Are Cardinals Brighter in the Winter?

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Many people notice that cardinals appear even more vibrant than usual in winter months. It's fair to wonder whether this is due to them actually becoming brighter, or simply due to the white snowy backgrounds we are now seeing them against. 

Male Northern Cardinal enjoying a Safflower Cylinder. Photo by Kristen Martyn. 

Here’s the thing - they actually ARE brighter. Like many other birds, they molt throughout the fall months.

Molting Male Cardinal. Photo by Leanne Leblanc. 

Molting Male Cardinal. Photo by Kristen Martyn. 

A newly molted cardinal isn’t at its brightest, many of the new feathers actually have grey tips. Over time, throughout late fall and early winter these darker tips wear off and reveal a more vibrant, brilliant red. ⁠

Molting Male Cardinal, grey tips visible. Photo by Leanne Leblanc. 

Cardinals reach peak brilliance by midwinter ahead of the spring breeding season. 

Cardinals begin to sing throughout the month of February, as breeding season begins, listen for their joyful 'cheer cheer cheer' call. You may also notice them becoming more aggressive or territorial towards other birds during this time. 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 that is really special and often catches the eye of bird watchers 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. To learn more about cardinals breeding behaviours, read our full blog on the topic 'Backyard Tweet-hearts: The Love Life of Northern Cardinals.' 

⁠Enjoy the beautifully brilliant cardinals and their displays of affection this month! 



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