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The Cardinal's Nest

Since the mid-1980s, Yvonne has maintained a registered NWF backyard wildlife habitat where a variety of birds, insects, and frogs abound.

A gorgeous male is alert for danger.

A gorgeous male is alert for danger.

From Egg to Adult: 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.

All these cardinal photos are copyright by Y.L. Bordelon, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted.

Male cardinal

Male cardinal

Female cardinal

Female cardinal

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 songbird. 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.

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.

Male cardinal in holly

Male cardinal in holly

Courting behavior: Male feeding female

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.

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Male cardinal feeding female

Male cardinal feeding female

Nesting

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.

Mother on nest (l); Nest with first egg (r)

Mother on nest (l); Nest with first egg (r)

Newly hatched cardinals

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.

Pin feathers are forming on these chicks

Pin feathers are forming on these chicks

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.

Baby who will soon fledge (l); young fledgling (r)

Baby who will soon fledge (l); young fledgling (r)

Male feeding young

Male feeding 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.

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

Cardinal mother feeding fledgling

Cardinal fledgling

Cardinal fledgling

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.

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.

naturally_native_cardinals_nest

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.

naturally_native_cardinals_nest

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.

naturally_native_cardinals_nest

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.

Young male, first year. Notice the red feathers coming in.

Young male, first year. Notice the red feathers coming in.

Post-Breeding Activities

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.

First-year female

First-year 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.

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.

Birds sharing seeds (l), Young male in bath (r)

Birds sharing seeds (l), Young male in bath (r)

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.

Male cardinal eating suet

Male cardinal eating suet

Cardinals in my yard use the Brome feeder, but squirrels can't

Cardinals in my yard use the Brome feeder, but squirrels can't

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.

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.

A young male pauses his begging for food until his father returns with a juicy morsel.

A young male pauses his begging for food until his father returns with a juicy morsel.

Questions & Answers

Question: I found a cardinal nest in a Clematis vine next to my porch. The nest had 4 eggs in it. We’ve watched her sit on the eggs of most of the day yesterday and it was very windy and rainy. The temperature overnight was in the 30s with the high for the day being 40s. The nest is empty now. Is it possible that the mother cardinal moved the eggs to a warmer location?

Answer: No, sadly the nest was probably robbed by a predator. The cold spell probably damaged the eggs. Hopefully, the pair will build another nest and the weather will be more temperate.

Question: We watched two cardinals build a nest last week but they never occupied it. It's been at least 10 days now. I'm wondering why? Did they build a decoy nest?

Answer: The female usually waits for 10 or more days to lay the first egg. Sometimes, if the nest is disturbed by a predator, they will build another one elsewhere.

Question: 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?

Answer: Most birds carry the broken egg shells away from the nest and drop them on the ground. This reduces the chance of predators finding the nest. While the babies are in the nest, the parents also carry away the "poop sacks" for the same reason.

Question: A cardinal laid four eggs in her nest in a jumbo fern next to one of our porch doors. THree hatched and two survived. What happened to egg and fledgling that didn’t live?

Answer: The parents usually dispose of the egg shells and dead young. Sometimes unhatched eggs will be pushed to the bottom of the nest.

Question: We had a Cardinal build her nest in our open patio umbrella two days ago. I saw the dad watching on the fence nearby. So far there are no eggs, and it seems as though the mom and dad haven't been back in a day or so. Do we just need to be patient, or is it possible they abandoned this nest?

Answer: Be patient. The female will begin laying if she feels the nest will be safe. If not then they will find another spot for a new nest.

Question: A pair of cardinals have made a nest in a small Japanese Maple in a pot in my patio. It is not in the best place to be protected from the heat or storms. The pot is on a base with rollers. Do you think it is ok if I move this cardinal nest 3ft so it is under the eaves and protected by the side of the house from rain & wind? I don't know if there are any eggs in it - but no chicks have hatched. The nest has been in place for about a week.

Answer: Traditionally cardinals build nests in thick shrubbery or in thickets. At 1 week the female would still be laying eggs. If you move or disturb the nest they will probably abandon it. New cardinal pairs must learn by trial and error how and where to build their nests. I know you are concerned for them, but it's best to let nature take its course.

Question: I found a cardinal nest with a mom in the nest. The next day I took another peek, but the mom had flown away. I went to check if she came back and now there are just two blind chicks. Will the mom come back, or did I scare her off?

Answer: The mom should be fine, but don't go close to the nest too often. Try using binoculars from a distance.

Question: 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?

Answer: I would try to put back some of the trimmed branches to shade and camoflauge the nest.

Question: I have about a 2 week old cardinal that just left the nest with its parents. I've watched from afar but the baby went into another yard and is now nowhere to be seen. Will they come back to this nest? The baby can only fly a couple of feet.

Answer: Your baby has fledged and the parent(s) will find it in the other yard. They leave the nest when they can barely fly, but learn quickly.

Question: 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.

Answer: She should be fine as long as you don't touch the nest.

Question: We had cardinals in our yard that built a nest and appeared to lay eggs. After a couple of weeks, they almost totally stopped coming back, so I got a ladder and peeked in, and there were three dead babies. What do you think happened?

Answer: There are many things that could have caused the death of the chicks such as heat or other weather conditions, poisoned food, inexperienced parents, etc. Hopefully there's still enough time for the parents to rear another brood.

Question: How can you tell if Cardinal fledglings are male or female?

Answer: A few weeks after fledging, when the birds go through their first molt, young males will start to show red feathers in patches. Young females will molt to look like their mothers.

Question: My cardinal has hatched 5, yes, 5 babies in a tiny nest. Today is day 7 since hatching and this morning 3 were on the ground with mom & dad watching. 2 tiny ones are still in the nest. At only 7 days old will they be ok on the ground?

Answer: If the 3 older ones that have left the nest have some feathers, are able to hop around and the parents are feeding them, then they should soon move to shelter in a bush nearby. If not, then you may want to put the 3 back in the nest with the other 2. The 2 tiny ones probably hatched last and may not be able to keep up with the older 3. It is unusual for all 5 to survive.

Question: We rescued a 3-day old hatchling 9 days ago and now he is starting to fly. I cannot contact any bird rehabilitation places due to the Covid-19 outbreak. I will have to teach him how to open seeds. How did you teach a cardinal chick to open seeds? Any advice to help him on his way to self-sufficiency would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: I provided him with shelled sunflower seeds, then repeatedly opened some unshelled ones using my fingernails while he was watching. You may want to also introduce him to safflower seeds. My wild cardinals love them and they have a skin instead of a shell. Basically I raised him as I raised our baby cockatiels. I had a book called, "Caring for the Furred and Feathered" (which is probably out of print) that was very helpful with tips about caring for orphaned wildlife. Perhaps you can find something similar online.

Question: Other birds seem to eat most the food before Cardinals join in. They seem more shy & skittish. Is there a way to curb the other birds' feeding while giving the Cardinals more opportunities to feed?

Answer: Cardinals feed early in the morning and late in the afternoon when it's almost dark and the other birds are not around. Try feeding safflower and sunflower seeds. Those will attract cardinals more.

Question: How did you teach the fledgling cardinal to open sunflower seeds?

Answer: The cardinal sat on my finger while I opened the sunflower seeds for it. Pretty soon it figured out how to do it by himself.

Question: How long can the mother cardinal be away from the nest and the eggs still be ok?

Answer: 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.

Question: Do male and female cardinals share a nest during winter?

Answer: Male and female cardinals usually begin to pair off during the winter in preparation for the spring breeding season, but once the young leave the nest, it is abandoned by both birds. The female builds a new nest for each brood.

Question: We live on a lake. There are many cardinals, and we love them. Is the lake a good enough water source, or should I still provide a birdbath?

Answer: The lake water is an excellent water source if it is not polluted. If you'd like to get a closer look at the birds bathing and drinking, then provide a birdbath.

Question: Our cardinal is sitting in her nest with her beak open, almost as if she’s panting. I read above males feed females when mating, but I haven’t seen the male. Is she ok?

Answer: She's probably hot. If there is water nearby, she should leave the nest for a drink and a bath to cool down when she feels the need. If this is their second nest, then the male is probably off taking care of the first batch of young.

Question: How do I get cardinals to nest nearby so I can see their eggs/chicks?

Answer: The best way to attract any bird to nest in your yard is to provide the proper habitat which has plants which provide food, shelter and nesting sites. Freshwater for bathing and drinking is essential. Bird baths or water gardens attract and sustain cardinals and are a great place to watch them. Feeding stations with sunflower and/or safflower seed will also attract them, especially in winter. In spring the parents often bring their babies to our feeders.

Question: The first of four eggs hatched in a boxwood right by our driveway. All four chicks are alive. An hour ago, a terrible ruckus of birds took place. The chicks are fine, but the mom hasn’t been back. Papa is around but isn’t tending to them. I think it was a hawk that scared her off, but will the mother come back if she is ok?

Answer: If the female is not injured, then she will probably come back. However, now that predators have discovered the nest the chances of success are slim. The babies are probably too young for the father to care for. It is possible to hand-raise them, but a rehabilitator best does this.

Question: Do cardinals ever use the same nest twice? The babies have been gone for about two weeks, and I would like to take the old nest out of the bush.

Answer: This is probably the last nesting that the parents will do this year. In my experience cardinals do not reuse the same nest. They build a new one in another place because of predators. Removing the nest should be okay.

Question: After a cardinal's babies have grown, do they stay in the area where they were born?

Answer: Yes, Cardinals often build their own nests not far away from where they were raised.

Question: After baby cardinals are born, do they relocate to a new nest?

Answer: When the baby cardinals are a few weeks old, they leave the nest and go off with the parents who feed them and teach them how to fend for themselves. If this is an early nesting, the male will take care of the fledglings, and the female will build a new nest to lay more eggs.

Question: What does it mean if eggs are unhatched after three weeks but mom still incubates?

Answer: It could mean that the weather was colder than normal, slowing the development of the young. Mom will abandon the eggs if they do not hatch soon.

Question: We had a nest and one egg hatched - a very short time later the birds, baby and anything else that was in the nest disappeared. Will the adults move the newborn if disturbed by us?

Answer: Unfortunately birds cannot move their babies. What you describe sounds like predation to me. Snakes will eat eggs and young causing the parents will leave to start a new nest elsewhere. Larger birds such as crows and bluejays can also remove eggs and young without destroying the nest.

Question: Of three Cardinal fledglings, two left the nest yesterday. There is still one in the nest today and the father occasionally comes back to feed it. How many days should I wait before seeing if there is something wrong with the fledgling that isn't leaving the nest? Today it's pouring rain and I'm worried it will get too cold without its siblings.

Answer: This is normal. The last one laid/hatched is the last one to leave the nest. Dad is coming back to feed it and coax it to leave the nest and come with the rest of the family. Hopefully the third one will leave today and the rain won't cause harm.

Question: Will a Cardinal move it's eggs? After a big windstorm her nest was tipped sideways. I saw her still sitting in it later. Again, I saw her out around the nest I was hoping they would try to repair it. This morning we looked out to see the nest was empty, and no fallen eggs or egg shells on the ground.

Answer: No, they cannot more their eggs. The eggs probably fell out and something ate them. She will probably have time to build another nest.

Question: I noticed some cardinals built a nest amongst my climbing roses. They had been feeding the babies (4) There’s been a cat in our backyard so yesterday I set a ladder and climbed up to check on the baby birds only to find that they died. All that remained was their carcass. Why would these baby birds have died?

Answer: Unfortunately, cats kill many birds yearly. Chances are that the female was killed by a predator. I'm so sorry. Responsible pet owners should keep their cats inside, especially during the breeding season. At the very least the cats should be wearing a collar with bells.