Identifying & Caring for a Baby Cardinal

cardinal babies
Baby cardinals are born featherless with dark pink skin with big yellowish beaks, after 11 days they grow tan and grayish feathers and leave the nest. Juvenile cardinal birds known as fledglings will forage the ground for 2 days before learning to fly and will develop red plumage after 12 months when they've molted. 

Unfortunately, raising nestlings for the Northern cardinal birds is fraught with danger from natural predators and human-influenced hazards. Sometimes baby cardinals are left to fend for themselves before they are ready.

So, how can you be sure the baby bird you found is a cardinal, and how can you tell if a baby cardinal needs human help and intervention?

Identifying a Baby Cardinal Bird

Baby cardinals are born with dark pink skin and wide yellow beaks. When their feathers come in a few days after hatching, they have thin feather tufts where the crest will be.

The Northern cardinal is a well-known species, because of its beautifully vibrant red color. Adult males are most notable with their flashy, with bright red feathers and a contrasting black mask.

This perching songbird is common in North America and popular for bird watching, since it is so easy to spot. It’s hard to find a bird lover that isn’t familiar with this pretty red bird. But young cardinals do not have the signature red feathers. Red cardinals get their red color at 12 months when they molt.

Until then, baby cardinals have gray to tan colored feathers. Because baby birds look similar, it’s important to keep an eye on your backyard birds during Spring and Summer.

If you’re familiar with the species that frequent your bird feeder, it will be easier to narrow down which baby birds might be in your yard.

cardinal eggs

Cardinal Eggs, Hatching, and Nestlings

The eggs are speckled white eggs that range from a grayish off-white to a bluish-white base color.

The female cardinal lays 1-5 eggs per brood. A pair of cardinals usually produce 1-2 clutches or broods per breeding season. Up to 3 to 4 broods can happen be produced per season, but it’s unusual.

While the female lays her eggs and builds her nest, the male adult cardinal is the larger contributing factor to how many eggs are produced.

The brighter the red feathers on the male Northern cardinal, the more eggs the female cardinal will lay! After an incubation period of 11-13 days, the eggs hatch.

Cardinal nestlings will stay in the nest for approximately 9-11 days, where they will be fed and eventually grow their juvenile plumage.

Once they evolve into fledglings, the baby cardinals leave the nest and will forage on the ground for about 2 days, while they are unable to fly. Fledglings will begin using their flying capability after about 20 days.

baby cardinal

Found a baby cardinal bird on the ground?

If you find a fully feathered baby bird in your yard, the best thing to do is leave it alone.

If the baby cardinal bird still has its eyes closed or is wobbly with only a few feathers, it is too young to be out of the nest. If the baby cardinal you found has none of its feathers, you should only move it if there is an immediate danger from predators.

If the baby cardinal has some feathers and is grayish in color, it is a fledging that is ready to be out of the nest.

The male Northern cardinal will tend to the cardinal fledgling on the ground while the female cardinal readies herself for the next clutch. Unless the adult male doesn’t return for more than an hour, this baby bird is learning to fly and fend for itself.

With the exception of house sparrows and other invasive birds, songbirds are covered under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

This protection means only federally permitted rehabbers are allowed to keep a wild bird. If you find a baby cardinal bird that may be injured, it’s best to call your local wildlife rehabber.

Watch our video and discover 10 facts about Cardinals you may not have known about!

Can I put a baby cardinal back in the nest?

If the baby cardinal is too young to be out of the nest, the best thing you can do is find the nest and put the baby bird back inside.

It’s a myth that human scent will cause the parents to reject the young bird. Songbirds are accustomed to human scent and closeness. Picking up a baby cardinal bird will not cause any issues as long as you are very gentle.

Each clutch has 1-5 eggs, but more typically, 3-4 eggs. If there are no other babies in the nest you’ve found, check nearby for an occupied nest.

Female northern cardinals do not reuse nests but like to stay in the same general area when building each new nest. Check dense bushes, trees, and vining plants for the well-hidden cardinal nest.

baby cardinal

What do I do if I can not find the cardinal nest?

If you can’t locate the baby cardinal’s nest or the original nest is destroyed, another option is to make a temporary nest.

Place the nest close to the old nest or where you found the baby cardinal. Building a temporary nest is easier than it sounds, here are some simple instructions:

  • Use a basket with plenty of drainage like a berry container
  • Line the basket with soft grass, twigs, and leaves
  • Line the interior with feathers. If you can find red feathers, red attracts cardinals
  • Avoid hair or string since these can wrap around claws, legs, beaks, and necks, causing severe damage to the baby bird
  • Place the temporary nest securely in the bush, thicket, scrub, or tree where you found the baby bird
  • If you cannot get the nest to stay securely, you can use small zip ties to hold it to the branches

How long do cardinal pairs take care of baby cardinals?

Young cardinals leave the nest around 12 days after hatching. Some baby cardinals are ready as young as nine days old.

They stay close to the parent cardinals until they are around 20 days old while the male Northern cardinal teaches them how to feed themselves.

The female and male Northern cardinal both care for the baby cardinals. What each bird does depends on the age of the brood. During the incubation period, the female cardinal sits on the eggs, and the male brings food to the female.

During the nestling and fledgeling stage, at:

  • 0-4 days old – the female feeds the hatchlings partially digested invertebrates the male brings to her. Sometimes, the male will help feed the hatchlings.
  • 4-12 days old – the babies cardinals are able to eat whole invertebrates like spiders and caterpillars. The parents will switch off who sits with the nestlings, sometimes leaving the babies for up to an hour while the pair of cardinals eat and defend the nest.
  • 13-20 days old – the male is the primary caretaker of the fledglings while the female prepares herself for the next brood. The young cardinals stay close to the nest, learning to fly and hunt for food with the male.

Juvenile cardinals spend their first year near their parents until they reach their first molt at 12 months.

Northern cardinals never reuse a nest but return to the same nesting sites if conditions are ideal.

How do I take care of a baby cardinal if the mother bird doesn’t return?

Baby cardinal feeding can be difficult, as the young bird’s diet consists of invertebrates like spiders and caterpillars.

If the baby cardinal’s eyes are open and have some feathers, you can use tweezers to feed it whole invertebrates. Attempt to cut the insects in smaller pieces so that they are easier to feed to the cardinal.

Every attempt should be made to get in contact with a wildlife rehabber before you offer any food to the young bird. But if you cannot find one, or they are unable to take any more birds, here’s a quick guide to raising a baby cardinal:

Create a quiet baby birdhouse with items you have on hand

A tissue box or shoe box makes great baby birdhouses as long as there is adequate ventilation.

You can also purchase a cardinal nesting box to carefully home the nestling outside of your home. This will help keep the bird in its natural environment.

Keep the baby cardinal warm

The ideal temperature for your baby cardinal is 85-90° F. Letting them get too cold is deadly for a baby bird!

On the lowest temperature, a warm heating pad placed under your box will keep your baby bird warm. Make sure you put several tissues or paper towels between the heating pad and the baby cardinal.

You can get a heating pad from your local retailer or Amazon. Use a bottle filled with hot water under the box or an overhead lamp if you don’t have a heating pad. Check the temperature often and adjust as needed.

Remove hazards and provide support

Remove terry cloth towels or any fabric with looped fiber as the claws or beak may be damaged, so avoid putting these in the box with your bird.

Do not impose restrictions on the baby bird. Wild birds thrive on social interaction, so it’s important to provide adequate care without imposing on the natural inclinations of the young bird.

Use tweezers to feed invertebrates to the baby bird

Baby birds open their mouths when they are hungry. Feed your baby bird until they stop opening their mouths, or about every 20-60 minutes during daylight hours.

If you cannot find enough bugs in your yard to feed your baby cardinal, you can buy a variety of live worms at reptile stores. Wax worms are soft-bodied and quite small.

Avoid earthworms and snails. They carry parasite risks that can make your baby bird very sick. Once your baby bird is fully feathered, it can fly soon. Place it outside with food in a safe space for a few hours every day until it flies away. 

Important tips for raising baby cardinal birds

Remember taking care of a baby cardinal bird is a big responsibility, so make sure you are up to the challenge! Here are a few common mistakes bird caretakers make:

  • One of the biggest mistakes that bird caretakers make is not keeping the baby bird warm enough. Cardinal nestlings cannot regulate their body temperature.
  • When caring for your bird, make sure that you use a heating pad to keep it ideally at 85-90° F
  • Cardinal feeding can be difficult due to their insectivore diet and tiny size. Use tweezers to handle small portions of food
  • Baby cardinals get their hydration from food. Hatchlings may aspirate or drown if offered a shallow dish or dropper full of water.
  • Call in the experts if your baby bird seems sick or injured.
  • Bird rehabbers can help your baby cardinal grow up strong and can help it recover from sickness or injury.
  • Imprinting the baby cardinal can prevent them from successfully entering the wild flock when they’re old enough. Resist the urge to cuddle, pet, or hold the baby cardinal

With gentle care and patience, your baby cardinal will be ready to enter the wild at about 20 days old.

Since cardinals stay in their home territory year-round, your baby bird will likely raise its own family nearby the following year!

Vianna Arenas

Vianna Arenas is a lifetime songbird enthusiast and nature lover. An avid backyard birdwatcher, Vianna loves gardening and creating a backyard oasis for the wildlife native to her home state of Texas. When she’s not camping or hiking with her family, she can be found sewing critter bags for orphaned wildlife.

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