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The Northern Cardinal, A Cut Above the Crest

Updated on July 30, 2014
Male Northern Cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal | Source

The Regal Red Bird

This is the official bird of seven of our U.S. states, who sings a wide variety of upbeat melodies throughout the year. These birds have adapted to the suburban areas, visit backyard feeders constantly, and will occasionally allow one to hand feed them. These birds are easily differentiated between the sexes, as well as the juvenile bird. The male is all red with a black mask, and cone-shaped reddish bill, with a distinctive crest atop the head. The female is buffy brown with buffy olive upperparts with the black mask, and the crest. The young one resembles the adult female with a blackish instead of a reddish bill.

Male Northern Cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal | Source

Two Sides to Every Story

The male becomes very aggressive, especially during breeding season and will fight other birds to protect his territory. He frequently has been seen attacking his own reflection in car mirrors, windows, chrome, and hubcaps. But his gentler side is there, too. During courtship, he will open seeds and feed his lady love before himself. Now, isn’t that a true gentleman?

Male Northern Cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal | Source

The Distinctive Songs

The songs are various and many. There are at least 25, if not more, and the most prevailing are “ku, ku, ku,” and “chek, chek, chek.” Those cannot be missed. The female will sing duets with her intended during the courtship right after their territory has been established and just prior to nesting. This call is an abrasive “chip” or “pikk.”

Immature Northern Cardinal
Immature Northern Cardinal | Source

Behavior

These birds are solitary or in pairs during breeding season. They are gregarious at other times, will flock in winter, and are known to join foraging flocks of mixed species. They will forage on the ground, in trees, or bushes. They enjoy fruit, grains, snails, insects, and seeds. Cardinals also will drink the sap from sapsucker drill holes. They hop, rather than walking on the ground.

Cardinal Enjoying a Bath from the Hose
Cardinal Enjoying a Bath from the Hose | Source

Range

They are very widespread and abundant in residential areas, woodland edges, thickets, and undergrowth. Their range has expanded more northerly in the past century, partially due to to the increases in feeding stations. They tend to be somewhat casual in the western part of the country, but like anything else, their expansion is increasing, yet they are not migratory.

If you’d like to have Northern Cardinals in your yard, put out cracked corn, sunflower seeds, and general wild birdseed. They will also enjoy your birdbaths.

Nesting

Surprisingly, these birds are a common cowbird host, especially in the central portion of their range.

Nests are made from bark strips, weeds, twigs, assorted grasses, and leaves, usually lined with finer grass and hair. They are in the fork of a low tree or bush, and can be set in tangled vines or twigs, and are between five to 15 feet above the ground. The female handles nest building, and a clutch is usually three or four eggs.

This Male Cardinal Pulled His Feathers
This Male Cardinal Pulled His Feathers | Source

Isn't There a Pill for That?

After breeding season, the male cardinal is known to pull out his own feathers to make way for new growth. He can appear to look quite ugly with such sparse feathers. There is nothing wrong with him, as it is common behavior. If you see a strange looking, semi-dressed male cardinal, don’t worry, he will be back to normal shortly.

Juvenile Northern Cardinal on right(notice the black bill)
Juvenile Northern Cardinal on right(notice the black bill) | Source
Another Juvenile Northern Cardinal
Another Juvenile Northern Cardinal | Source
Female Northern Cardinal (rear)
Female Northern Cardinal (rear) | Source
Male Northern Cardinal Hiding in a Tree
Male Northern Cardinal Hiding in a Tree | Source
Female Northern Cardinal
Female Northern Cardinal | Source
Male Northern Cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal | Source

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    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Surabhi, there's a lot more where this came from. Take a gander at this if you'd like to see wildlife at its best: http://debhirt.blogspot.com

      Go, Toronto, my favorite city with the best restaurants and transportation system in North America!

    • profile image

      Surabhi Kaura 

      2 years ago

      Hey Deb, I like this article. A cool hub. The photos of birds are so rich and vivid. I am a nature lover, so how could I ignore this hub? Wonderful information on birds here. Amazing! The male cardinal looks so cute, especially the last one. They seem to diminish due to global warming. We barely see them here. I once saw in Ottawa. Spectecular hub!

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Suhail, everything is all about light, yes, but that is also when birds are most active. They eat at daybreak and again before they sleep. HOWEVER, when it is migration time, many birds appear in mid-afternoon. Did you know that songbirds migrate at night, as predators cannot see them?

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      3 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      I got it, Deb! Those seeds should do me some good ha-ha.

      Btw, Deb, is it confirmed that it is better to go for bird photography early in the morning or late afternoon? I mean I have noticed that at least waterfowl remains active throughout the day.

      Or is it because of quality of light that they recommend morning and evening time?

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, I have had a little trouble with mine. Get to know a few, bring black oil sunflower seeds with you.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      3 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      I still have to get a good snap of this bird. The tend to be pretty shy.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Besarian! There is much to learn in the birding world, and I am still at it. I suspect that this will be so until I take my final breath. One never knows them fully, as when you think they do, that ninety degree turn will come when they throw us in left field.

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 

      3 years ago

      We had an old red plastic sprinkler in the back yard when I was growing up. A lot of the birds liked to bath under the water as it turned. One day a male cardinal decided it was his arch nemesis and tore it to bits. I guess it just being red was enough to set him off. I had seen a male pulling feathers out too and assumed he had mites. I'm glad it is normal- or as normal as they get in mating season. Really enjoyed learning more about cardinals. They are such beautiful songbirds. Great hub!

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, sometimes all these birds flee quickly. It's just being in the right place at the right time. I do have so much fun with it, though. Thanks for stopping by, and I sure will be doing more of these.

    • holdmycoffee profile image

      holdmycoffee 

      5 years ago

      I enjoyed looking at pictures and reading information about the cardinals. I have tried to take a few pictures, but these birds are so quick! It takes a real talent to catch them with a camera.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, now I know what you mean. I wasn't sure if you were referring to something else. Oh, yes, it is a great cause. I have been around the Cornell Labs for quite some time.

    • kathyinmn profile image

      Kathy 

      6 years ago from Jordan MN

      project feeder watch is asking for people to count the birds that come to the bird feeders. Yes you have to join it and pay a small fee, but that covers the expence of the information that is sent to you. It looks like it's an interesting project

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      To support it, or membership? Or is there something else, Kathy?

    • kathyinmn profile image

      Kathy 

      6 years ago from Jordan MN

      hey aviannovice did you hear about project feederwatch?

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Blond logic! I would love to see your birds one day.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      6 years ago from Brazil

      I have seen birds in the States, Britain, and now Brazil. It is a past-time we enjoy and here on our farm in Brazil, we have seen over 85 different types.

      But....

      I have never seen a cardinal.

      I am not a fan of bucket lists but if I were to make one, seeing a cardinal would be at the top of my list.

      Beautiful birds.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Mycee, Northern Cardinals are really gorgeous, and they can be easily seen as well as heard.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, moonlake. They are interesting birds, as well as beautiful.

    • unknown spy profile image

      Not Found 

      6 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

      hey Deb..those red regal is very fascinating to look at. the color is very lovely.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 

      6 years ago from America

      I love cardinals. We see them in the yard just passing through. I think I have not very good picture of one. They never stay head south and just are not in the area for long. Voted Up and more.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Connie, you may have seen the uglies as well as the juvies, but never paid them any mind. They always seem to be harbingers of spring, and make such good winter birds with a snowy backdrop.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Deb, Loved your photos! I didn't think I would ever see an 'ugly' cardinal, but now I have. I had never seen a juvenile either, until I saw your pictures. My cardinals usually arrive around dusk. In fact I can hear them coming from their calls. In the fall they work at the wild rose hips in the bushes near the house. I leave those unruly bushes in place just for them.

      In the winter I really enjoy seeing them foraging on top of the snow for fallen seeds. Adding a few grapes and currants to the black oil sunflower seeds seems to please them at my feeders.

      Voted Up and pushed all the buttons! Also shared.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      You are most welcome, Lightshare. Glad that you liked it.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Mhatter, I'm getting there...

    • Lightshare profile image

      Lightshare 

      6 years ago

      Thank you avian for a beautiful information -)

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      You have definitely got to have a "come-to-Jesus" meeting with the photographer. Those pictures are too awesome. :))

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, thanks, thelyricwriter. Glad this piece was useful to you and answered a long term question. That is great.

    • thelyricwriter profile image

      Richard Ricky Hale 

      6 years ago from West Virginia

      Cool article. You answered a question that I have had since I was young. They are many of them here in West Virginia. I was around 10 and saw what must have been a male cardinal that pulled his feathers. I actually remember seeing it and wondering, "what kind of bird was this?" They use to stay in the pine tree at my childhood home. Loved watching them, especially in the snow. Wow, how bout that? Had to be one that pulled his feathers, so awesome! Voted up, useful, interesting, and awesome Aviannovice!

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Letitia. Saurien is correct. Compare at Pterodactyl with them, and see the similarities.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      There's always something new. As a matter-of-fact, riddle me this: is the beak orange or red? Take a close look.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hummers are some of the toughest birds to photograph, due to their speed. Do your best to get them at a feeder. At least you'll have a chance of getting them to stop.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      They really are pretty nice birds, aren't they, gamby? He will do his best to protect her, too.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Bobbi! Glad that you enjoyed this piece. Birds aren't always loving. Some of them do power displays, and they have hierarchies, too. It all depends on the different birds.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      No, Jackie, it takes time to learn about birds, I certainly didn't amass everything overnight. I worked as a volunteer for years with them, and have observed them for many years, too. It just takes time. You'll get it.

    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 

      6 years ago from Paris via California

      Haha! Great title.

      In appearance, those juveniles really retain something of their saurien ancestry, don't they? Funny how they grow out of it.

    • hecate-horus profile image

      hecate-horus 

      6 years ago from Rowland Woods

      I love Cardinals, and thought I knew almost everything about them. However, I didn't not know about the male feather plucking! Overall, a very interesting hub with great pictures!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      6 years ago from Western NC

      Wow! Cardinals are so cool! We have a family of them (Well, there's at least 4 or 5) living in our woods near the house. I had NO IDEA that you can get them to eat from your hand! WOW! Of course, with the cats around, I try to grow a lot of bird-friendly flowers, in case they really need food, but I'm reluctant to feed them with a feeder because of my two cats. And I'm super-impressed with your pictures. I'm writing a hummingbird hub right now and I've been trying to get pictures - distant ones at that - of hummingbirds feeding at our feeders. It's a tricky venture! :D

    • gamby79 profile image

      gamby79 

      6 years ago

      Another great one! I never tire of watching the cardinal couple in my backyard hopping around eating sunflower seeds and dipping in the birdbath. Great photos! :)

    • PurvisBobbi44 profile image

      PurvisBobbi44 

      6 years ago from Florida

      One of my favorite birds and we have so many in our trees. I feed them sunflower seeds and I love to watch the male feed the female seeds.

      They are so loving to each other. One can learn so much just watching birds.

      Thanks for writing this beautiful and interesting hub.

      Your Hub Friend,

      Bobbi Purvis

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Wow well maybe that was a male cardinal I saw. I loved the bird taking a shower! Now that is a first. I always thought some red bird said "pretty bird"? I hear that every year. I guess I should leave all the bird stuff to you, lol, it just isn't my genre, lol. Great job as always and up and shared.

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