Why Does a Cardinal Raise Its Crest?

A bright red cardinal crest is unmistakable. Find out why cardinals raise their crests and if female cardinals have crests.

Cardinal Crest Behavior

275346980 1 Brenda Doherty Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Brenda Doherty
A cardinal crest may offer some clues to its behavior.

What causes a northern cardinal to raise or lower its crest? asks Birds & Blooms reader Larry Thompson of Irving, Texas.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “Northern cardinals raise or lower their crests at will. The position of the crest can be a signal to other cardinals, but the meaning of the signal seems to vary. When one male is aggressively driving another one away, it may flatten its crest completely, while the losing bird raises its crest high.”

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

Cardinal Crests During Courtship

275235521 1 Tracey Losier Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Tracey Losier
Male cardinal feeds black oil sunflower seeds to a female in a courtship display.

The Kaufmans say, “When males are putting on courtship displays to woo females, they raise their crests in some displays and lower them in others. (Do cardinals mate for life?) Their body language must be clear to other cardinals, but we human observers have to watch the rest of their behavior for more clues.”

Learn how to recognize northern cardinal eggs and cardinal nests.

Do Female Cardinals Have Crests?

cardinal crestCourtesy John Neuman
Female northern cardinal with raised crest feathers

Look for crested heads on both the scarlet red male cardinals and the reddish-tan, less showy females. Juvenile northern cardinals have a thin wispy crest of feathers.

Can a cardinal fly without tail feathers?

Watch Cardinals at Feeders

cardinal crestCourtesy John Carney
Northern cardinal on a tube feeder

A tube or hopper feeder full of black oil sunflower seeds is the best way to lure these bold red birds to backyards across the eastern U.S. When they visit, take note of their territorial behaviors.

Love looking at cardinals? Don’t miss 25 simply stunning cardinal bird pictures.

More Birds With Crests

cedar waxwingCourtesy Deborah Bryk
Cedar waxwing with a spiked head crest 

If you saw another bird with a crest, you might have spotted a cedar waxwing, tufted titmouse or a blue jay. See more birds that look like cardinals.

Lori Vanover
Lori has 20 years of experience writing and editing home, garden, birding and lifestyle content for several publishers. As Birds & Blooms senior digital editor, she leads a team of writers and editors sharing birding tips and expert gardening advice. Since joining Trusted Media Brands 13 years ago, she has held roles in digital and print, editing magazines and books, curating special interest publications, managing social media accounts, creating digital content and newsletters, and working with the Field Editors—Birds & Blooms network of more than 50 backyard birders. Passionate about animals and nature, Lori has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural and Environmental Communications from the University of Illinois. In 2023, she became certified as a Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener, and she is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and sits on the organization's Publications Advisory Committee. She frequently checks on her bird feeders while working from home and tests new varieties of perennials, herbs and vegetable plants in her ever-growing backyard gardens.