Northern Cardinal

Common Name - Northern Cardinal

Category - Birds

ScientificName - Cardinalis cardinalis

Kingdom - Animalia

Phylum - Chordata

Class - Aves

Order - Passeriformes

Family - Cardinalidae

Genus - Cardinalis

Species - cardinalis


Description - Medium sized songbird; long tail; pointed crest; short, red, cone shaped bill; male bright red in color with black face; female light-brown in color with black face and red highlights on wings and tail; juvenile similar to female but with brown bill

Size - 8 – 9 in. (20.32 – 22.86 cm) tall; 12 in. (30.48 cm) wing span; 1.6 oz. (45.36 g) weight; males larger than females 

Ecological Role - The northern cardinal is an omnivore, eating both plant and animal material. It is important to the ecosystem because it is a seed disperser, allowing seeds of different plants to be scattered through various habitats. Predators of the cardinal include foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, owls, hawks, and house cats. Snakes and American crows may prey upon the cardinal’s eggs. Brown-headed cowbirds may be brood parasites in that they often lay their eggs in the cardinal’s nest. Sometimes the cowbird tosses out the cardinal egg before laying her own egg in the nest. The cardinal pair then raises the cowbird chick as their own. 

Fun Facts - Cardinals fly by flapping their wings up and down. The wing, however, does more than just go up and down. The feathers of the wing seal together during the downstroke and open slightly during the upstroke. Additionally, the wing rotates on the downstroke, pushing the air down and back. Some other forms of bird flight are gliding, soaring, or hovering.

The northern cardinal can sing up to 28 different songs.

The cardinal became the state bird of Kentucky in 1942. It is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Food - Seeds such as blue ash, green ash, white ash, American elm, slippery elm, winged elm, bigleaf magnolia, red maple, silver maple, sugar maple, ironwood, sunflower, blue vervain, tussock sedge, various weeds; acorns such as swamp white oak; wild fruits and berries such as elderberry, highbush blueberry, silky dogwood, swamp rose, winterberry; insects, such as beetles, ants, flies, caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, centipedes, snails; young are fed insects


Nest - Shallow, loosely woven cup; made of small twigs, stems, leaves, or vines; lined with grass, hair, rootlets, leaves, and paper; built near cover such as dense vines or shrubs; usually about 5 ft. (1.52 m) from ground; built by female; shrubs commonly used for nesting sites include spicebush, sumac, wild hydrangea, witch hazel

Breeding - Early April - late August; male sings to defend nesting territory and may attack intruders; courtship behavior involves posturing, singing, and male feeding the female

Eggs - 2 – 4 eggs per brood; 1 – 4 broods per year; pale green color with reddish-brown spots; male may feed female while she sits on the eggs; eggs hatch in 11 – 13 days

Habitat - Brushy areas, open forest; forest edges, overgrown fence rows, old fields, gardens, parks, backyards

Kentucky Distribution - Statewide

Life Cycle

Life Span

Life Stage


Seasonal Changes - The cardinal is non-migratory; that is, it is a permanent resident within its range in Kentucky. During winter months, cardinals may flock and roost together. They may also fly south for short distances during coldest parts of the winter.


Status - Secure


Voice - “What-cheer, what-cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer; whirty-whirty-whirty”; call is a sharp “clink” 

Young - Born with eyes closed and no feathers; fed by male and female; young leave nest in 8-11 days; black bill gradually changes to red; may live up to 15 years

What We Can Do - Provide seeds and water during the winter. Cardinals like to feed close to the ground and over a large area. Restricted feeding areas limit the number of birds that visit. Leave brush piles for habitat. Include flowering trees and shrubs in the landscape, such as dogwood, holly, mulberry, pokeweed, blackberry, sumac, and elderberry. Keep house cats indoors. Cats have a natural predator instinct and will kill small birds such as the cardinal.


Diagnosis and Control

Interesting Facts

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