Cardinals are a songbird species in the family Cardinalidae and are related to buntings and grosbeaks. The Northern Cardinal is native to North America, with a range that extends from southern Canada to Guatemala.
The bright red coloration of the male cardinal makes this species easy to identify. Female cardinals are also easy to spot despite their dull, tan coloration because of the distinctive spiky feather crest on the top of their head.
Cardinals are monogamous, often spending more than one breeding season together. Sometimes they divorce, or the female mates with a different male, and her mate raises the other male’s chicks.
Divorce usually happens as a result of nest failure. Highly successful breeding pairs may stay together for several years, while less successful birds may separate after only a few breeding seasons.
Their life spans are not very long. The oldest known cardinal lived to be more than 15 years old. However, most cardinals live no more than five years. Cardinals often succumb to predation from various predators, including domestic cats, hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles.
If one of the cardinals in a mated pair dies, the remaining bird quickly finds a new mate and does not spend time mourning its mate as swans do. The remaining bird typically locates and courts an unmated cardinal in a nearby territory and begins breeding.
What Time of Year Do Cardinals Mate?
This species lives in forests, wetlands, shrublands, parks, gardens, and other green areas created by humans. They feed on seeds, berries, snails, and insects. People observe these birds at backyard bird feeders and attract them by putting out sunflower seeds.
These birds reside in their home range year-round and do not migrate annually. The bright red plumage of the males makes them especially easy to see during the winter after it snows. Cardinals have adapted well to human places, and humans generally encourage their presence.
Cardinals breed between March and September. Homeowners who leave undergrowth and shrubs in their yards in addition to a birdfeeder can entice cardinals to nest there. These birds are very territorial and become aggressive during the breeding season.
Sometimes cardinals are so aggressive they attack their reflection in a window. They work hard to keep invading birds out of their territory.
How Do Cardinals Mate?
Male cardinals dance and sing while showing off their brilliant red plumage to attract a female mate. Females choose males with the brightest red plumage because it is an indicator of high fitness.
The redder the feathers of a male cardinal, the better his territory is and the more offspring he produces each breeding season. Males with the brightest feathers can attract better-quality females and start breeding sooner, leading to better breeding success.
Researchers have also observed female cardinals dancing and singing when a male is present, which means that both individuals demonstrate their fitness to each other. The elaborate courtship dance between males and females shows off their abilities and communication skills.
How Often Do Cardinals Mate?
Cardinals will raise two broods of chicks each year when given the opportunity. The first brooding period begins in March, and the second starts between the end of May to July, depending on the climate conditions.
Female cardinals build a cup-shaped nest from small twigs, grass, leaves, and strips of bark. They hide their nests well because many predators, such as black snakes, blue jays, domestic cats, crows, and rodents, prey on eggs and chicks.
Each clutch contains three or four eggs that the female incubates for about two weeks. While she incubates the eggs, the male typically forages for food and takes it to the female. The pair communicates information with each other through their songs.
Once the eggs hatch, the female continues to incubate the hatchlings until their down feathers grow. The male and female cardinals take turns feeding the chicks different insects. The chicks fledge within one to two weeks.
After fledging, the juvenile cardinals continue to mature under parental care for an additional 25 to 56 days before becoming fully independent and flying away.
The females do not use the nest more than once. After the first brood of the season fledges, the female abandons the nest and builds a new nest for the second brood.