Do Cardinals Mate For Life?

Do Northern Cardinals Mate For Life?

Birdwatching is a passion of mine and one bird that I always manage to pick out against the landscape is the Northern Cardinal. This bright red bird can be easily spotted against the bare Wintery branches. It is one of my favorite birds and always makes me feel better after spotting it.

Photo by Rhododendrites

But during my research into birds, one question always crops up: do they mate for life? Well, regarding the Cardinal, these birds do indeed mate for life.

I always found this quite sweet, but I still wondered as to the reason why they do this.

Is there an advantage to the Cardinal going monogamous? How do male and female Cardinals interact? What are the other mating and feeding habits of the Cardinals? Well, I’ve compiled all the info that you need to answer these questions and some more! So, keep reading for my amazing Cardinal facts!

What are Cardinal birds?

There are 2 native Cardinals in the U.S. with 1 other vagrant in the continental states and 1 introduced species in Hawaii.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)1

The Northern Cardinal has a black face with a crest and a conical beak used to gather seeds. The reason they are called Cardinals is that the crest on their heads resembles a Catholic cardinal’s biretta. The male is a vivid red (on the right) and the female is a pale brown.

Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)

This cardinal live in arid areas of south western America with the main population in Mexico. Although it has a similar physical shape to the Northern Cardinal, its crest is thinner and sharper and the bill more compact. The plumage is a mid gray with flecks of red.

This bird gets its color from the seeds and fruit that it eats, although they have also been known to eat insects during the colder months.

If you are looking for these birds, then you will often find them darting between hedgerows, either chirping at each other or foraging for food.

If you look in dense vegetation, then you might find their nests, which are usually in a cup-type shape.

Females traditionally raise the chicks by themselves, although there have been some instances where the males have helped out with rearing.

Do Cardinals mate for life?

As we mentioned above, these birds do indeed mate for life. The male will often gather food for the female during the courtship period. In what seems to be a romantic gesture, he will even break bits of the seed off to feed it to his prospective mate.

The reason why a lot of animals are monogamous is the fact that it is far more beneficial for them to mate in the long term, which both partners protecting the nest at the same time.

What is the difference between male and female Cardinals?

Males are a lot more striking and distinctive than females, with their vibrant plumage that you’ll be able to spot from five hundred paces away.

They also have a more defined line between their black face and their red body. The females are a lot more different, with duller brown plumage that helps them blend in better with their surroundings.

The main similarities between the male and the female are the bill and the head color. Both genders have very dark faces with bright orange beaks.

In terms of behavior, male Cardinals are a lot more aggressive, in both hunting and breeding. They will sing more often and louder. They will also defend their nest far more vigorously than the females.

The females are much more strategic with their singing, which makes them very selective and helps them to avoid unsuitable males and predators. The females have a lot more variations in the songs that they sing. They also sing for the males to bring them food, either for themselves or for their young.

Weird and wonderful facts about the Cardinal

Photo by Imogen Warren

There are a lot of distinctive behavioral traits that are exhibited by the cardinal, here are just a few of them:

They cover themselves with ants

This is a unique behavior that Cardinals indulge in where they place ants in their plumage. There is still some debate as to why they do this, theories range from the ants eating other feather parasites to limiting bacteria buildup.

They lose their feathers

That’s right, as they get older some Cardinals lose the feathering on their head, exposing the skin underneath. This is due to parasites and thankfully the feathers do grow back.

They flock with other birds

These birds are known to be very territorial, but during the breeding season, they seem to lose their inhibitions and gather with other birds, including sparrows, juncos, titmice and goldfinches.

They are defensive

These birds will aggressively defend their nests, with both males and females dive-bombing enemies and any other birds who stray into their patch.

Photo by Aaron J. Hill

How can I attract Cardinals to my garden?

There are a few foods that Cardinals will not be able to resist.

If you want to spot Cardinals in your garden, then it might be helpful to know that these birds will often be the first ones to arrive in your garden in the morning and be the last to leave during the evening.

Here is a short list of food that the Cardinal bird will absolutely love:

  • Sunflower seeds – you can see from the downward curve of this bird’s beak that it is primarily adapted for eating seeds. This shape helps with breaking the seeds up.
  • Purple coneflower – this is another seed that the Cardinal will go crazy for. If you are putting plants out to attract Cardinals, make sure they are the type to bear seeds.
  • Berries – these birds love the taste of fruit pulp and will often use their beaks to mash up fruits and berries.
  • Insects – this food is especially consumed by young Cardinals, with the parents scrambling up the insects to feed the baby the soft meat. You can try putting out dead insects, but Cardinals might not automatically eat them.

Final Thoughts

I hope that my Cardinal facts have helped you to understand the unique mating habits of this unique and wonderful bird.

Understanding a bird’s habits is something that I find useful in trying to classify them when they are out in the open.

Photo by Skyler Ewing


Do Cardinals bond with their chicks too?

Yes, they begin bonding before the chicks have even hatched. Both the male and female feed the young and stay with them constantly until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

Do Cardinals show affection?

As you might expect with monogamous birds, they do show affection to each other. You might see this in the garden as they sing and dance together.

Why are Cardinals so special?

Tricky to answer but probably a mixture of reasons. Firstly, they are around a lot and so are very familiar. They are also very striking and attractive and appeal to birders and non-birders alike. Next, they are the color of love and lastly, their song is uplifting.

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