Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis Scientific name definitions

Sylvia L. Halkin, Daniel P. Shustack, M. Susan DeVries, Jodie M. Jawor, and Susan U. Linville
Version: 2.0 — Published February 12, 2021

Movements and Migration

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Dispersal and Site Fidelity

Natal Philopatry and Dispersal

For all but the last brood in southern Indiana, young leave hatch territories about the time parents' next brood hatches (67). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS] banding data indicate that 87.5% of cardinals banded during their first year, and found dead within a year of banding, were within same 10-minute block of latitude and longitude in which they had been banded; the remaining 12.5% had moved outside that block (n = 160 cardinals recovered) (49). In central Tennessee, five banded nestlings were found 0.8–4.0 km from their hatch territories in their first winter; four others were found 0.4–1.6 km from their hatch territories in the subsequent breeding season (100). In southern Ontario, 26 males were found a mean of 1.55 km (range 0.2–5.3) from their hatch territories in their first breeding season; the mean distance for 11 females was 2.61 km (range 0.35–5.3) (208). Search methods in this study were biased toward finding males, particularly in more peripheral areas, so greater dispersal distances of females are counter to the direction of sampling bias. Males that fledged from their parents' last broods of the season were found at greater distances than males from earlier broods; males from last broods before late July dispersed farther than males from last broods after late July (208). Fledglings use a natal range, typically near the nest site, for 35–55 days (or longer; see Breeding: Fledgling Stage and Breeding: Immature Stage). Dispersal distances within a 71-day radiotracking period for 13 individuals in central Ohio averaged 304 m (SE = 56 m), but 7 fledglings remained on the natal range throughout the period (209). However, those 7 individuals that had not dispersed were not resighted (by colorbands) during subsequent breeding seasons, so they are suspected to have dispersed after the radiotracking period ended (or died) (210).

Adult Fidelity to Breeding Site and Dispersal

Adults of both sexes usually occupy breeding territories with the same or very similar boundaries from year to year, although individuals of both sexes may shift between non-overlapping territories in successive years (100, 67, 211, SLH, SUL, JMJ, MSD). In a southern Ontario population, yearlings were more likely to move after their first breeding season than were older birds (208); among 13 males found in the two summers after they had hatched, 8 kept the same territory, 4 moved to adjacent territories, and 1 moved 1.6 km. Among 7 females, 4 kept the same territory, 1 moved to an adjacent territory, and 2 were reported to have moved “over 400 m.”

Adults may remain on breeding territories year-round, or they may wander over a larger area in winter, presumably if food or shelter in their breeding territory is inadequate (100, 212); e.g., in southern Ontario, when deep snow cover limits food availability, may move to farms where grain and shelter are available (213). In a Mississippi population, banded males and females were found year-round on known breeding territories (212) and there is anecdotal evidence for year-round territory occupancy by color-banded birds in Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin (JMJ, SLH). At winter feeding stations, both regular visitors and new individuals continue to appear throughout the winter, and banded individuals may disappear and then return later during the same or the following winter (100, 214). See Spacing and Territorial Behavior for additional information.

Among 1,523 banded cardinals trapped or found dead and reported to USFWS (through 1961), 190 (12.5%) were found outside the 10-minute block of latitude and longitude where they had originally been banded (49). A higher proportion of birds found dead that had been banded as immatures dispersed (13.7% of 277 banded immatures), than did birds banded as adults (8.9% of 203 banded adults); however, 97 of the 153 dispersers found dead were of unknown age at the time of banding. The percentage of dispersing immatures is slightly higher than that reported in Natal Philopatry and Dispersal (above), as these data include additional birds found > 1 yr after banding. Among birds leaving the 10-minute block where they were banded, the average distance dispersed by birds banded in their first year (n = 43, both sexes combined) was 60.4 km; for birds banded as adults (n = 20, both sexes combined), 130.2 km. Average distance of dispersal by males (n = 92, all ages combined) was 86.0 km; by females (n = 77, all ages combined), 66.7 km.

Through March 2019, there were 11,572 reported encounters of banded cardinals in the Bird Banding Lab (BBL) database; information from the BBL review of these data relevant to dispersal is summarized below. Of the 11,572 encounters, 915 (7.9%) were from outside the 10-minute block of the banding location. These 915 records are the ones that remained after a review by the BBL of encounters in which putative movements greater than 25 miles (40 km) were carefully compared to the digital scans of the original report letters or notes from phone records. These records were also cross-checked with any other available information (identity and location of the bander, bands used by banders on days they reported banding activity, etc.) to confirm accuracy. This detailed review, not previously possible because the original records were only recently digitized, revealed a relatively high error rate of ~32% in the prior Northern Cardinal encounter database; all records that were clearly in error were removed. An examination of a subset of movements of banded birds that moved between 20 and 25 miles (32–40 km) showed negligible additional errors. Interestingly, there are still oddities in the encounter reports, including two cardinals recovered from the front of trains and one band originally applied to a cardinal that was later purchased and reported to the BBL. Approximately 24 questionable encounter records that were not refutably in error are still included in the 915 encounter records. Based on this data set, females that changed 10-minute blocks moved an average of 41.2 km (n = 342), males 40.6 km (n = 485), and individuals of unknown sex 63.4 km (n = 76). Short movements (e.g., < 0.25 km) can result in changing 10-minute blocks, which would generate an inflated movement distance because banding and encounter locations are recorded by the center of the 10-minute blocks. Among encounter records of birds that moved a distance > 25 km, females moved an average of 129.3 km (n = 73), males moved an average of 150.4 km (n = 86), and individuals of unknown sex moved an average of 222.2 km (n = 17).

Stevenson and Anderson (126) reported a cardinal that was banded in Michigan in December 1963 and recovered near St. Petersburg, Florida, in January 1967; however, there is no record of such a re-encounter in the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab records and this report cannot be confirmed (D. Bystrak, personal communication). The longest movement in BBL records is a cardinal (unknown sex) banded in March 1970 in South Carolina and encountered 23 months later in Quebec, some 1,800 km north. There are 6 other encounter records involving movements greater than 500 km, and an additional 18 records greater than 250 km. Despite these interesting examples, these are exceptional and cardinals display a strong tendency to remain near their banding locations for their whole life. However, when moving even short distances (e.g., 1.5 km in a translocation experiment) the composition of the habitat influences the ability of cardinals to move through the landscape, with forests and heavily urbanized areas being less permeable than suburban areas (215).

Demographic data also indicate some seasonal movements that may represent dispersal (see Movement Ecology: Overview of Migration). Influxes of transient cardinals have been reported in spring (usually March) and/or fall (October and November) in Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and Ontario (literature reviewed by 49).

Migration Overview

Year-round resident throughout range, with no conclusive evidence of migration. Nearly 90% of banded individuals that were found dead came from the same 10-minute block of latitude and longitude where they were banded, and those found dead at greater distances showed no directional pattern in movements (49). Reports of possible migration may be explained by dispersing juveniles (see Dispersal and Site Fidelity); there is no record of a breeding bird recovered at great distance in the following winter. Some evidence suggesting potential migration involves 54 Northern Cardinals found dead (along with known nocturnal-migrant species) over a 25-year migration study at a TV tower in north-central Florida (216). Of these mortalities, 29 occurred in spring (March–May) and 25 in fall (September–December). Crawford (216) indicated that deaths of resident species likely resulted from chance and did not make a conclusion about migratory movements by cardinals. Although Stevenson and Anderson (126) suggested that the north-central Florida TV-tower kills indicated migratory behavior, they provided no new evidence of migration.

Recommended Citation

Halkin, S. L., D. P. Shustack, M. S. DeVries, J. M. Jawor, and S. U. Linville (2021). Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.norcar.02