Bird of the Week #5 Northern Cardinal

Male Northern Cardinal perched in a tree

The Northern Cardinal is perhaps the single most famous of all backyard birds. Cardinals are the mascots of countless sports teams, are the state bird of seven US states, and adorn the packaging of hundreds of bird seed mixes. When people think of backyard bird feeding, they usually think of the cardinal.

And it makes sense. The Northern Cardinal is absolutely unmistakable with its bright red plumage, black mask, and those spiky head feathers. They’re also all over the eastern and central United States, frequenting feeders wherever they’re found. Cardinals are also good singers, with a distinct purty-purty call you can’t miss. Their songs sound happy, cheering on the arrival of morning.

Northern Cardinal at feeder

Only the male Northern Cardinal has the traditional bold red plumage. The female cardinal still has red, but she’s much more gray. As such, telling the difference between the two sexes is very easy. The juveniles are also gray, with the red coming in later.

Cardinals eat fruit, seeds, nuts, and grains. This means that attracting them is fairly easy and it’s just a matter of one actually stopping by to check out your feeder. Cardinals are attracted to sunflower seeds, particularly black oil sunflower seeds or sunflower chips. Cardinals will eat other seeds too, but from my observation, sunflower seeds are their favorite. An excellent alternative is safflower seeds, which cardinals will eat happily. What makes safflower great is that squirrels don’t like the bitter taste and starlings can’t crack the shells. There are a few “good” birds that aren’t safflower fans, but cardinals seem to like it more than most.

The cardinals are my feeders are usually some of the earliest and the latest birds to arrive. Where the bluebirds and finches like to eat all through the day, cardinals tend to show up bright and early or right near sunset. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, but the cardinals generally tend to stick to their schedule. It always fascinates me just how organized the mind of a bird can be.

Female Northern Cardinal

During the breeding season, cardinals can become aggressively territorial. So much so that sometimes cardinals will get into fights with their own reflections. Eventually, they calm back down, but all those breeding hormones drive them nuts.

Speaking of breeding season, you may notice a male Northern Cardinal appear to be “kissing” a female. What he’s really doing is passing off food to her, which is a courtship behavior. It’s quite adorable. And also adorable is that both the male and female sing, which is rare. Usually only the males sing in most birds.

Cardinals are exactly the sort of bird we all want at our feeders: they’re beautiful and fill the air with wonderful bird songs. No other bird looks like the Northern Cardinal and how great it is that they’re so abundant in the Midwest and much of the United States.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick write-up on the Northern Cardinal. Do you have any facts you’d like to share? What did I miss? Any tips to share on attracting cardinals?

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