Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

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

Conservation and Management

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Conservation Status

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Common to abundant over much of range in eastern and central North America. Between 1970 and 2014, Breeding Bird Survey data indicated that the population in Canada and the United States increased by an estimated 17% (364).

Effects of Human Activity

Habitat Loss and Degradation

The Northern Cardinal has benefited from human alteration of environments throughout most of their range. By converting forests to agricultural and suburban areas (370), and supplying food at winter feeders, human development has increased nesting habitat and enabled the species to remain during winter in areas not suitable in the past (371). Winter feeding stations appeared to be important to maintain a small population in Nova Scotia (171). In Tucson, Arizona, data from the Winter Bird-Population Study and Breeding Bird Census reported densities of < 6–11 birds/km2 in undisturbed to moderately disturbed paloverde–saguaro (CercidiumCarnegia gigantea) habitat, 10–40 birds/km2 in "exurban" and suburban habitat, and 5–42 birds/km2 in urban habitat (368). In Hawaii, after clearing of native rainforest, Northern Cardinal was among the first bird species to recolonize and occurred in higher abundances after disturbance than any native species (372).

This species occupies a variety of urban habitats, as long as appropriate shrubby habitat is present (373) and urban development is not too dense (374). In a central Ohio woodlot, densities increased with urbanization of surrounding pastureland, concurrent with increasing canopy cover and reduced understory density in the woodlot interior (375). Long-term studies of a rural-to-urban transect of riparian forest sites in central Ohio provide useful comparative data on correlates and consequences of urbanization. Urban forests had greater densities of exotic shrub stems (9.5 ± SE 2.33 vs 3.8 ± SE 1.88 per 11.3 m radius plot) and more bird feeders (10.3 ± SE 2.75 vs 3.8 ± 2.10 SE) within 300 m buffers surrounding each study site (201). Experimental removal of exotic shrubs in a subset of the urban forest study plots did not reduce density in the subsequent 3 breeding seasons (329). Nest survival was not impacted by nearby bird feeders (376). Post-fledgling survival was not negatively impacted by urbanization (325). A 7-year data set showed that individuals in both the urban and rural sites had negative population growth rates (lambda values [± 95% CI] of 0.871 ± 0.012 and 0.866 ± 0.021, respectively; as compared to a value of 1 for stable populations and > 1 for increasing populations; 55); the authors suggest that forest fragmentation throughout the transect may contribute to the negative growth rates and that asynchrony in metapopulation dynamics may promote persistence. However, it remains unclear the extent to which movements (e.g., emigration) and other available urban habitats (e.g., neighborhoods and open parklands) are important in determining the overall population dynamics in urban systems. During the breeding season, riparian forests in urban sites supported adult densities 1.7 times greater than did rural riparian forests (2.6 ± 0.32 SE and 1.5 ± 0.21 SE individuals per 2-ha study plot, respectively). In the winter, on these same plots, total abundance decreased, and the difference between urban (2.0 ± 0.26 SE) and rural (0.5 ± 0.10 SE) abundance increased substantially (201).

Habitat changes associated with urbanization and suburbanization could lead to anatomical and physiological changes in birds. For example, Miller et al. (103) considered whether changing thermal environments through the urban heat island effect might impact Northern Cardinal bill size (Allen’s Rule). They used housing density as a metric for the urban heat island effect and the presumed amount of supplemental seed in the landscape. The relationship between bill size and housing density was not consistent across geographic locations or sex, suggesting that other ecological drivers (e.g., sexual selection and food sources) are also important determinants of bill size (103).

Individuals nesting near recreational trails appear to mediate any potential impacts to nest survival and attendance due to trails and trail use by placing their nests higher in the nest substrate and farther from the vegetation edge of the nest substrate (296, 297). The nature of benefits associated with urbanization is not completely understood and may include habitat and other yet-unstudied alterations and factors associated with urbanization.

Shooting and Trapping

No information.

Pesticides and Other Contaminants/Toxics

Organophosphates applied to pecan (Carya illinoensis) orchards and row crops in southern Georgia resulted in lower egg and nestling survival for the total songbird population, including Northern Cardinal; nestling weight gain and parental behavior of cardinals were not affected (377). Pesticides reported to U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (unpublished data) as causes of Northern Cardinal deaths include carbamates (including carbofuran), famphur, parathion, and diazinon. Diazinon applications in orchards in Pennsylvania lead to detectable quantities of diazinon in gastrointestinal tracts of carcasses recovered from those orchards (378).

One individual was poisoned at a site in Louisiana where the avicide DRC-1339 was applied to brown rice grains used to lure and kill blackbirds (Icteridae) that posed a depredation threat to rice seedlings (379). Northern Cardinals living adjacent to cotton fields treated with cholinesterase-inhibiting pesticides had lowered left-right body symmetry compared to individuals from untreated areas, suggesting these pesticides may affect development (380). Low concentrations of residual organochlorine pesticides (including DDT) and of PCBs were detected in Northern Cardinal eggs in neighborhoods near Washington D.C., with concentrations higher in more urbanized neighborhoods, suggesting that eggs may be useful to monitor such contaminants (381). Elevated levels of lead, cadmium, and zinc were found in the blood and organs of wild-caught Northern Cardinals in the tri-state district of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri contaminated by mining, milling, and smelting activities; lead levels in some individuals were above the threshold for systemic toxic effects (382, 383).

Collisions with Stationary/Moving Structures or Objects

Some mortality has been reported from apparent collisions with windows in urban areas (buildings and bus shelters) and an academic building on a college campus (384, 385, 386). Individuals of both sexes may attack their reflection in windows or mirrors, but such behavior generally does not harm the attackers; in one case, copious feces deposited on reflective surfaces suggested that a female attacking a car mirror and window may have been aiming feces at her perceived rival (C. Godding, personal communication). In one case involving a female, attacks lasted from October through March in 2 years, occurring daily for average 2.5 hr/d (387). Three male deaths reported following attacking of reflections (278). Occasional deaths from tower collisions; e.g., 54 individuals found dead in a 25-year migration study at a TV tower in north-central Florida (216).

Research Impacts

During an assessment of the impacts radio-transmitters might have on adult cardinals, Barron et al. (388) found that males carrying (mock) 1.6-gm transmitters had lower levels of nest defense behavior, experienced higher rates of nest failure, and had mates that brought more food to each nestling (n = 3 females at 4 surviving nests), when compared to uncaptured males in the same population. However, associated treatments experienced by males given transmitters (capture with mist nets, handling, banding, and blood drawn from the brachial vein twice, separated by 30 minutes spent in an opaque cloth bag), may have contributed to differences in behavior. Males given these same treatments, but not outfitted with transmitters, had intermediate levels of nest defense and reproductive success statistically indistinguishable from those of either uncaptured males or males given transmitters.


Abundant in central and eastern North America; no management efforts are needed to ensure survival.

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