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Cardinal: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

The cardinal, a bird species synonymous with beauty and vitality, is a sight to behold against the backdrop of a snowy winter or a vibrant spring.

Named for their striking red plumage, which is reminiscent of the robes worn by Catholic cardinals, these birds are a subject of fascination for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

This article serves as a comprehensive fact sheet, offering a deep dive into the world of cardinals, from their taxonomy to their habits and even fun trivia.

The Cardinal at a Glance


Class:Aves (Birds)
Species:C. cardinalis

Essential Information

Average Size:8-9 inches (20–23 cm)
Average Weight:1.5–1.7 oz (42-48g)
Average Lifespan:3-5 years
Geographical Range:North America
Conservation Status:Least Concern (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

While the term “cardinal” is often most closely associated with the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), the family Cardinalidae actually includes many other species, such as the Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) and the Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus).

Key Differences:

  • Northern Cardinal: Renowned for its brilliant red plumage in males and warm, reddish accents in females.
  • Pyrrhuloxia: Resembles the Northern Cardinal but has a more subdued, grayish plumage with red-tipped feathers.
  • Vermilion Cardinal: Native to South America, this species is smaller but has a more intense red coloration than its northern counterpart.

Although the differences may be subtle, they are significant in identifying the individual species, which also differ in their vocalizations, habitats, and behaviors.



The Northern Cardinal, the most commonly recognized of the cardinal species, has striking sexual dimorphism. Males are dressed in brilliant red plumage, while females display a muted blend of brown and red. Both sexes have a characteristic crest on their heads, pointed bills, and black “masks” extending from their eyes to their throats.

Cardinals have a robust beak, which is ideal for breaking seeds. Their strong legs and feet are well-suited for perching on branches, and their pointed wings and long tails are optimized for rapid flight.

In the case of the Northern Cardinal, males are bright red all over, while females are mostly brown with hints of red on their wings and tails. Males are usually slightly larger in size, averaging 9 inches (23 cm), while females average around 8 inches (20 cm).

Habitat and Distribution

Northern Cardinals are prevalent throughout the eastern and central United States, extending south through Mexico. Their range has expanded into the north and the western U.S. in recent years.

Pyrrhuloxia are mostly found in the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Vermilion Cardinals are native to the northern coasts of Colombia and Venezuela.

Northern Cardinals favor woodland edges, gardens, and shrublands. Pyrrhuloxia are generally found in desert thickets, while Vermilion Cardinals prefer tropical areas close to water. Overall, cardinals are highly adaptable birds that can thrive in a variety of settings.



Cardinals are primarily diurnal, being most active during the day. They are often one of the first birds to visit feeders in the morning and the last to leave in the evening.

Northern Cardinals are often seen in pairs during the breeding season but may form larger flocks during winter. Pyrrhuloxia and Vermilion Cardinals also display similar social structures, generally forming monogamous pairs during breeding seasons and joining larger flocks outside of it.

The Northern Cardinal has a range of vocalizations that include chirps, whistles, and complex songs. Males often sing to define territory or attract a mate, and females may sing back in response. Cardinals are also known for their “chip” calls, a sharp, metallic note used as an alarm call or when foraging.

Some Cardinals have been observed exhibiting anting behavior, where they rub ants on their feathers, possibly to remove parasites or apply the ant’s formic acid as a form of feather care.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Cardinals are primarily granivorous, meaning they mostly eat seeds and grains. However, their diet is quite varied and also includes fruits, berries, and insects.

Northern Cardinals are ground feeders, often found foraging on the ground in covered or brushy areas. They occasionally feed from shrubs or low tree branches and are frequent visitors to bird feeders.

They use their robust beaks to crack open seeds and to hold fruit while they pick at it. During the breeding season, males can often be seen feeding females in a courtship display.


Being small birds, Cardinals are preyed upon by a range of predators. These can include larger birds like hawks and owls, as well as mammals like raccoons and domestic cats. Snakes and squirrels are also known to raid cardinal nests for eggs or chicks.


Reproduction and Life Cycle

Northern Cardinals are generally monogamous during the breeding season. The male attracts a mate through song and a display of his vibrant plumage. Breeding season is usually from March to September. The incubation period for Cardinal eggs is typically between 11 and 13 days.

A pair of Northern Cardinals will usually produce two to five eggs per clutch, and they may have up to four clutches in a single breeding season. The female incubates the eggs, and the male often brings food to the female during this time.

Once the eggs hatch, both parents take turns feeding the chicks and keeping them warm. The young are ready to leave the nest about 9 to 11 days after hatching.

Conservation and Threats

Northern Cardinals are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List, meaning they are not currently at significant risk of extinction. Their population appears to be stable and possibly even increasing in some areas.

Despite their relatively secure status, cardinals still face threats from habitat loss due to human activities like agriculture and urban development. The use of pesticides can also reduce their food sources.

Conservation efforts for the Northern Cardinal generally fall under broader bird conservation programs that aim to preserve habitats and promote biodiversity. Initiatives like bird-friendly gardens and responsible pet ownership also indirectly contribute to cardinal welfare.

Fun Facts

  1. Iconic Sound: The Northern Cardinal is one of the few bird species where the female also sings, and often while sitting on the nest.
  2. Cultural Symbol: The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven U.S. states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
  3. Vivid Plumage: Unlike many other bird species, the male cardinal retains its bright red plumage throughout the year, not just during the breeding season.
  4. Changing Diets: During the winter months, cardinals will shift their diet to include more seeds and berries as insects become scarce.
  5. Name Origin: The bird is named ‘Cardinal’ after the red robes worn by Catholic Cardinals.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do cardinals live?

The average lifespan of a Northern Cardinal is about 3 years, but they can live up to 15 years in the wild if they avoid predators and disease.

What do cardinals eat?

Northern Cardinals primarily eat seeds, grains, fruits, and insects.

Do cardinals migrate?

No, Northern Cardinals are generally non-migratory birds.

What does a cardinal’s song sound like?

Both male and female cardinals are known for their bright, cheerful songs which include a variety of clear whistles.

How can I attract cardinals to my yard?

You can attract cardinals by setting up bird feeders filled with their favorite seeds (like sunflower or safflower seeds) and providing natural cover like shrubs and small trees.

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