17 Interesting Northern Cardinal Facts

With their bright red feathers and distinctive crest, they are some of the best-recognized birds in the United States,

In this post, you’ll discover the ultimate list of Northern Cardinal facts, some of the cutest songbirds in the world!

1. The Northern Cardinal has a couple of other names

The Northern Cardinal is a cute bird native to the Americas which goes by a couple of other names as well. Their scientific name is “Cardinalis cardinalis,” a name it only got since 1983. Initially, it was referred to as “Loxia cardinalis” (1758), “Cardinalis virginianus” (1838), and “Richmondena cardinalis” (1918).

These birds are also commonly known as redbirds, common cardinals, or just cardinals. It got the name “Northern Cardinal” to distinguish this species from several other species living further south.

2. How did Northern Cardinals get their name?

We don’t have to look far to understand how these birds got their name. They were named after the red robes and caps worn by the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

facts about the northern cardinal with crest

3. They are one of 3 species of Cardinals

The “northern” part of their name refers to the fact that they are the species living most north of the existing species of Cardinals. They are part of the family Cardinalidae.

There are 3 species of birds in the genus Cardinalis, the other ones being the:

  • Desert cardinal – Lives in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as some woodland edges in Mexico.
  • Vermilion cardinal – Lives in Colombia and Venezuela.
northern cardinal in the snow

4. There are a total of 19 different sub-species

While the genus Cardinalis only has 3 different species, the Northern Cardinals consist of a total of 19 different sub-species, all living in various parts of North and Central America.

5. Despite their name, their range extends well south

One of the most remarkable Northern Cardinal facts is that they don’t just live in a cold climate far north, they are also native to areas in the Texan-Mexican border and way further south.

Their natural range extends from areas in southern Canada, including Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, all the way across the eastern and central sections of the United States. From the border with Mexico, their range extends all the way south to the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala!

It’s fair to conclude that these birds have a huge range and are far from being considered endangered!

6. How big are Northern Cardinals?

These birds are considered to be medium-sized songbirds, which means they have an average length of between 8.3 and 9.3 inches (21 and 23.5 centimeters) and a wingspan of between 9.8 and 12.2 inches (25 and 31 centimeters).

The adult birds can weigh anywhere between 1.19 and 2.29 oz (33.6 and 65 grams), with the average being 1.58 oz (44.8 grams).

Even though the males are slightly larger than the females, there isn’t a huge difference.

male and female northern cardinal

7. It’s easy to distinguish male and female Northern Cardinals

As you can surely see from the image above, there’s a much better way to distinguish the male and female northern cardinals than looking at their size.

While both the male and female have a very distinctive crest, the males are bright red and have a very prominent black face mask which runs all the way to their upper chest.

The female has a light tan color and some red on their wings. Their face mask is dark grey and can even be black, but is much less prominent than with the male.

northern cardinal on branch

8. Males get their color through their food intake

One of the most fascinating Northern Cardinal facts is that males become so bright red because of the way they metabolize carotenoid pigments. If they would eat only yellow pigments, they would have a much paler shade of red.

This is the same process as how flamingos, for example, turn bright pink or red, and the more pink or red the bird, the healthier it is!

Northern Cardinal eating berries
Eating berries / Sandhillcrane / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

9. What do Northern Cardinals eat?

So what does the diet of Northern Cardinals consist of?

90% of their food intake consists of weed seeds, grains, and fruits. This also means that they are willing to eat other creatures such as beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, and snails, making them true omnivores! The chicks in the nest are almost exclusively fed insects as well.

Northern Cardinals are what is being referred to as a “ground feeder,” which means they hop around on the ground to find food.

northern cardinal eating

10. Northern Cardinals sing to defend their territory

One of the most distinctive features of this songbird is its capability to sing various songs. They don’t always use their talent to sing for fun though, because it’s also used for other purposes.

One of these is to defend their territory as these are highly territorial creatures. If you hear an angry Northern Cardinal making sharp noises, you can rest assured that he’s trying to chase away another male who is invading his territory.

Too bad because they are really capable of producing enjoyable songs as well!

northern cardinal in tree

11. Males might end up fighting themselves sometimes

These birds clearly don’t understand the concept of seeing their own reflection. This is emphasized by the fact that the males sometimes ending up in a brutal fight with, themselves!

They never stop wondering why that pesky intruder won’t budge as well!

12. Northern Cardinals make a special type of sound like an alarm

Sometimes, they use their sharp voices for some very important. In fact, it’s so important that it’s a matter of life and death!

The males are constantly on the lookout for other males entering their territory, but also for other types of danger. When they spot something, they make a short metallic chip sound which means it’s time to get out of there!

cool northern cardinal facts

13. They live in constant fear of the numerous predators chasing them

To say that these birds’ lives are filled with constant danger is an understatement. Just about every animal that usually preys on small birds is a potential predator of the Northern Cardinal.

These predators include but are not limited to falcons, all Accipiter hawks, shrikes, bald eagles, golden eagles, and several types of owls, including long-eared owls, and eastern screech owls.

Their chicks and eggs are also in constant danger as they can fall prey to milk snakes, Coluber constrictors, blue jays, crows, eastern gray squirrels, fox squirrels, and eastern chipmunks

For the Northern Cardinals living near residential neighborhoods, the most vicious predator is the domestic cat!

14. These birds aren’t considered to be monogamous

Some of these birds form pairs for several years, but this romantic marriage usually doesn’t last. They divorce, go their own way and easily find another partner.

To make things even worse, they are also promiscuous, because a study conducted has shown that between 9 and 35% of the chicks in the nest weren’t those of the suspected father!

While they sometimes portray signs of a blissful partnership such as singing together, feeding each other, and building the nest together, this can be considered pretty shallow and easily forgotten a little later!

northern cardinal fun facts

15. The female is the one building the nest

Building the nest is a mutual partnership as the male collects the materials and the female is the one building the nest, a process that takes anywhere between 3 to 9 days.

The female lays 3 or 4 eggs and the incubation period lasts about 12 to 13 days. After just 10 days, the chicks are ready to leave the nest for the first time.

One of the most interesting Northern Cardinal facts is that this process can happen 2 to 4 times a year, meaning they can produce up to 16 chicks every year!

northern cardinal one week old chick
Chick in the nest / Parsons1 / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

16. How long do Northern Cardinals live?

The reason they produce so many chicks is fairly simple, the mortality rate of juveniles is extremely high. In fact, the survival rate of adult Northern Cardinals is just 60 to 65% due to the numerous dangers in their lives.

The oldest Northern Cardinal ever recorded in the wild lived 15 years and 9 months. The oldest bird in captivity lived an astonishing 28 years and 6 months!

17. These birds are very popular in the United States

Northern Cardinals are extremely popular in the United States and several sports clubs have this bird as their mascot. This includes baseball and football teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals and the Arizona Cardinals.

These birds are also the state bird of 7 U.S. states, even though they are just referred to as “cardinals.” These are Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

fun northern cardinal facts