SPECIES

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

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Male

Large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. Males are brilliant red with a black mask and throat.

Female

Large, crested songbird with a short, thick bill. Females are are pale brown overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest.

Juvenile

Juveniles are similar to females, but have a gray to black bill.

Female

Some birds lose all the feathers from their head at the same time, remaining bald until the feathers grow back.

Male

A plump, brilliant red songbird with a crest that is common in yards and suburban areas.

Male

Often sits with a hunched-over posture and with the tail pointed straight down.

Female

Year-round resident that adds color to winter landscapes in the East.

Male

Found in backyards, parks, woodlots, and shrubby forest edges.

Northern Cardinal hatchlings at about 1–2 days old, with natal down.

Hatchlings partially covered with gray down, 6–11 mm long, on coronal, occipital, middorsal, pelvic, scapular, femoral, and greater secondary-covert and median secondary-covert regions at hatching

Northern Cardinal nestlings at about 7–8 days old, with wing feathers bursting from sheaths.
Fledgling Northern Cardinal.

Plumage is similar to Definitive Basic female but duller, crest and flight-feathers more brownish. Juvenile body feathers (especially undertail coverts) filamentous due to lower barb density.

Juvenile Northern Cardinal.

Less red plumage apparent on the body. Juvenile outer primaries and rectrices narrower and more tapered at tips than in later plumages

Juvenile Northern Cardinal.
Formative male Northern Cardinal.

Note molt limits among feathers of the upperwing and tail, and retained worn, narrow, or brownish-tinged flight feathers contrasting with newly molted uniformly red to reddish flight feathers.

Female with double layered set of butt-end plastic leg bands.
Definitive Basic female Northern Cardinal.

Upperparts plain grayish olive or buffy grayish; head with conspicuous crest, variably red to tipped red. Upperwing greater coverts and secondaries duller red than primaries and rectrices.

Presumed Definitive Basic female Northern Cardinal.

Underparts pale fulvous or buffy, but some individuals can show nearly white coloration on abdomen. Plumage often with small numbers of red or red-tinged feathers above eye, and among auriculars and feathers of the upper breast and flanks.

Definitive Basic female Northern Cardinal showing a large and dark melanin-based face mask.

Also shown is the random distribution of red, carotenoid-colored feathers that occur on the face and breast as well as in the crest. Adult female captured in Bloomington, Indiana.

Female Northern Cardinal in flight.

Underwing secondary coverts light orange to light red.

Definitive Basic male Northern Cardinal.

Plumage primarily vermilion red, with black face mask that surrounds bill, extends back to eye, and covers chin and throat. Head with conspicuous crest.

Definitive Basic male Northern Cardinal.

Upperwing greater coverts and secondaries duller red than primaries and rectrices.

Definitive Basic male Northern Cardinal showing extent of melanin-based face mask from the front.

Male captured in Dayton, Ohio.

Gray tips on dorsal feathers of male in early March.

Contour feathers of back and neck have olive-gray margins that wear away by early spring; tertials and rectrices may also have olive-grayish margins, and flanks include grayish feathers. Rump and uppertail coverts not distinctly lighter in color than back.

Definitive Basic male Northern Cardinal in late May.

Note lack of gray tips on back feathers in early summer.

Definitive Basic male Northern Cardinal in late November.

Red brightest on auricular region, cheeks, and breast. Underwing secondary coverts light orange to light red.

Example of mixed plumage in Northern Cardinal.

Apparent female with mix of male and female plumage, captured when flushed from June nest where it appeared to be incubating eggs. This bird had an incubation patch, and the nest produced three fledglings, fed by both this individual and its social mate, a male with definitive male coloration.

Possible bilateral gynandromorph.
Possible bilateral gynandromorph.
Possible bilateral gynandromorph.

Note, red on one side and gray olive on the other side.

Possible bilateral gynandromorph.
Possible bilateral gynandromorph.
Leucistic female Northern Cardinal.
Partially leucistic Northern Cardinal.
Partially leucistic Northern Cardinal.
Non-phaeomelanic female Northern Cardinal.

Lacks all of the warm buff tones of phaeomelanin, but retains dark gray eumelanin in the wing, tail, and face.

Non-phaeomelanic female Northern Cardinal with wildtype male and female for comparison.
Non-eumelanic female Northern Cardinal.

Lacking eumelanin. Note lack of the blackish face mask and the greatly reduced pigment in wings and tail.

Non-eumelanic female Northern Cardinal.
Possible non-eumelanic male Northern Cardinal.
Male Northern Cardinal with aberrant plumage.
Male Northern Cardinal with aberrant plumage.
Female Northern Cardinal with dilute plumage.

Both melanins are produced and deposited in the feathers, but at low concentrations.

Molting male with loosely attached patches of contour feathers.
Molting male with loosely attached patches of contour feathers.
Male Northern Cardinal undergoing Preformative Molt.
Molting male with patches of new quills on head.
Molting female with food in beak approaching begging fledgling.
Male Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies superbus).

Largest subspecies; bill "relatively stouter," with black of lores in male not meeting across forehead.

Male Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies superbus).
Female Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies superbus).
Female Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies superbus).
Juvenile Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies superbus).
Male Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies igneus).

Smaller than superbus, and bill relatively shorter and thicker.

Female Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies igneus).
Juvenile Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies igneus).
Male (presumably subspecies affinis).
Female (presumably subspecies affinis).
Male (presumably subspecies sinaloensis).
Male (presumably subspecies sinaloensis).

Male more pure and intense red than in other subspecies.

Female (presumably subspecies sinaloensis).

Female darker than in other subspecies.

Male (subspecies mariae).
Male (subspecies mariae).
Female (subspecies mariae).
Male Northern Cardinal (subspecies cardinalis).
Female Northern Cardinal (subspecies cardinalis).
Juvenile Northern Cardinal (subspecies cardinalis).
Male Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies floridanus).

Both sexes smaller and darker than cardinalis; bill similar.

Female Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies floridanus).
Juvenile Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies floridanus).
Male (presumably subspecies magnirostris).

Larger and heavier bill, and larger face mask, than those of cardinalis, floridanus, or canicaudus. Otherwise most like floridanus, but wing slightly longer, tail shorter, and foot and tarsus larger; red of male head and underparts lighter than on floridanus, but more intense than on cardinalis.

Female (presumably subspecies magnirostris).

Middle of female belly more whitish than on cardinalis.

Female (presumably subspecies magnirostris).
Male (presumably subspecies canicaudus).

Wings shorter and bill slightly larger than in cardinalis, males more intense red, black band across forehead narrower.

Female (presumably subspecies canicaudus).

Females grayer above and paler beneath than cardinalis females, with less distinct face mask.

Juvenile (presumably subspecies canicaudus).
Male (presumably subspecies coccineus).

Bill larger and male plumage more intensely colored than cardinalis and contour feathers almost lacking grayish or brownish margins (other subspecies have grayish or brownish margins in newly molted feathers

Female (presumably subspecies coccineus).
Juvenile (presumably subspecies coccineus).
Male (presumably subspecies littoralis).

Similar in size and plumage to coccineus, but male plumage more purplish.

Female (presumably subspecies littoralis).
Male (presumably subspecies yucatanicus).

Similar to but smaller than coccineus; adult male slightly lighter red.

Female (presumably subspecies yucatanicus).
Male (presumably subspecies flammiger).

Similar in size to yucatanicus; male underparts and edges of wing coverts and primaries more intense red than on yucatanicus, and dorsal plumage has purplish tinge, darker than back color of littoralis.

Female (presumably subspecies flammiger).

Female underparts heavily washed with red from throat at least to breast, whereas in yucatanicus, red is absent or confined to a small area just below the black throat.

Male Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies saturatus).

Smaller than cardinalis. Feet larger than those of yucatanicus; males may be indistinguishable from flammiger males.

Female Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies saturatus).

Adult female breast much less red than that of yucatanicus or flammiger.

Male Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies carneus).

Upper mandible shallower than that of any other subspecies, with less sinuated tomia; crest feathers longer and stiffer than those of other subspecies, and distinctly outlined, giving crest edges a jagged appearance.

Female Northern Cardinal (presumed subspecies carneus).

Female with black face mask.

Male Northern Cardinal with praying mantis, which it eventually consumed.
Female Northern Cardinal drinking.
Male Northern Cardinal drinking.
Male Northern Cardinal bathing.
Male Northern Cardinal bathing.
Pair roosting about .5 m apart.
Male Northern Cardinal courtship feeding female.

Male feeds female during courtship and incubation.

Male Northern Cardinal courtship feeding female.
Female in Precopulatory Display.

When ready to mate, female gives Precopulatory Display: points beak and tail upward, lowers and quivers wings, fluffs breast feathers, and separates ventral feathers to expose cloacal opening.

Eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) preying upon Northern Cardinal nestling.
Female Northern Cardinal with nesting material.

Female alone builds nest.

Female Northern Cardinal with nesting material.
Northern Cardinal nest in bush.

Nests concealed in forks of twigs and small branches; nest height above ground 0.25–12 m.

Northern Cardinal nest in bush.
Northern Cardinal nest with eggs.

Note, plastic incorporated into outer layer of nest.

Northern Cardinal nest with eggs.

Nest is not attached to substrate; it is wedged into position. Bowl-shaped structure is composed of 4 layers: rough outer material, leafy mat, grapevine bark, and grassy lining.

Northern Cardinal nest with eggs.
Female Northern Cardinal on nest.
Northern Cardinal nest.

Near Tulsa, Oklahoma. 15 April 1917. Ruler is 8 cm.; photographer Rene Corado.

Northern Cardinal eggs.

Ground color ranges from grayish white to buffy white to greenish white. Speckled or spotted with pale gray to medium brown marks. Speckling varies from sparse to thick, obscuring ground or forming blotches. Last egg in each clutch is always more lightly marked with spots and streaks than the others.

Northern Cardinal eggs.

In most cases, spots tend to concentrate at larger end of egg.

Northern Cardinal eggs.
Northern Cardinal clutch.

Philadelphia Co., Pennsylvania. 15 May.; photographer Rene Corado.

Female Northern Cardinal on nest.

Incubation apparently by female alone; males have been observed to sit on nests for short periods. Young are brooded exclusively by female throughout nestling period.

Female Northern Cardinal with young at nest.
Male Northern Cardinal with young at nest.
Northern Cardinals with young at nest.
Northern Cardinal nest and egg (left) and Brown-headed Cowbird egg (right).
Northern Cardinal nest and eggs and Brown-headed Cowbird egg (center).
Male Northern Cardinal feeding Brown-headed Cowbird chick.

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