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Northern cardinal fascinates birdwatchers year-round

By Steven Smith
Wildlife and Fisheries Consultant

Posted Jan. 1, 2014

The northern cardinal is found across the eastern half of the United States, even into extreme southeastern Canada and much of Mexico. Cardinals have been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda. Currently, cardinal populations are mostly increasing or stable across their range. This species is named for the male's feathers, which are bright red. The female is grayish-tan with only a red crest and red tail feathers. The red color in the feathers is a result of the carotenoid pigments obtained through the bird's diet during molt. Carotenoids are organic pigment found in plants, some fungi and bacteria.

Cardinals can be found in many different habitat types where shrubs and small trees are abundant, such as grasslands, forested areas, and fence lines along agricultural fields and in urban areas. The diet of the cardinal consists of fruits, seeds and insects. Commonly eaten plants include dogwood, grape, smartweed, croton, hackberry and bristle grass. Sunflower seeds attract cardinals to bird feeders. Cardinals very seldom migrate - most stay within approximately 1 mile of where they hatched, but a few move as far as 270 miles. Cardinals are solitary for most of the year, except during breeding season when pairs form and during winter when flocks can form. Predators of cardinals include cats, dogs and other small mammals, raptors, shrikes, blue jays and snakes. The cardinal's annual survival rate is 60 to 65 percent. The oldest reported wild male and female lived 13 years and 15 years, respectively. One lived 28 years in captivity.

Cardinals begin forming breeding pairs during January to March. Nest construction begins during February to April, with breeding season concluding in October. During breeding season, the pair defends a territory ranging from 0.5 to 6.4 acres. Most pairs reestablish approximately the same breeding season territory each year. Both mates select the nest site, which is typically located in shrubs, thickets or trees, with the nest constructed 2 to 12 feet (usually 3 to 6 feet) above the ground. The female constructs the bowl-shaped nest, while the male brings food to her during the construction process. Once the nest is complete, the female lays one to five eggs, the average being two to three eggs. The eggs are grayish-white, buffy-white or greenish-white, and speckled with pale gray to brown spots. Incubation takes 11 to 13 days. The young chicks fledge and leave the nest seven to 13 days after hatching, with nine to 10 days being common. They typically raise two to three (sometimes four) broods per year. At this stage, the chicks are only able to fly short distances. Two to three weeks after fledging, the young are able to fly with ease, but still depend on their parents for the majority of their food. The young can be independent by 25 days after fledging.

Since cardinals do not migrate, they are an interesting bird to watch and listen to year-round.

Sources

Halkin, Sylvia L. and Susan U. Linville. 1999. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 440 (A. Poole, Ed.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
Terres, John K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.

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