardinal couples stick together for several breeding seasons.

It takes three to nine days for a cardinal pair to build a nest, with the female cardinal doing most of the work. Young baby cardinals are pretty demanding—in the first days after they hatch, their parents feed them up to eight times an hour!

Find out what to do if you find a bird nest with eggs or a baby bird.

Why Are Male Cardinal Birds Red?

northern cardinal in snowCourtesy Anne Duvall
Red male cardinal

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. The flashy color boosts the bird’s ability to successfully attract mates and defend a pair’s nesting territory.

Don’t miss magical bird photos of cardinals in snow.

Look for Cardinal Birds in Other Colors

leucistic cardinalCourtesy Diane Atterson
Leucistic male cardinal

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. Some scientists suggest that cardinals in the Sonoran Desert might actually 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.

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.

Pet 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.

Check out the best cardinal gifts for redbird lovers.

Cardinal Mascots

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

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.

Discover more birds that look like cardinals.

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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.