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Native Spotlight: Northern Cardinal

Native Spotlight: Northern Cardinal

Native Spotlight: Northern Cardinal

The first baby cardinal I saw was in my neighbor’s yard.

Before that moment I had thought that the cardinal was always an adult bird. The same way I thought that my teacher just stayed at school and was shocked to see her in the grocery store.

It was on the ground in my neighbor’s woods. There was a hawk in the trees and the parents were very angry. The mother and father were hazing the hawk, diving at it in hopes to drive the hawk away.

I helped by clapping my hands. The hawk was gone.

It was great for the baby, but the father had suffered some damage. One wing was missing quite a few feathers. He was hoping more than flying.

Another problem arose once the hawk flew away. It was ME!  They began to dive bomb me, and I ran out of the woods. That was the first and only time I have seen a baby cardinal.

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is so distinctive anyone can name him. No other bird sports such a bright red color with a crest. In fact, if you were just to call him ‘Red Bird,’ anyone would know which bird you were referring to. Even the female is beautiful, her brown color offset with warm red. And, since they don’t change feather color in the winter, they are equally beautiful at the feeder as the weather turns cold.

Cardinals like to stay low to the ground to forage, but prefer high perches for singing. They eat mostly seeds and fruits, but also enjoy insects in the summer. They feed nestlings almost exclusively insects including: beetles, katydids, leafhoppers, cicadas, flies, spiders and butterflies.

In summer they forage in mated pairs but in winter they may form flocks. One not in flocks may follow other bird species. They can forage with Dark-eyed Juncos, Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Goldfinch and their cousins the Pyrrhuloxia.

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The Cardinal has benefited from human development. They are an edge habitat bird and human environments are perfect for them.  They like our environments so much, they have followed urban sprawl northward, extending their range. They prefer parks, backyards, woodlots, and forest edges.

Northern Cardinal-rangemap

Range of the Northern Cardinal

There are 120 million Cardinals in the United States and Mexico. They live year-round in North America as they do not migrate. They are mainly concentrated in the eastern half of the United States. Past the Mississippi they are found in the Great Plains States, the Rocky Mountains and into Texas and Mexico. Occasionally you will see birds as far west as California, but their populations are small.

In the spring, Cardinals are notorious for defending their territory. Many care owners have been baffled by a bird repeatedly attacking their mirrors. Cardinals attack their reflections mostly in spring, usually lasting only a few weeks.

Once the male calms down, he and his mate look for a nesting site. They stay close to the ground and look for tangles of shrubs and vines, preferring forked branches. The female gathers the materials and builds the nest. Within a week she has created her nursery, which she uses only once. She lays 2-5 brown speckled eggs and incubates them for about 2 weeks. During this time she talks to her mate by singing, being one of the few female birds that do so.

Cardinal Quick Facts

  • The state bird of seven states.
  • Eats seeds and insects.
  • Both male and female sing
  • Value: insect population control, beautiful winter color, prey of many larger species.


Attracting cardinals requires more than just setting out a feeder. To help sustain the population of cardinals, it is important to supply nesting habitat and insects for the young. Do this by focusing on planting native shrubs and vines in the backyard.

Cardinals prefer dense thickets for their nests. A homeowner can emulate this by planting a row of tall shrubs and evergreens along the property line. This type of planting creates a great privacy barrier, and can provide spring and fall color if the correct native shrubs are planted. Most of the country can plant a 12 to 20 foot row of dogwood, redbud, viburnum and winterberry for these birds.

Large native trees also help Cardinals as they provide insect food for the young. Growing native trees is important because insects may not recognize exotic species as food. If the insects can’t find food, there will not be any insects for the cardinals. Learn more by reading my post.

If you have the space, add a brush pile and don’t forget a clean, safe bird bath and you will have the perfect cardinal habitat in your backyard. Learn more about bird baths in this post.

Need some ideas for plants to attract Cardinals? Just look below.

Native Plants for Cardinals

Eastern States Dogwood, Wild Grape, Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, Pennsylvania Sedge, Red Mulberry, Hackberry, Blackberry, Sumac, Tulip-tree, Wild Cherry, Sunflower, Elm, Sugar Maple, Eastern Red Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Roses, American Holly, Virginia Creeper, Northern Bayberry, Winterberry
Midwest Dogwood, Wild Grape, Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, Pennsylvania Sedge, Red Mulberry, Hackberry, Blackberry, Sumac, Tulip-tree, Wild Cherry, Sunflower,Elm, Sugar Maple, Eastern Red Cedar, Roses, Virginia Creeper, Northern Bayberry
Rocky Mountain States Pines, Spruces, Fir, Western Cedar, Sunflower, Dogwoods, Sumac, Sunflower, Blackberry, Nannyberry, Serviceberry, Elderberry,
Southwest Desert Hackberry, Wolfberry, Serviceberry, Pines, Sumac, Blackberry, Sumac, Mesquite, Desert Willow, Spruce, Fir, Pine

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