The Cardinal Rules

The male cardinal stands out from companions in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The male cardinal stands out from his neutral colored companions (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The Northern Cardinal, or Cardinal cardinalis, graces winter gardens from southern Canada, through Maine to Texas, and south into Mexico, never migrating once established. Traditionally local to the southeastern portion of the U.S., they have become far more common to our northern climates, preferring to nest in woodlands, thickets, swamps and gardens. Easily identified by even novice bird watchers, the male cardinal stands out in the winter landscape like LED brake lights in a Manhattan traffic jam.  When it comes to dramatic color among the native avian population, the cardinal rules.

Male & Female Cardinal dining with friends in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Male & Female Cardinal dining with friends (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Named for the bright red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, Cardinal cardinalis is a mid-sized bird (about 8-9″), with the male displaying flashy crimson plumage accented by a black mask, while the female is dressed more subtly in cocoa-brown, highlighted with a rosy blush on her crest, wings and tail.  Both male and female have a triangular shaped scarlet colored beak.  Cardinals are often seen visiting backyard bird feeders, as their diet consists mainly of seeds, grains and fruit. However, during mating season cardinals will consume some insects, and insects also make up a good portion of the diet fed to their young.  And speaking of young, let’s talk about romance . . . of the feathered kind, that is.  During courtship, the male wines and dines his true love (substitute wine for seeds), feeding her beak-to-beak, so to speak.  If the couple hooks up, the male may continue bringing food to his beloved throughout the incubation period, as well.  And once they mate, they remain a pair for life.

Male & female cardinals befriend a resident squirrel in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A male & female cardinal befriend a resident squirrel (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

But what about the love nest, you ask?  Surprisingly, (or maybe not so surprisingly) it is the female that chooses the location and does most of the construction work when building the love shack. You know, she wants everything “just so” for her newborn chicks.  The male helps to bring some of the materials, such as twigs, leaves, grasses, pine needles and vines, and the female cardinal artfully crafts the nest using her beak to twist and break twigs and her feet to form a bowl shape. The whole process can take up to nine days to complete, resulting in a 3 inch tall by 4 inch wide abode for the future family to lounge in.

Cardinal eggs in nest image: janet tarbox-in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Cardinal eggs in nest (image by: Tarbox)

Now that the home is complete and carefully sited in a densely branched tree or shrub, the female will lay from two to five light green eggs flecked with maroon. The eggs will incubate for up to thirteen days, and the chicks will be out on their own in approximately twelve days.  Yet while they are at home, the young birds will hear lovely songs from their mother as she accompanies them in the nest.  Only a few female North American songbirds sing, and Mama Cardinal is known for her ability to carry a tune.  Indeed, cardinals are a musical family, creating melodies together throughout the year, and using sounds to communicate with each other as well.

Multiple male cardinals eating together in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Multiple male cardinals eating together peacefully (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Male cardinals can be aggressive when it comes to protecting their territories, and will often attack other males that get too close to home base.  Otherwise, cardinals are fairly social and join in flocks that often include birds of other species. Sadly, although a few have lived into their teens in the wild (the record is almost 16 years), the mortality rate is high for juveniles, resulting in an average lifespan of only a year or two.  That said, the spirit of our beloved cardinal lives on among the hearts of many who chose it to be their state bird, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.  And I’ll bet they’re pretty special in your state, too~

To hear their different songs, or to read more about the beautiful cardinal, please visit:

Audubon at:   -or-

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at:


  1. WOW!!! I’ve never seen so many together…..they are beautiful! Thanks for the romance on this cold day!

  2. Christina Benson says:

    I loved your column on our beautiful cardinals, as I enjoy all of your writings…I wonder if you intended to use the word “languish” however, when speaking of the nest the female has built, “for the future family to languish in”, as the meaning is probably more the opposite of what you were thinking…
    One definition of “languish” is “(of a person or other living thing) (to) lose or lack vitality; grow weak or feeble”, which of course I don’t think is what you meant.
    But, that said, again I am grateful to you for your writings, they light up my day (especially in this gray winter).

    • Bless your heart, Christina. Thanks for watching over me . . . this is what happens when you combine “self-editing” and “menopause” (also known as mental-pause) in the same sentence . . . some confusion every now and again! (Ha ha) Anyway, I’ll change languish to ‘lounge’, and call it a day. Once again, I am deeply grateful for your kind words and for taking the time to let me know about my mix-up. Please stay safe and warm~

  3. Beautiful photos and a very good read.

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