Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis


The male Northern Cardinal has a completely red body with a black face mask around the bill and eyes. The female is drab in color. She has light brown feathers with some red on the wings and tail and no face mask. Both sexes have orange bills and crests on top of their heads.


The Northern Cardinal ranges from 8 to 9 inches in length with a wingspan of 10 to 12 inches. It weighs about 1.5 ounces.


  • The short beak of the cardinal is specially adapted to help it crack seeds and berries.
  • The male’s bright red color helps him to attract a mate, while the female’s drab coloring enables her to hide from predators while nesting.


Cardinals feed on a variety of food items including seeds, berries, and insects. Their diet changes seasonally as different foods are available. The cardinal’s summer diet contains a large amount of insects, while its winter diet can be up to 90% seeds. Cardinals often find food throughout the year at backyard bird feeders. At Cosley Zoo, the cardinal is fed a varied diet that includes grapes, oranges, spinach, apples, dog food, sunflower seeds, and mealworms.


The typical nest of a Northern Cardinal is an open cup-shaped structure close to the ground. The female lays 2-5 eggs at a time. She incubates the eggs for 12-13 days while the male supplies her with food. The chicks leave the nest about 9 days after hatching.

Shelter and Space Needs

Northern Cardinals are yearlong residents of Illinois. Typical habitats include thickets and brushy areas, edges and clearings, woodlands, parks, and residential areas.

Life Expectancy

The life expectancy of the Northern Cardinal is uncertain, although we do know that many wild cardinals do not reach one year of age.

Importance to Man

Cardinals are attractive birds which many people enjoy watching. As seed-eaters, they help to disperse seeds and therefore enable plants to reproduce. They also feed on insect pests. In addition, cardinals are prey for many larger animals, such as owls, hawks, and foxes.

Fun Facts

  • The cardinal is named after the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals.
  • The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of Illinois.
  • The Northern Cardinal can sing as many as 28 different songs!
  • Male cardinals are highly territorial and aggressive birds that will not hesitate to attack other males in their area. If they see their reflections in shiny surfaces such as mirrors or car hubcaps, they will sometimes attack them, thinking they are other males.


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