Don’t Let a Female Cardinal Fly Under the Radar

Updated: Sep. 29, 2023

Is the female cardinal an angel, or just a hard-working female bird supporting her mate? Learn about the secret life of the female cardinal.

Show the Female Cardinal Some Love

It would be easy to take northern cardinals for granted, yet people rarely do. Instead, this species is one of the most beloved birds. The northern cardinal is the official avian species for seven states after all. It’s also a bird where the female cardinal garners as much attention and affection as the male counterpart.

Quiz: How many female birds can you ID?

Bird Color: What Does a Female Cardinal Look Like?

female cardinal birdCourtesy Janine Martin
The male cardinal gets most of the spotlight, but the female cardinal also has beautiful colors.

Few birds are as bright red as a male cardinal, but a female cardinal is just as easy to identify. These medium sized songbirds present a unique shape. The massive seed cracking beak is impossible to miss. The wispy crest of feathers gives cardinals a pointed crown, although this can be lowered and difficult to spot in some instances. Female cardinals are brownish gray color with a red wash along the tail, wings, and head. Immature birds look similar to female cardinals, but the youngsters have a dull beak, while females have bright orange ones.

Do northern cardinals mate for life?

Do Female Cardinals Sing?

253649166 1 Cynthia Lockwood Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Cynthia Lockwood
Listen for female cardinals singing in spring.

The sharp repetitive whistles of northern cardinals are a sure sign of spring. Female cardinals join in on the chorus of notes early in the season. They will even sing out while sitting on the nest. The female variation of the shared cardinal song is more complex than the males. Researchers think this might be a way to convey information about when food should be delivered to the nest.

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

Chippy Chirps

female cardinal with mateCourtesy Lori Sheirer
A female cardinal in a sweet courtship moment with her mate

In addition to the more elaborate songs, cardinal chip calls are worth paying attention to. These sharp, nearly metallic sounding chip notes are used by the birds to warn off intruders, alert other cardinals to potential danger, and as a way for male and female cardinals to stay in touch with one another. These single chips can be used by birders to key in on the location of a cardinal. This is quite helpful as the species is notorious for hunkering down in thick shrubs and hedges and can be difficult to spot.

If you love cardinals, don’t miss these 25 stunning cardinal bird pictures.

Nest Defenders

baby cardinals with femaleCourtesy Jody Miller
Female cardinal at her bird nest

Both male and female cardinals may take to pecking window reflections during nesting season as they defend their established territories. As part of the courtship ritual, females will often receive food treats from a male. Females incubate their eggs for nearly two weeks. Young cardinals fledge roughly 10 days after hatching. Multiple broods per season is common for northern cardinals.

Here’s everything you need to know about a cardinal nest.

Expanding Range

female cardinalCourtesy Martin Torres
Birders can see male and female cardinals across much of the United States.

Northern cardinals are found from southern Mexico, north to central Arizona, and throughout the eastern half of the United States. Over the last century the species has continued to expand its range northward and westward. In Connecticut the first male and female breeding pair was documented in the 1940s, and it wasn’t until the 1950s the species nested in Massachusetts. Many factors are at play with this growing distribution including an increase in shrubby and edge habitats, milder winters, and more abundant bird feeders. Project FeederWatch data has shown cardinals expanding farther north in Minnesota, Michigan, and southeastern Canada in the last 30 years.

Meet the 3 types of cardinals in North America.

Attract Male and Female Cardinals to Feeders

female cardinalCourtesy Peggy Mccall
Female cardinal on a bird feeder

To make a backyard buffet most enticing to cardinals, consider a tray or a platform feeder. As natural ground feeders, these birds don’t like to perch and bend around to eat from traditional tube feeders. Adding a dish to the bottom is a simple solution to make the cardinals feel more at home. Sunflower seed is a cardinal favorite as is safflower seed. They are often some of the last birds to visit a feeder, timing their feeding frenzy as the sun is setting.

The territorial nature of cardinals subdues in winter. During the colder months, the birds gather in small flocks. The diets shift to more seeds and less insects, so visitation at your cardinal bird feeders can pick up. Adding a water feature like a heated bird bath is another way to attract male and female cardinals and other birds to your yard.

Next, find out more about what foods cardinals eat and how to attract them.