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Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis

Male cardinals are very distinctive, with a brilliant red body and a black face. (Runner Jenny/Flickr)
Male cardinals are very distinctive, with a brilliant red body and a black face. (Runner Jenny/Flickr)

The northern cardinal is a small, red songbird that lives in gardens, backyards and wooded areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.


  • Tall, sharp crest of feathers on top of the head
  • Males are brilliant red with a black face
  • Females are brownish-gray with a reddish crest, wings and tail
  • Orange, cone-shaped beak
  • Long tail
  • Grows 7-9 inches


  • Found in parks, gardens, thickets, backyards and open, wooded areas


  • Lives throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed
  • Most cardinals live within a mile of where they were born


  • Eats seeds, insects and small fruits
  • Cone-shaped bill allows it to easily crack open seeds
  • Often eats grains from backyard bird feeders


  • Hawks, squirrels, owls, snakes, blue jays, and domestic dogs and cats prey upon cardinals


  • Males are easily identified in flight by their brilliant red color


  • Known for its sweet, clear whistling song
  • Both males and females sing
  • Calls vary depending on geography

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Pairs, which are monogamous, breed in March and again in May-July. They begin by establishing a breeding territory and exchanging songs.
  • Females build a small, cup-shaped nest in a dense shrub, small tree or tangle of vines. They lay 3-4 eggs, usually two times per year.
  • While the female incubates the eggs for about two weeks, the male aggressively guards the nest. Cardinals defend their territory so well that they will attack their own reflection in windows, mirrors and other shiny surfaces.
  • Newly hatched cardinal young are extremely immature and vulnerable: they cannot move, their eyes are closed and they have no down. They require intense care from both parents for about 10 days after hatching. After that time, they are able to leave the nest.
  • As young male cardinals develop their brilliant red color, the male parent usually expels them from the nest.

Other Facts:

  • The state bird of Virginia and West Virginia
  • Named after Catholic cardinals, who wear bright red robes

Sources and Additional Information:

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