An In-Depth View Of Where Do Cardinals Nest?

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I often wonder where Cardinals nest at all times of the year as I am lucky enough to have these beautiful birds visiting my yard on a frequent basis. I have thoroughly researched this topic on cardinal nesting behavior and preferences. And, I explored nesting habits to see if they change depending on the time of year.

Cardinals prefer to nest in protected areas of trees, shrubs, or bushes. They like densely protected vegetation and will build their nest in the fork of tree branches or well-protected bushes. Their nests tend to be placed just above ground level up to heights of 15 feet. You will hardly ever see a Cardinal using a birdhouse for nesting. 

In this article, we’ll explore,

WHERE Cardinals build nests…

HOW they build nests…

And,

WHY do they choose the sites they do! 

Read on to learn why:

  • They choose sites that are protected from predators
  • They routinely return to the same place to build a new nest
  • What predators seek out cardinal nests
  • How to help them feel comfortable in their nests

Where Cardinals Build Their Nests

Where Do Cardinals Nest
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Cardinals mate for life and make a new nest for each mating season. This means they build two nests every year and generally seek out shrubs, trees, or vines that offer some cover and protection from predators. As soon as one brood is hatched, the female begins searching for the next nest location.

Nest Location

Typically the nests are located anywhere from 3 to 15 feet above the ground and are typically built in dense shrubs or among the branches of smaller trees. They like to build the nest in the crook of a branch to offer as much protection as possible. Interestingly enough they will not build their nests in birdhouses even if they haven’t been used before by other birds. While they like to feel safe they don’t like to feel completely enclosed in a setting like a birdhouse provides.

They will also not reuse an old nest. There are typically two nesting periods per year. As soon as the first set of hatchlings are strong enough to go out on their own and feed by themselves, then the female starts to build the next nest. She begins gathering the materials and looking for a new location, leaving the old nest in place. 

Related article: Best Bird Feeders For Cardinals

How Cardinals Build Their Nests

The female cardinal is the one who goes out in the surrounding area looking for materials to use to build the nest. They search for anything useful to build the cup-shaped nest. They look for twigs, bark strips, vine leaves, paper, grass, hair, and rootlets.  

Bird Family Responsibilities

Believe it or not, just like human families, bird families have their own responsibilities. The female cardinals are the ones who build the nest. The males watch out for the female as she makes trip after trip with new building materials for the nest. Not only do they protect her from other predators, making sure each journey is safe, but they also protect her from other male cardinals in the area.

While the female incubates the eggs, the males return again and again with food for the females. He also continues to protect the nest and their territory from any predators or intruders. Typically, females will incubate the eggs for just under two weeks. During this time, you can hear the male’s call. He does this to bring the female away from the nest to feed her. This can be dangerous because the eggs or hatchlings are left unprotected while they do this. 

When the eggs hatch:

  • Both males and females feed the hatchlings
  • The hatchlings begin to fledge and leave the nest 9-11 days after they hatch
  • The young can’t fly until 1 to 2 days after fledging.

Why Cardinals Build Nests  

As with many bird species it is important to have a safe home with ample protection against predators within which to raise a family. They generally seek a location that is not easily seen and high enough to ward off potential threats from ground predators. 

Incubation and Feeding

The cardinal breeding season lasts from March to September. Each breeding season the female will lay 2-5 eggs. The eggs are off-white with dark marks on them. Once the eggs are in the nest, the female will incubate the eggs. The males do not participate in the incubation. For cardinals, the eggs are typically laid within a week of the nest being built. Incubation will begin immediately after all of the eggs are laid.

While laying eggs, the female might sit for short periods of time but remains on the move, coming and going from the nest. While the female works to get the last egg laid, the male is in protect-mode. He makes sure the nest is protected and makes sure no predators come after his partner.

Cardinal Nesting FAQs

Should I Take Down an Old Nest?

While the cardinals will never use an old nest, they are important for protection. When a predator sees multiple nests in a single location they are less likely to try and attack because they fear there will be more than one family of birds in that location. I suggest leaving the bird’s nest in place for that very reason. If you happen to find a nest on the ground, pick it up and place it in the nearby bush or tree to help your cardinal family.

Even if a cardinal pair has a perfectly good nest that served them well, raising a brood, the pair will always seek out a new location for a new nest. While some bird species reuse their nests time and time again, cardinals do not. As soon as the baby birds leave the nest on their own, the female begins to gather new materials and starts to build a new nest. Now, in some cases, it might be in the same bush or a nearby tree but it will never be in a formerly used nest.

While the female is busy building the new nest, the male continues to feed the baby birds even after they have left the nest. Once the nest is built, the female lays her second set of eggs and begins to incubate them. When that happens, the male feeds her, the first brood, himself and protects their territory all at the same time. The males are kept pretty busy for those few weeks!

When the baby birds are first born, they are all colored like the female. This is for protection. But within the first year, they began to show their impressive red plumage for mails and the distinct red marks on the tan wings and tails of the females.

How Can I Help My Cardinals Nest?

While cardinals will not reuse old nests and will not use enclosed birdhouses, you can add an open-faced artificial nesting shelf. This is an open-topped three-sided enclosure so the cardinals do not feel closed in. These can be secured to the plant or placed on a stand.

They should be placed between 4-5 feet high. It should also be shielded from direct afternoon sunlight. Also, it should be as concealed as possible inside a shrub or vine. This is to help keep predators away which can include raccoons, crows, jaws, and even house cats. While this may be disappointing to some—we all want to look at the nests—it is important to keep the cardinal family safe. If you keep a close watch you can see the male and female cardinals coming and going while feeding the young.

Once the young have left the nest and the female has started to look for a new place, you can clear off the nesting box. While she might not use it for the second brood in the same season, she likely will come back the following year.

Our Final Thoughts On Cardinal Nesting

With over 40 species of cardinals, cardinals are the most widely recognized wild birds in North America. The males have full red plumage while the females are tan in color with red streaks across their tails and wings. Both have notable black ‘masks’ across their eyes and enjoy making their nests in thick bushes or trees with numerous branches.

Helping cardinals to nest can be a wonderful experience for your family and theirs. Keeping an out for predators and watching the females lay the eggs with the male returning to feed her over and over is so rewarding.

If you can help the cardinals by placing an artificial nesting stand, please do. It will take some of the stress of those lovely cardinals and they can return year after year when they discover the safe loving environment you provide.