Cardinals: Bird Watching Guide, Facts, Identifying & More

September 18, 2020 // 11 minute read

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If you live in North America, chances are that you have seen a cardinal in some way, shape, or form. One of the most ubiquitous members of the bird family to inhabit this geographic region, the cardinal is familiar, beloved and an object of great interest to ornithologists and birdwatching enthusiasts.

But its appeal extends well beyond the realm of bird enthusiasts and researchers. Owing to its well-known persona, it has been conferred with the status of a state bird, has sports teams named after it, and has earned the distinction of being the mascot of several universities.

Needless to say, its interesting history and habits, not to mention its splendid physical attributes, play a large part in the fascination that it commands.

cardinal pair in the snow
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How Did The Cardinal Get Its Name?

The most popular and most frequently sighted type of cardinal is the northern cardinal, which is native to North America. The male of the species sports a bright red plumage all over, including its crest. When the earliest European settlers on the North American continent discovered this native bird, it reminded them of the scarlet-colored cassocks and birettas of Catholic cardinals. This is how the cardinal earned its name.

Types Of Cardinals

While the northern cardinal is the ubiquitous inhabitant of several parts of North America, a few other types or species of cardinals are native to the continent and South America.

  • Northern Cardinal: If you are a birdwatcher or enthusiast, you have the northern cardinal to thank for the popularity of this pastime. Its attractive red appearance and interesting behavior have been credited with being the reasons for a large number of enthusiasts taking up the hobby. It is the most commonly spotted type of cardinal in the United States and is also called a redbird.
  • Vermilion Cardinal: This type is found in South America. It inhabits the arid wilderness regions and the areas just north of the tropics of the northern coastal part of the continent. It is predominantly found in Venezuela and Colombia. Its plumage is of a more vivid shade of red when compared to other types of cardinals. Its crest is longer and spikier as well, giving it a relatively more striking appearance.
  • Desert Cardinal: This bird is a denizen of the desert regions of the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico. The first thing you will notice about its appearance is that it does not possess the bright red hue that most other types do. Its feathers are brownish-grey and it has a red breast. It feeds on the tough dry seeds, helped by its strong beak. The males of this species are fiercely territorial.
  • Red-Crested Cardinal: Not many enthusiasts may know that this is technically a misnomer. This species is not a cardinal, strictly speaking, even though it sports the name. It belongs to a different genus. It is called a cardinal due to its red crest. Its plumage is grey and it has a white breast. While it is native to South America, it has been naturalized in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. It can also be spotted in Florida and California. Like cardinals, it mainly feasts on seeds, but also partakes of small insects. Another name for it is Brazilian cardinal.
male northern cardinal
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Physical Attributes Of A Cardinal

In the rest of the article, we will discuss the northern cardinal, whose behavior and habitat are very similar to those of the remaining species of cardinals.

The physical features of the northern cardinal are alluring. The main distinction between the male and female of the species is in the color of the feathers. While the male is vibrantly colored with crimson feathers, tail, and crest, the female is light brown with sparse touches of red. They both have a reddish-brown beak and a black face. They are crowned with attractive spiky crests. Their tails are long and their coral beaks are thick, stout and conical. Juveniles of either sex possess the coloring of the female.

Their body dimensions make them mid-sized. They grow to up to 10 inches in length and have a wingspan of up to 12 inches. The male is slightly larger than the female.

If you ever catch sight of the elusive and very rare yellow cardinal, be sure to publicize the fact. You will certainly be one of a handful of birdwatchers to have set eyes on this splendid and uncommon bird. It owes its bright yellow coloring to a genetic variation.

Typical Behavior Of A Cardinal

Northern cardinals are territorial songbirds. They have a loud, metallic and repetitive cry, which sounds like they are saying the word “cheer”. The males use their high-pitched whistling to defend their territory. Chipping notes are used by pairs to locate each other and to warn each other of approaching predators.

When they perch, their tail points straight down and they have a hunched posture.

They mate for life and are often spotted in pairs. They stay close to the ground while perched or while they are foraging. This makes them easy to spot. They occupy low-hanging branches or settle on shrubs.

In winter, they fluff their delicate down feathers to create insulation. Their legs and feet are unprotected, however, so you will often see them standing on one leg when it is cold, with the other tucked under their feathers for warmth. They molt once a year for around two weeks.

The males are fiercely territorial birds and are quick to attack a bird that they perceive to be an intruder. Sadly, sometimes it is their own reflection, leading them to collide with a glass window.

However, they are a social species and can be found as part of mixed flocks of birds. During mating season, they pair up and the males feed the nesting females. The males also feed the females beak-to-beak during mating. They typically yield three eggs per season.

If you have a bird feeder in your yard, you will most probably discover them to be the earliest visitors at dawn and the latest at dusk. The reason could be that they are trying to avoid competition.

Where To Find Cardinals

They inhabit a large eastern swath of the United States, extending from southern Maine to Minnesota, to the border between Texas and Mexico. In Canada, they mostly inhabit the southeastern parts from southern Ontario to New Brunswick. They can be found in Mexico and further south in Central American Belize and Guatemala. They have been introduced in Hawaii, California, and Arizona.

The general population of this species seems to be expanding further into the north every year. The trend is most likely being caused by the wider use of bird feeders in winter the northern states.

If you are hoping for a cardinal sighting, you will have the best chances in areas that are populated by humans. Their typical habitat consists of suburban wooded areas, areas with shrubbery, parks and household yards, especially ones with bird feeders for cardinals. They have adapted to regions with human populations and are easy to spot in populated areas, much to the delight of birdwatchers.

Cardinal Food

Its diet mostly comprises grains and small insects. Its strong beak is ideally suited for crushing seeds. It forages for oats, corn and sunflowers seeds. It also consumes snails, grasshoppers and cicadas. It mostly feeds its young with insects and arthropods. It sucks maple sap and also eats the bark and flowers of the elm.

FAQs About Cardinals

How can I attract cardinals to my yard?

They have a preference for sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. You could lay them out in wide feeding trays or hopper feeders to make them easily detectable. Since they are ground feeders, laying the food out on the ground or at ground level will increase your chances of attracting their attention. If you have shrubbery or a maple tree or an elm tree in your yard, cardinals will be attracted to them as well. Setting up a hanging bird feeder or a birdbath in which they can frolic is also a good idea.

What is The Cardinal’s scientific name?

The cardinal belongs to the family Cardinalidae, and the genus cardinalis. The northern cardinal is called cardinalis cardinalis.

Why are Cardinals red?

They ingest red and yellow carotenoid pigments via their diet and that is how they get their bright red coloration. The yellow is converted to red by an enzyme. When a cardinal lacks this enzyme, a yellow cardinal is a rare result. This phenomenon is called xanthocroism.

Do Cardinals migrate?

They are not migratory birds. They occupy their summer habitat in winter as well. As they are granivorous and mainly feed on seeds, they do not need to migrate to warmer climates in winter in search of insects.

How long do Cardinals live?

The average lifespan is three years, as they are susceptible to disease, predators and starvation. The known longest-surviving cardinal lived for around 15 years and was tracked in Pennsylvania.

Which states have adopted the cardinal as the state bird?

The cardinal is the state bird of Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio. These states fall under their habitat.

Which sports teams are named after the cardinal?

The teams St.Louis Cardinals in baseball and the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL are named for it. It is also the mascot of several universities including Wesleyan and Concordia.

What is a flock of cardinals called?

The collective nouns for a group of cardinals are Vatican, radiance, deck, college, and conclave of cardinals.

This vibrantly colored bird, which sings melodious songs and creates a stunning picture against a snowy backdrop, is much loved due to its plumage, plump crested shape, active territorial behavior, and its omnipresence in our neighborhoods. It has made its way into people’s hearts, history, and popular culture in the United States.

13 Fun & Interesting Facts About Cardinals

Cardinals Are Typically The First And Last Bird To Visit Feeders

You may notice that the cardinal is the first bird to visit your bird feeder in the morning and the last visitor in the evening. Ornithologists believe this is because there is less competition during this time. Also, males are less conspicuous, giving them protection from predators.

The Northern Cardinal Got Its Name From The Catholic Church

The name of the Northern Cardinal goes back to the colonial period of the United States. The red plumage of the male resembles the red biretta and vestments that Catholic cardinals wear.

Cardinals Are Granivorous

Northern Cardinals are considered granivorous since their diet consists of primarily seeds. In fact, their short, cone-shaped beak’s design enables them to crack open the nuts that they feed on.

Males Feed The Females During Courtship

Male cardinals will often feed their female, using a method called beak to beak, as a way to express their affection.

Cardinals Can Be Yellow

Sometimes, Northern Cardinals will lack the characteristic red pigment in their feathers. The red pigment is instead replaced by yellow and orange pigments. This is called xanthochroism, resulting in a yellow appearance or a yellow Northern Cardinal.

Cardinal Lifespan

The average lifespan of the cardinal is approximately three years. This is due to many factors including predation, starvation, disease, and more.

During The Winter, Cardinals Are Not Territorial

Although for most of the year Cardinals are territorial, they forego this aspect to keep warm. They form flocks, also called conclave, Vatican, radiance, deck, or a college of cardinals.

Cardinals Are Mongomous

Cardinals form monogamous pairs and stay together.

Both Male And Female Cardinals Sing

In many species of songbirds, only the male can vocalize. However, both sexes of Northern Cardinals can sing. Females generally sing when they are in the nest as a way to signal the male to bring food. Males generally sing during courtship and when they are defending their nest. Check out these great cardinal birdhouses.

Cardinals Molt Once A Year

To replenish damaged feathers,  a cardinal will molt annually. For a couple of weeks, they will lose some of their feathers. In other cases, they lose all of their feathers.

Carotenoids Account For The Cardinal’s Red Plumage

Carotenoids account for the red color in the cardinal’s plumage. It is in their feather structure and they ingest carotenoids in the diet as well.

Cardinals Can Be Aggressive

A cardinal will violently defend its territory as well as chase away any competitors. In fact, they will even attack their reflections in windows, mirrors, and other reflective surfaces.

Northern Cardinals were popular pets during the 1800s. Many were attracted to the brightly-colored plumage and vocalizations. Bird poaching became a serious threat and now these beautiful birds are protected by legislation such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

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