The Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis
) is a songbird (Passeriformes) named for the bright red plumage of the male. Cardinals are members of the family Cardinalidae, which also includes rose-breasted GROSBEAK
), scarlet TANAGER
) and other large-billed seedeaters.
The Northern cardinal is 20-23 cm in length with a wingspan of 30 cm. Sexes are similar in size and shapes but differ in colour. Males are bright red with a black face and throat. Females and juveniles are an olive-buff with red edging. The males' distinctive, loud, slow-whistled song described as "cheer, cheer, cheer" and the common call note, a loud sharp chip, is often heard throughout the year.
Distribution and Habitat
Distribution is throughout eastern North America south of the Canadian SHIELD
continuing into Central America. More common in the south, the first documented record of a Northern cardinal in Canada was in 1849; the first nest was not reported until 1901 at Point Pelee, Ont. They have continued their northern expansion across eastern Canada and are presently found throughout much of the Deciduous FOREST REGION
of southern Ontario and, in lesser numbers in urban and rural habitats of the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Forest Region from southern Manitoba through Ontario, Québec and the southern Maritimes. Cardinals are non-migratory, year-round residents throughout their range, preferring brushy shrubland, parkland and gardens, often in association with human populations.
These birds are omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of seeds, fruits and insects although there is a greater preference for invertebrates during the breeding season. Commonly found at bird feeders, their preferred birdseed is oil-type sunflowers (Helianthus sp.
Cardinals are one of Canada's earliest breeding songbirds beginning nest building as early as late March or early April and may have several nesting attempts throughout the summer and into late September. They are socially monogamous (having only one mate) but recent studies have revealed extra-pair paternity in 9-35% of young. Nests are placed 0.5 to 4.9 m in a tree or shrub. Average clutch size is 2-3 eggs with an incubation period of 11-13 days.
Northern Cardinal, Close-up
The Northern cardinal has greatly expanded its breeding range in Canada since its first nesting in 1901(Corel Professional Photos). Sound of the northern cardinal courtesy Monty Brigham, Bird Sounds of Canada.
Female Northern Cardinal
(courtesy Mark Peck)
Male Northern Cardinal
The bird was named because of its red plummage, the same colour as a cardinal's robe (courtesy Mark Peck)
Northern Cardinal, Winter
Cardinals are year-round residents (courtesy Mark Peck).
Links to Other Sites
All About Birds
Search this online bird identification guide for information on specific bird species found in North America. Click on the dynamic map of eBird sightings for a magnified view. From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the US.
Canadian Biodiversity Website
A great information source for all budding biologists. Learn about biodiversity theory, natural history, and conservation issues. From McGill’s Redpath Museum.
Bird Studies Canada
The website for “Bird Studies Canada,” an organization dedicated to preserving wild birds and their habitats. Search this site for the latest information on bird sightings and populations, checklists and maps, species at risk, and more.
Québec Breeding Bird Atlas
See the online Québec Breeding Bird Atlas and guidelines for participating in this project.
Maritimes Breeding Bird Atlas
Search for breeding bird data by region, species, and year. Offers printable topographic maps for virtually every atlas square in the Maritimes.
Atlas of the Breeding Bird of Ontario
Search this online database for detailed maps and charts that depict the distribution of breeding species throughout the province of Ontario.
A brief profile of the northern cardinal from the website Birds of Nova Scotia.