Cardinals: Mating Habits, Nesting & Eggs

cardinal juvenile beside cardinal adult
Cardinal birds typically form bonds with their companions for the duration of their mating season, rearing up to 2 broods per season. Each brood will result in approximately 1-5 eggs. After hatching, nestlings mature after 12 days and leave the nest. 

The Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a popular backyard bird with interesting mating and nesting habits. From their courtship kiss to cooperative parenting, cardinals are one of the most interesting songbirds in North America.

Since this iconic red bird stays in one place and mates for life, you can watch a cardinal pair raise their young yearly.

Here we’ll cover cardinal birds choosing their mates and all the fun and exciting facts about the life cycle of Northern cardinals. 

Cardinals Do Mate for Life

Cardinals tend to mate for life or at least an entire breeding season.

While most cardinals only seek out a new mate if their first dies, it’s not unheard of for a cardinal to choose a new mate within the same breeding season without death.

Cardinals are considered monogamous birds.

Cardinal pairs are cooperative, with the male and female sharing specific duties from the start of the mating season until the last fledgling has left the nest.

Occasionally, a pair will break up and choose alternate mates, but that usually happens after the mating season.

do cardinals mate for life
Cardinal Kiss

Cardinal Lifespan

Wild northern cardinals have an average lifespan of 3 years.

Like many wild bird species, cardinals have a relatively short lifespan. This is primarily due to predation. Because of their bright red color, cardinals are easily spotted and eaten by predators.

Despite this relatively short lifespan, there are several cardinals recorded to have lived up to 15 years. Captive cardinals have a lifespan of 13-15 years.

Cardinals have quite a few natural predators:

  •   Corvids like crows and blue jays
  •   Hawks and owls
  •   Squirrels and chipmunks
  •   Raccoons and foxes

Many predators will also prey on eggs or young cardinals in the nest. Along with natural predators, songbird populations are greatly affected by habitat destruction, Urbanization, pest control poisons, and domesticated cats.

Like many songbirds, many cardinals do not make it through their first year. Only about 50% of baby cardinals make it to adulthood.

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

Northern Cardinal’s Breeding Season

The Northern cardinal’s breeding season is from March until August or September.

Warmer states have longer breeding seasons. Cardinals reach sexual maturity at 12 months old. This is also when the male cardinal molts, replacing gray with red feathers for the first time.

Many bird watchers have observed a special mating ritual called a cardinal kiss. But the pair aren’t kissing.

At the beginning of the mating season, the male northern cardinal will approach a female with a seed. If the female northern cardinal accepts his offering, he will lock beaks with her and feed her the seed. This behavior is called courtship feeding. Seeing this mating ritual in person is a special treat for birders.

Cardinal Nestlings
Cardinal Nestlings

Cardinals Nesting Habits

Cardinals will roost in birdhouses, but they prefer to nest in dense bushes, vining plants, and trees.

A cardinal nest can be found a few feet up to 15 feet off the ground. Cardinals choose thick-leaved trees like dogwood, sumac, and mulberry trees. Plants that provide fruit or seeds in addition to the shelter are cardinal favorites.

You can also find cardinals in any vining plant that grows in clumps. So, if you’re looking to cut back the vines taking over your fence line, avoid pruning anytime between early Spring and Autumn.

Even though you may not see it, there’s a chance there’s more than one cardinal nest in that troublesome thicket.

Do male or female cardinals build the nest?

The male cardinal brings nesting material to the nesting site, but the female cardinal shoulders most of the nest-building responsibility.

The male will bring a selection of dry grasses, feathers, and any other soft, pliable material and present it to the female. The female chooses a spot in the male’s territory, weaving her cup-shaped nest into place.

Some cardinal nests even have bits of paper or shiny strings woven into the cup. Anything the male cardinal can find and carry to his mate is possible. While finding randomly discarded items in old nests can be interesting, it is also a great reminder to make sure trash and debris are picked up regularly.

Cardinal Eggs and Baby Cardinals

Cardinals typically have 1 or 2 broods per breeding season. Meaning the pair will take care of a batch of eggs 1 to 2 times per mating season.

Sometimes, a cardinal pair will have 3-4 broods during a single mating season. The female cardinal will lay anywhere between 1 to 5 eggs per brood.

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

While the female does most of the work, the male largely influences how many babies are produced. Researchers have found a correlation between the brightest red-colored males and higher offspring yields!

After an incubation period of 11-13 days, the eggs hatch. The female and male cardinals both care for the hatchlings.

Adults feed baby cardinals a diet of partially digested bugs for their first few days. Once they are older and evolve into fledgings, they can eat whole invertebrates like caterpillars and spiders.

How long do cardinal pairs care for young cardinals?

Young cardinals leave the nest around 12 days after hatching. Some baby cardinals are ready as early as nine days old. Near the end of their time in the nest, the male cardinal takes over primary feeding duties.

As young as four days old, nestlings can handle more solid food. The male cardinal takes on more feeding duties as the baby cardinals get older, leaving the female cardinal to build a new nest and prepare for the next brood.

While cardinals never reuse a nest, they return to the same nesting sites if conditions are ideal. Red cardinals are a beautiful and amazing bird species.

A favorite of birders all over North America, their unique courtship practices and vibrant coloring make them fun to observe.

Stocking your backyard bird feeder with their favorite bird seed is a great way to keep cardinals around. Luckily the Northern cardinal stays in one place year-round so that bird watchers can enjoy them from season to season!

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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