Backyard Tweet-hearts: The Love Life of Northern Cardinals

Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Northern Cardinals are the "it" couple of the backyard scene. They dance together, sing together, eat together, and have no problem showing public displays of affection toward each other. Heck, they're even the colour of love! But, as with most relationships, there's much more to the love life of these crimson beauties than meets the eye. Let's have a look at what makes Northern Cardinals true backyard tweet-hearts.

A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) pair engaging in courtship behaviour
Who's who?
When it comes to Northern Cardinals, there is no mistaking male from female. These lovebirds display sexual dimorphism, which is a condition where the males and females exhibit distinct differences in appearance, in addition to the reproductive organs themselves. Male Northern Cardinals are one of the most widely recognized birds in Ontario, with their brilliant all-over red plumage with some grey/brown edging, firey crest atop their head, reddish bill, and thick black facial mask around the eyes, bill, and chin. Females have a more subdued look (equally as beautiful, if you ask me), with all-over pale brown and tan colouring, red tinged feathers throughout the wings, tail, and crest, reddish bill, and black facial mask similar to the male's, though less prominent. Juveniles are similar in appearance to female cardinals, but have a dark bill & shorter crest, with their adult colouring coming in during their first fall molt.

Because Northern Cardinals are non-migratory, they are a good species to watch for hints that spring is on the way. As with many species, the male takes the lead in courtship displays. Beginning in February (now!), you may notice males becoming more aggressive toward other male cardinals, and taking more interest in being close to females. Around this time males will also begin to sing their joyful "cheer, cheer, cheer" song, which can often be heard at the crack of dawn. Pairs of Northern Cardinals will also take part in courtship behaviours such as rocking and swaying, raising and lowering wings, and singing duets. One behaviour we as backyard birdwatchers & feeders are able to witness quite often is beak-to-beak feeding. This is a public display of affection where the male cardinal will bring an offering of food to the female, and proceed to feed her from his beak directly to hers, giving the appearance of kissing (shown in photo above). Northern Cardinals are often labelled as monogamous, with some even stating that they "mate for life". While many pairs may stay together season after season, there are several who will change partners for every breeding season.

*Fun fact: Sometimes males will "attack" a mirror or window, thinking that the reflection they see of themselves is actually another male cardinal in his territory. To learn about prevention of this behaviour if it is happening at your home, click here.

A worn adult male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) feeding his young safflower seed
Home Sweet Home
After the singing, dancing, and fine dining has slowed down, the pair will begin nest site selection & construction. Female Northern Cardinals play the role of both architect and builder, and begin choosing a nesting site about two weeks before construction begins. The male follows his mate, and they call back in forth at each possible nesting site while holding nesting material in their bills - almost as if envisioning what their home and family would look like in that specific location. The ideal building site is typically in a tree or shrub with dense foliage such as hawthorn, dogwood, elm, or sugar maple, and is wedged into a fork of smaller branches. The nest itself is a cup style that is 2-3" tall, 4" across, with a diameter of 3" inside the cup, and takes anywhere from 3-9 days to complete depending on various factors such as weather conditions. It has four layers which include a tough outer layer of twigs, followed by a leafy layer & grapevine bark layer to help with protection from the elements, and finally a layer of gasses, stems, and pine needles to line the cup. Males will sometimes provide nest material to the female, but she is the primary builder of the nest, making sure every twig, leaf, and pine needle is in the perfect place to protect her and her babies.

Family Life
Family life for Northern Cardinals is hectic, stressful, and exhausting for both males and females (sound familiar?). Egg laying begins in early spring, with the female laying a clutch of 2-5 eggs. The eggs are quite small, averaging approximately 1" in length by .7" in width. Their colouring can vary from greyish white, to buff or yellow/brownish white, or greenish white, speckled with grey or brown. The incubation period is 11-13 days, and is carried out solely by the female. The male must have it pretty easy, huh? Not quite. The male fiercely defends the nesting area, attacking intruders who come too close to his territory. He also provides food for his lady so that she does not have to leave the nest & eggs vulnerable to predators. Baby cardinals are altricial, meaning that when they make their first appearance in the world, they are featherless, blind, and completely defenseless. Northern Cardinal chicks remain in the nest for 7-13 days, all the while mom and dad work tirelessly, day and night, feeding their needy offspring & keeping the nest safe and clean. When the chicks enter the fledgling stage and leave the nest, the parents continue feeding their babies and teach them how to find food for themselves. Soon after this stage is complete, the parents prepare to repeat the cycle over again, raising up to three clutches per breeding season.

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) feeding on safflower seed 
How to attract Northern Cardinals to your yard
Northern Cardinals are highly desired feeder visitors, and rightly so. Their striking colouring, interesting behaviours, and pleasant song are enough to make bring a smile to anyone's face. To increase your success in attracting these backyard tweet-hearts, give these tips a try.
  • Plant native: Native plants such as hawthorn, red osier dogwood, and sugar maple, help provide shelter from predators, and also provide suitable nesting habitat for Northern Cardinals and many other bird species. 
  • Offer their favourite foods: Safflower seed, sunflower chips, and live mealworms are all preferred foods of cardinals. Offering seed cylinders that have these food items in them, such as our Cranberry Cylinder, will give you a better chance at viewing the cardinals feeding as they peck away at the cylinder rather than flying off with loose seeds. 
  • Provide a year-round water source: Water is one of the most important elements when designing a bird-savvy yard. Having a consistent source of fresh, clean water through the summer months can help prevent dehydration, and offer the birds a place to bathe and cool down in the heat. Doing the same in the winter using a heated bird bath provides the birds with a source of drinking water, so that they don't have to use extra energy melting snow for hydration.

    Click here for more tips on attracting Northern Cardinals to your yard.

So, as Valentine's Day readily approaches, we wish you love, happiness, and Northern Cardinals - which are basically the same thing, right? 😉

Happy trails!
- Shayna


  1. Love all the birds. Feed them year round and Cardinals are many. They even bring their young to my feeders. Love watching them all.

    1. They are such wonderful birds! Thanks for reading.

  2. Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Happy ♥️ day! I enJOYed reading this very informative article, thank you. For some reason, I have not seen any cardinals since the New Year. I leave bird seed/ sunflower seeds on the window sill of our third-floor brown stone and attract many sparrows, squirrels and the occasional pigeon. Marija from Toronto ��

    1. Hi Marija, Thanks for the kind words! Never fear your cardinals will be back they do move around quite a bit within their territory. Thanks for reading! Kristen

  4. I love watching them in my backyard on the feeder!

  5. I've had a pair of cardinals all winter and right up to end of May. I know they were nesting in the brush along our property line. It's been 3 weeks and no sign of the male or female. Any reason why they would leave? Lots of food and water for them.

    1. The babies have most likely fledged and the parent would be feeding them outside of the nest as they all move about for about 14 days. Cardinals feed their babies primarily insects and invertebrates. So they may have to venture away from your home in search of enjoy food for babies. Planting native plants will encourage more biodiversity and provide more insect food for hungry bird families :) Kristen