The lifespan of cardinals in North America is short compared to many songbirds. Northern cardinals have a typical lifespan of 3 years in the wild, with many young cardinals dying in their first year.
Cardinals are one of the most iconic songbirds in North America. A favorite of bird watchers, this red feathered bird symbolizes hope and loyalty.
But why is the lifespan of these beautiful birds so short-lived? And what can we do to help cardinals and other songbirds thrive?
To find out why the lifespan of cardinals is so short, we first have to answer a few common questions about cardinals and what factors influence their life cycle.
The Cardinal Birds Average Lifespan
Wild northern cardinals have an average lifespan of 3 years in the wild.
Northern cardinals have a relatively short lifespan for their size. Like most other songbirds, they face many hazards, both natural and man-made. Like many young birds, only around half of baby cardinals make it to adulthood.
The desert cardinal has a longer lifespan, averages 5-8 years.
Many believe this is due to the environment they live in. Since humans and domestic animals account for so much Northern cardinal mortality rates, it makes sense that the difficult-to-access habitat of the desert cardinal would offer some protection from outside influences.
Captive cardinals have a lifespan of 13-15 years.
The large difference between captive and wild cardinals makes it clear that their short lifespan is due mostly to outside forces. Historically, cardinals were allowed to be captured as pets, but now it is illegal to capture a wild cardinal and domesticate it as a pet.
Why is the cardinal lifespan so short?
The short lifespan of cardinals is mostly due to predation. Because of their bright red color, cardinals are easily spotted and eaten by predators.
Cardinals have natural predators that include other birds like blue jays, and other ground animals like chipmunks, skunks, opossums, raccoons, and snakes.
A lot of these predators will target young cardinals in the nest. Unhatched eggs also make a quick and easy meal.
Humans influence the mortality of wild birds as well, which include factors such as climate change, habitat destruction and urbanization. Other preventable factors include pest control poisons, traps, and netting.
Watch our video and discover 10 facts about Cardinals you may not have known about!
How does the short lifespan of cardinals affect their life cycle?
The cardinal’s ability to produce so many babies as early as 12 months old is necessary with such a short lifespan.
This is part of the reason the cardinal bird remains one of the most stable bird species in North America. Cardinals typically have 1-2 broods per breeding season.
The female cardinal lays 1-5 eggs per brood. Sometimes, a cardinal pair will have 3-4 broods during a single mating season, but four broods are rare. Cardinal eggs are small, white, and speckled. Sometimes these eggs will range from a grayish off-white to a bluish-white base color.
Each brood follows the same life cycle:
- Incubation is 11-13 days.
- Adults feed hatchlings a diet of partially digested bugs for their first few days.
- After four days, the nestlings can eat whole invertebrates like caterpillars and spiders.
- By around 21 days old, cardinal fledglings can fly, though they stick close to their parents even after they’ve left the nest.
A prolific mating pair can have up to 20 baby cardinals in one breeding season! The typical number is around 9-12. Since around 60% of Northern cardinal nests fail, the more baby cardinals a pair can yield each breeding season, the better.
How can we help cardinal species thrive?
Providing educational resources is the most important way to help cardinals and other wildlife thrive.
Learning about human impact on native species and how to counteract the damage goes a long way in helping birds and another wildlife rebuild. There are many ways you can and should get involved and make a positive difference in the conservation of native ecosystems:
Feed wild birds
According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and other top conservation groups, feeding wild birds is beneficial, not harmful, as it can be for other wildlife.
Choose squirrel-proof bird feeders for your songbirds as these pests will outcompete your backyard bird visitors for food, so choose bird feeders to that help keep pests away.
Also be sure to provide a clean birdbath near food sources. Fresh water sources is one of the best ways to draw wild birds, including cardinals to your yard.
Get involved in local conservation efforts
Attempt to educate your friends and neighbors in a fun and engaging way, talking to children about the wildlife is a great way to do this.
An ecologically informed public helps conservation efforts immensely. Support urban forests and natural landscapes.
You can join a group that also strives to maintain urban forests and natural landscapes filled with native plants that help native bird species thrive.
Plant native plants in your yard
Native plant life provide food and shelter for native wildlife. Native plants also require less watering, which saves you time and money.
Avoid pruning trees in early spring and summer months. Well-hidden nests are often destroyed during pruning, so wait until Fall to cut back your trees, bushes, and vines.
Survey your environment
Keep your pets, especially cats indoors or on a leash when outside. Living indoors increases cat life expectancy from about 2-5 years to 10-15 years, and keeping cats indoors is better for wildlife.
Fill bird feeders with sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. Both are a good source of fat and deter invasive house sparrows.
Do cardinals mate for life?
Cardinals are considered monogamous loyal birds.
This means they will choose and mate with only one bird at a time. Cardinals usually only have one new mate per breeding season, but sometimes they will seek out a different mate, if their first mate dies. This is very rare.
Male northern cardinals use their song and flashy red feathers to attract mates.
They don’t get their bright red feathers until they molt at a year old. The courting male cardinal will also bring the female cardinal gifts and feed her seeds. Once they are paired up, he will present the female cardinal with nesting material.
Female cardinal birds are responsible for building the nest and hatching the eggs while the male defends and feeds her.
Once the cardinal eggs hatch, the male cardinal will help care for the young cardinals until they leave the nest.
While the Northern cardinal is not endangered or even threatened, its lifespan is quite short.
Most of the dangers faced by cardinals and other songbirds are man-made. It’s always a good idea to focus on conservation and good environmental stewardship. Educating ourselves and our neighbors on how we can support wildlife ensures that cardinals and other wild birds will be around for generations to come.