Northern Cardinal Watching

Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) eating red berries | Bob Hilscher

The Northern Cardinal is a backyard favorite of many bird watchers. This popular bird lives in the Eastern parts of the United States. Because of the male’s bright red color, they are perhaps the most colorful visitors we have who eat at our bird feeders and swim in our birdbaths in local yards.

Some believe when a person sees a cardinal and it happens to act abnormally in the person’s presence, this is a direct sign that a loved one who has died, is trying to send a message of care.

Usually we think of the male cardinal when we say, “Oh, there’s a redbird!” The female cardinal is a brownish color that has red tints on the wings and is also pretty, but is not a bright red like the male.  Both the male and female love to sing, but the male uses his shrill voice when he is defending his territory. Very possessive, the male cardinal does not want to see another pretty bird like himself in his neighborhood. If the male bird gets upset the crest on his head will go up and if he is calm, his crest will lie flat.

Northern Cardinal Male and Female on Holly Branch | Bonnie Taylor Barry

The cardinals that frequent my backyard often will sit on the fence right by my window and look in. I think this is more because they know who I am and are possibly wondering why they haven’t been fed yet. Those windows were put in that position so I could see the entire back yard and watch the kids. Who knew the birds would be able to perch just three feet across from the window and now watch me?

Cardinals are smart birds and they usually stay in one place for a long time. They don’t migrate, so even in winter they will stay near your yard if you have food and water sources nearby.  They will build their nests in shrubs or shorter trees, and cardinals do not like birdhouses, as a rule.

Cardinals are good parents and raise their baby birds together. They can have two to three broods, (groups), of babies, in a season. When the nest is full, the male actually loses some of his luster and looks more like the female. This is to help protect the nest.

A beautiful male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) at white dogwood blossoms in springtime. | Steven R Smith

A cardinal’s favorite food is sunflower seeds, so if you grow sunflowers, the cardinals will eat all those seeds unless you feed them separately. Cardinals eat often and will eat insects and spiders. In fact, they sometimes fly into house windows when they are trying to catch spiders in webs that are built near to houses. Fruits are berries are also favorites of the Cardinal for year round eating.  

These beautiful birds are on a protected list. It is illegal to own a cardinal or to kill one. However, a cardinal may live to be 15 years old, so if he or she stays in your yard for that amount of time I guess you can say you have a pet cardinal. You just can’t bring them inside. And if a cardinal sits outside your window and stares at you until you bring out food, you can definitely say you have a beautiful little friend!