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Northern Cardinal

(Cardinalis cardinalis)
Banded Fall 1997 & Winter 1998 - Carmel, Indiana

General Information

The Northern Cardinal or "Redbird" is probably one of most popular visitors to backyard bird feeders. Its range extends over most of the eastern USA, parts of extreme southeastern Canada, and south through Mexico to Belize. It has also been introduced to Hawaii. Its variable call, a loud "cheer cheer cheer" or "purty purty purty," is sung by both sexes and can be heard year round. Cardinals are nonmigratory, but some movement does occur in the later summer and fall.


The adult male is bright red with a black face and red bill.

 Adult Male Northern Cardinal
Figure 1 - Adult Male Northern Cardinal


Adult Female Northern Cardinal
Figure 2 - Adult Female Northern Cardinal


The adult female is buff-brown with a red tinge to the crest, wings and tail. Like the male, the face is black and the bill orange.

The powerful cone shaped bill is adapted for its diet of seeds and insects. In areas of the southwest and Mexico, this bill shape can be used to distinguish female and juvenile Northern Cardinals from the  similar Pyrrhuloxia. The bill of the Pyrrhuloxia is strongly downcurved.


Red Bill of Adult
Figure 3 - Red Bill of Adult
Northern Cardinal

Black Bill of Juvenile
Figure 4 - Black Bill of Juvenile
Northern Cardinal


Juveniles are similar to the adult female. The bill of the juvenile is black, changing to a horn or cream color before attaining its bright red adult color.

Upper wing coverts of the adult male are red. Those of the female are duller.


Upper Wing Coverts
Figure 5 - Upper Wing Coverts


Primary Flight Feathers
Figure 6 - Primary Flight Feathers


Cardinals have 9 primary feathers. Those shown here are very worn and broken, and will be replaced during the next molt occurring in the later summer and fall.

Nesting Behavior

The female builds a nest of small twigs and grasses in a shrub or brushy tangle. From 3 to 4 eggs, incubated by the female, hatch in just under two weeks. Both parents tend the young. Two, three or four broods may be raised in a breeding season. The male will tend the brood while the female starts the next brood.

Banding Recoveries

The Bird Banding Lab web site reports that between 1955 and 1997, a total of 356,639 Northern Cardinals were banded. Of these, 10,787 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 3.02%. Banding studies show that Cardinals can live up to 15 years in the wild. Cardinals are nomadic, and the Cardinals that visit your backyard feeder may not be the same individuals from week to week.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Conservation Status

Even though Northern Cardinal nests are frequently parasitized by Cowbirds, their populations are increasing, and their range is expanding northward and westward. There can be little doubt that the popularity of backyard bird feeding is contributing to the population and range increases of this species.

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