The Cardinal's Nest
From Egg to Adult, All Year Long: Cardinal Photo Journal
All bird watchers and most children recognize the male Northern Cardinal, a Christmas symbol, but many people know nothing about its nesting and courtship habits. Through the years, we have been able to observe and photograph most of the mating behavior of our beautiful Northern Cardinal.
Here, we hope to give you some insight into what happens in a Cardinal's nest. Besides telling you how to attract this lovely bird into your own backyard with plants, bird feeders, and bird baths, we suggest some good books about Cardinals.
For those who want to test their knowledge of the lovely bird, there is a Northern Cardinal quiz.
All these Cardinal photos are copyright by Y.L. Bordelon, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted. Many of these photos are available as postcards and gifts on my Zazzle site.
Cardinal Identification and Habits
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) were called "Redbirds" where I grew up. The Northern Cardinal is also known as the Virginia nightingale. It is a Christmas symbol and ranges from southern Canada south to northern Guatemala and Belize. It inhabits forest edges, thickets, gardens, backyards, shrubby areas, and orchards.
The bright red male Cardinal is so beautiful and has such a lovely song that it was once trapped and sold as a caged song bird. This practice was banned in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Listen to the song of the Northern Cardinal from the National Park Service.
Cardinals are medium-sized birds measuring 8.3 to 9 inches. The male's crest, black mask, and bright orange beak set him apart from other birds. The more demure females are not as colorful, but are beautiful in their own right with their feathers of tan, brown, and touches of red. Their beaks are also orange. Young birds have dark beaks until their first molt.
Cardinal Song by Ear
A Photo Journal of Nesting Cardinals
Males are territorial during the breeding season and can be seen and heard singing from a prominent spot in their territory.
Courting Behavior: Male Feeding Female
During courtship, the male feeds seeds to the female. She will often flutter her wings and beg like a chick.
After the courtship is over, the female builds a nest of twigs, vines, some leaves, bark strips, grasses, weed stalks, and rootlets, and lines it with fine grasses. She builds it in a thorny bush, thicket, or bramble, or in a dense shrub or tree. Up to six days later, she begins laying eggs, up to three or four total. They are somewhat glossy, grayish, bluish, or greenish-white, and spotted or blotched with brown, gray, or purple.
The female incubates the eggs for 11 to 13 days. A couple normally raises two to three broods each year.
Video: Mother Cardinal Building Nest
Newly Hatched Cardinals
When they hatch out, the chicks are blind and helpless, and their bodies are covered only by a little fuzz. But they grow quickly.
The chicks fledge in 7-13 days, but the male continues to feed the fledglings while the female builds a second nest. When the baby Cardinals leave the nest, they look almost "prehistoric," much too immature to be thought of as a fledged bird. They hide in bushes for the first few days and the parent (or parents) feeds them.
Male Cardinal Feeds the Young
The male Cardinal continues to feed the young even after they have grown almost as large as he is. This male was caring for a young female and a young male. The young male was already beginning to molt into his adult plumage.
Father Cardinal Feeding Babies: YouTube Video
This year the Northern Cardinals have had many successful nests, so there are several immature ones at each sunflower seed feeder. Several of the pairs are on their third brood. You can tell when Cardinals are on their last brood when you see both the adult male and the female feeding the young. On the first and second broods, the male feeds the fledglings while the female builds the nest, lays and incubates the eggs, and feeds the young while they are in the nest.
Cardinal Mother Feeding Fledgling
A Fledgling Cardinal
I was walking through the woods and this little bird flew from beside the trail. It was a young Northern Cardinal and probably had only been out of the nest for a couple of days. This fledgling looked so infantile, but it flew well, going from branch to branch with no trouble at all.
The parents were chirping at me from the bushes, so they were taking good care of this baby.
Nesting Cardinals Poll
Do Northern Cardinals nest in your yard?
Guide to Eastern Birds' Nests
This book has helped us identify many birds' nests that we have found in our nest boxes and in shrubs and trees on our property. The pictures and descriptions are excellent. You can't go wrong with a Peterson guide and this one is perfect for the amateur naturalist.
Raising an Orphaned Baby Cardinal
Over 25 years ago, when we were young and foolish, we used to let our black cat, Zee, come in and out as he pleased. One night we heard a commotion outside our bedroom window and rushed out to find Zee Cat with a Mother Cardinal in his mouth.
The nest was very low in the shrubs right by the window. There was one baby in the nest, so we brought it inside and kept it warm and safe.
At that time, rehabilitators were few and hard to find. So since we had experience with hand-raising cockatiels and canaries and we had supplies on hand, we decided to raise the little guy ourselves.
He grew quickly and soon began to show the mottled feathers of a young male. But we had to teach him how to open sunflower seeds like his bird parents would have.
When he had molted into most of his adult plumage, we released him into the backyard. He stayed around for a while, then went off to establish his own territory.
Ever since that incident, we have kept our cats inside during the breeding season and we only let them out on supervised excursions at other times of the year.
Summer - Autumn
During summer and fall the young birds go through their first molt. The male and female colors (however mottled) begin to show and the dark beaks begin to turn orange. The first picture shows a young male, the second a young female.
After the breeding season is over and the last of the young are able to feed themselves, the adults look a little ragged. They begin their fall molt, and by winter have a new set of feathers so that they will be well insulated against the cold weather.
Winter Cardinals are bright, crisp and fresh looking. The male's beautiful colors help him establish a good territory in order to attract a prospective mate. In early spring the whole cycle begins again.
Winter: Attracting and Feeding Cardinals
Shelter and Food Plants Cardinals Prefer
Cardinals prefer shrubs and brambles. They love evergreen trees and these are especially good in winter to provide shelter from the cold. Besides being good for the birds, evergreens planted on the north side of your house will help save energy and lower your monthly bill.
Food plants that Cardinals use include: Maple, devil's walking stick, paper mulberry, French mulberry, ironwood, bitter-sweet, hackberry, fringe tree, camphor tree, flowering dogwood, hawthorn, gumi, fatsia, common fig, ash, huckleberry, sunflower, firebush, lantana, privet, sweet gum, Southern magnolia, red mulberry, American hophornbeam, pokeberry, pine, black cherry, pyracantha, sumac, rose, blackberry and dewberry.
Bird Feeders for Cardinals
A Cardinal's diet consists mainly of grain, but they also eat insects and fruit. Cardinals will readily eat from sunflower seed and suet feeders. They prefer platform type feeders, but will use hanging feeders that have large, sturdy perches.
We feed straight black-oil sunflower seed, but special Cardinal mixes are also available.
The Cardinals, Goldfinches, and most of the other seed-eating birds in our yard use the Brome Squirrel Buster feeder daily. The squirrels and raccoons have tried everything, but they can't get any seed out. Once, they broke the branch that it was hanging from, but only got a few kernels out.
These feeders come in two versions: a hanging tube, like the one shown here, and a rectangular one which can be mounted on a pole.
Bird Baths and Water Features
Every creature needs a water source. Cardinals will use standard bird baths, but they seem to like water on the ground more. They love sprinklers and misters.
High-quality National Geographic book giving pointers and instructions about how to photograph birds.
Sibley Bird Guides
If you'd like to learn more about the lives and behaviors of birds the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behaviour is an excellent book to read. This guide is a good companion to the Guide to Birds.
Questions & Answers
What happens to the eggshells after the babies hatch? We found a cardinal nest in a loropetalum bush by our pool. The mother laid five eggs in it. So far, four have hatched today. However, there are no eggshells in the nest. Do the birds eat them, or push them out?
I have a cardinal that has built her nest and laid her eggs in a shrub right by our back porch. I have two dogs that I have to let out to go potty that way, and she’ll fly out of the nest sometimes. Are we disturbing her? Hopefully, she’ll finish taking care of her eggs/babies? We (adults) stay away from the porch using the side door instead.
She should be fine as long as you don't touch the nest.
After a cardinal's babies have grown, do they stay in the area where they were born?
Yes, Cardinals often build their own nests not far away from where they were raised.
I exposed a cardinal nest with eggs while trimming some brush. I didn't know it was there. Now it has no protection from the afternoon sun. Can I or should I try to relocate it to a cooler, shadier spot nearby?
How long can the mother cardinal be away from the nest and the eggs still be ok?
It depends on the weather. On warm days, the eggs and young won't get cold, so they can stay away for half an hour or more. On cold days, only a few minutes. As the chicks develop feathers, longer periods of time.
© 2008 Yvonne L. B.