15 Cardinal Bird Facts You Didn’t Know (2020)

The cardinal is one of the most beautiful wild birds in the world, but it can be hard to find one standing still. 

Cardinals are known to be shy and they are not aggressive birds. 

The following cardinal bird facts will help you to better understand how cardinals function outside.

1. Male cardinals get their red feathers from food

The male northern cardinal is instantly recognizable, being completely red in color, whereas the female cardinal has tan feathers with a red wash across the chest. 

However, the red wash feature varies between individual females. Male and female cardinals also have different colors in their beaks as males have red beaks and females have orange beaks. 

The red coloration that males develop in their plumage is a result of carotenoids in their feather structure, and they ingest those carotenoids in their diet. 

Vibrant yellow northern cardinals may be seen on rare occasions, which is a genetic plumage variation called xanthochroism.

2. Cardinals are omnivores

Birds that are omnivores are birds that can eat both plants and animals. What do cardinals eat? Cardinals love to eat seeds, fruit, buds, and insects. 

Cardinals can often be found eating birdseed out of bird feeders. Cardinals also hop and forage on the ground, searching through low-lying shrubs and bushes for seeds. 

Suet, a high-calorie kidney fat that comes from sheep or cattle, provides nutrients for cardinals all year long. When insects become scarce or non-existent in the winter. 

Suet is a great replacement to provide cardinals energy. Cardinals also eat grains like oats, buckwheat, millet, and bread crumbs. Read more about what to put into cardinal feeders.

3. Some cardinals suffer from bird “baldness”

It doesn’t make for a pleasant sight to see naked-headed cardinals. Parasites are mainly to blame, but some experts like Eastern Kentucky University ornithologist Gary Ritchison have their doubts. 

Having personally handled thousands of cardinals, Ritchison has handled several bald cardinals (1). Among these afflicted birds, he says that “None had severe lice or mite problems.” 

He attributes this phenomenon to an unusual molt pattern. Author of The Bird Almanac in 1999, McGill University in Quebec ornithologist David Bird, and colleague Rodger Titman, argue strongly for the unusual molting explanation. This unusual feather loss may be due to a response to a traumatic injury.

4. Cardinals are non-migratory birds

Birds that are non-migratory means that they don’t migrate for the winter season. Cardinals are non-migratory birds as they prefer to live within a mile of where they were born. They are attracted to nesting shelves and cardinal feeders, especially those with a great supply of food. 

The best bird feeder for attracting cardinals would be a hopper bird feeder. These feeders allow cardinals to perch for their meal. Male cardinals can be hard to spot even though they are bright red. They mainly prefer to hang out in dense shrubs, and then tangled branches block the view of their feathers.

5. Cardinals were named after the Catholic Bishops

One of the northern cardinal facts that you may already know is that the bird was named for its color, which resembles the red robe worn by Roman Catholic Cardinals (2). 

What does cardinal mean? In the Roman Catholic definition, a Cardinal is a high ecclesiastical official of the church who ranks just below the pope to assist as a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals. 

These types of Cardinals serve as principal counselors, primarily aiding the government of the Vatican. The Latin word cardinalis, from the word cardo (pivot or hinge), was first used in late antiquity to designate a bishop or priest.

6. Cardinals voluntarily cover themselves with ants

One of the most interesting facts about cardinals is that they practice what is appropriately called anting (3). In fact, over 200 species of birds, including the Baltimore Orioles and the wild turkey, also cover themselves with ants. It is possible that because the ants release formic acids, cardinals help themselves ward off lice. 

The ants come from two subfamilies, they produce defensive secretions to repel attackers, and they don’t sting. The cardinal will hold an ant in its beak, spread and lower its wings, and brings its tail forward between its legs, wiping the outer wing and tail feathers with the ant.

7. The Cardinal is a symbol of confidence and balance

The cardinal is seen as a symbol of some positive traits, and it is mainly portrayed as a reassuring sign. The cardinal bird symbolizes confidence mainly because it is known for being a confident species. 

Cardinals know everything about their own distinctive gifts and talents, which explains why you won’t see them being eager to be taken in a light manner. 

Cardinals also represent balance as they serve as a powerful representation of a family. The father cardinal is in charge of nurturing young birds. Parent cardinals live a well-balanced family life, giving both of them the chance to take care of and nurture their kids in turn.

8. Cardinals mate for life

Cardinals are monogamous birds. After a male cardinal bird has chosen a female, the two will begin building a nest using various materials like leaves, grasses, tree bark, and small twigs that they gather and weave together. You will typically see a cardinal nest lined with animal hair and soft grass. 

Do cardinals mate for life? Some cardinal pairs stay together all year long in their nesting territory. Female cardinals lay 3 or 4 eggs, which will be incubated for 12 to 13 days. The male occasionally helps with the incubation process. If one member of the pair dies, the survivor will quickly look for a new mate.

9. Female cardinals sing to tell the males when they need food

Cardinal sounds vary between males and females. The male typically sings to attract mates or ward off intruders. The female typically sings to signal the male to bring food to the nestlings. 

The cardinal bird call for males is aggressive singing to protect their breeding and nesting, whereas females will sing more elaborate songs. 

Females sing in a more tactical fashion. Cardinals have the ability to sing 24 different songs. Male cardinals may sometimes sing up to 200 songs in an hour. When you hear cardinals chirping, sometimes both the male and the female will get together and sing cheerful duets.

10. Cardinals are named as a state bird of seven states

The cardinal is the most popular state bird in the United States. These are the seven states in America that have the northern cardinal as their state bird: 

Illinois (1929), Indiana (1933), Ohio (1933), Kentucky (1942), North Carolina (1943), West Virginia (March 7, 1949), Virginia (January 25, 1950).

Cardinals are also popular mascots in professional sports, most notably for the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball and the Arizona Cardinals in football. 

Many college and high school teams also have cardinals as their mascots. The most notable schools that promote the cardinal would be the University of Louisville in Kentucky and Ball State University in Indiana.

11. Cardinals can live up to 15 years

How long do cardinals live? Northern cardinals can live for at least 3 years in the wild on average. However, some are able to have lifespans of 13 to 15 years. What you may find to be an amazing fact is that the longevity record for a northern cardinal in captivity is 28 ½ years (4). 

Most wild birds tend to live very long, especially if they are the type of birds that dwell in higher altitudes, which usually come to little or no harm throughout their lifetime. Combined with the fact that they shy away from humans, the preference to dwell in higher altitudes helps cardinals live longer.

12. During winter they tend to create big flocks

In the warmer months of the year, cardinal pairs aggressively defend a plot of land sized between 2 and 10 acres, which gives one the impression that they are territorial in the winter season when food becomes more scarce. Cardinal pairs will actually join forces in their quest for sustenance. 

Temporary flocks consisting of 5 or more pairs band together. Flocks of cardinals can get as large as 70 birds during wintertime and often nest in bushy thickets. A flock of cardinals is called a college, radiance, conclave, or Vatican. These flocks make a stunning sight when spotted in a snowy landscape.

13. Cardinals are very territorial

Male cardinals will defend their zone from possible intruders, or even reflections. This is why you may have seen a male cardinal attacking a window or mirror. Though sometimes females are seen doing this as well, mainly males will attack what they think is an intruder, but they are really attacking themselves. 

Cardinals become territorial over their range during nesting and breeding season because they are protecting their established habitat. Male cardinals are so hot-blooded that even though they breed near other bird species, they will never allow another male cardinal to trespass on their property. Though not the largest wild birds, cardinals are one of the toughest.

14. Cardinals are under The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed to give cardinals protection, including the prohibition of their sale (5). This law was first enacted in 1916 to implement the convention for the protection of migratory birds between the United States and Great Britain, which acted on behalf of Canada. 

The statute makes it illegal without a waiver to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell birds that are listed as migratory birds. Cardinals were popular in the 1800s as cage birds because of their brilliant red plumage and their singing capability. Once a threat to bird poaching, cardinals are now protected by this act and other legislation.

15. There are 19 cardinal subspecies

How many cardinals are there? There are many types of cardinals, a total of 19 subspecies which are mostly distinguishable by their colors. Northern cardinals live in a range from southeastern Canada to as far south as Louisiana. The Florida Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis floridanus) lives in Florida and Georgia. 

The Grey-tailed Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis canicaudus) lives in Oklahoma and Texas and throughout central and eastern Mexico. The Cozumel Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis saturatus) lives in the Cozumel Islands in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Cardinals belong to the Cardinalidae family, which includes Grosbeaks and Buntings.

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