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Biodiversity Blog


A Northern Cardinal in North Austin

Male cardinal. (Photo: Gary Leavens - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

I awoke on a Sunday morning last week, started the coffee, then opened the curtains to my backyard. My usual habit, but on this Sunday, I had the surprise of seeing a female Northern Cardinal duck into the tight weave of a climbing rose about seven feet from my backdoor. She was building a nest.

I groaned in frustration at first. I have three cats, all of whom have my supervision when I go outside with them. (Check out our blog on cats as invasive species). However, if this Northern Cardinal is to successfully raise chicks, I will have to lock up the cats inside for a few weeks to make sure the fledglings don’t become afternoon snacks. There will be hours of yowling at the backdoor to look forward to.

But honestly, kitty tantrums aside, Northern Cardinals are really cool birds. As I don’t see them often, I am flattered that this couple found my home in North Austin a suitable place to raise their young. Since getting rid of “grass” in my yard and overhauling with native plants and a water feature, I’ve seen a gradual increase in the creatures that don’t mind sharing home with me. Discovering new wildlife guests in my yard is a great way to learn about them, so here’s what I’ve learned about the Northern Cardinal.

The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the poster boy for bird guidebooks. They have startling red plumage and are stunning to see in tree tops. The male’s red actually is due his diet, the yellow and red carotenoid pigments in what he eats. Carotenoid pigments are what also give pumpkins, shrimp, tomatoes, canaries, and many other things their colors. The female is a bit more muted, with brown feathers and some orange on her wings and crest feathers. Both have black face masks and coral-colored beaks.

 Female. (Photo: Craig ONeal - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

In Texas and most of the continental US, Northern Cardinals are present all year long.

Both males and females will aggressively defend their nesting territories. Sometimes this means they even attack their reflection in windows or car mirrors, thinking it’s another bird. I saw an example of this defensive behavior in action last weekend, where the male was hanging out while the female was constructing her nest with a bit of grass and plastic trash. A blue jay was perched in a dead tree nearby, scoping out a tray of water for a drink and a bath. The male cardinal wasn’t having any of that. He didn’t hesitate to dive at him several times. He did the same to a white-winged dove who was, frankly, a little slow on the uptake. Interestingly enough, the male did not bother when these same bird species actually visited the water source, even though it was just as close to the nest as the dead tree.

Males will often feed the female during courtship, a bonding behavior. He will also assist with nest building by bringing in materials for the female to use. The female lays three to four eggs per clutch which she will incubate for just under two weeks. After hatching, the young will fledge in about 10-11 days.

Despite the name “songbird,” not many female songbirds actually do sing. The Northern Cardinal female is an exception. She often does, usually while nesting. It’s thought that this might be a way to tell her beau that it’s time to go find her something to eat.

These birds eat almost entirely seeds, grains, and fruits. Sometimes, a snail or crunchy insect is on the menu. The young, however, get almost nothing but crunchy insects.

There are plenty of fascinating things about them both in culture as well as their biology. When it gets cold, as it really does in the northern part of their range (Southeastern Canada), they fluff up those down feathers, but they can also shiver. A study in 2016 in the state of Georgia also found that they biologically suppress the West Nile Virus disease unlike other species.

The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven US states, more than any other species. Those states include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. They are also the mascot for an almost countless number of sport teams.

Their song is really something to hear. This bird is way more of a morning person than I am, but I’ve enjoyed opening all of my windows in the mornings to hear it while I get caffeinated. Written descriptions in English of the songs are humorous, with some of my favorites going like this: and “cheer, cheer, cheer, what, what, what, what” and “purdy, purdy, purdy...whoit, whoit, whoit, whoit.” Perhaps something more akin to describing enthusiastic cheers at a sporting event? Thankfully, there are great websites like this one at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where you can get a much better sense of what they sound like.



Elliott, Lang; Read, Marie (1998). Common Birds and Their Songs. Houghton Mifflin Field Guides. p. 28. ISBN 0-395-91238-5.

Levine, Rebecca S.; et al. (November 2016) [9 June 2016 (online publication)]. "Supersuppression: Reservoir Competency and Timing of Mosquito Host Shifts Combine to Reduce Spillover of West Nile Virus". The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 95 (5): 1174–1184. doi:10.4269/ajtmh.15-0809. PMC 5094236. PMID 27503511.

“Northern Cardinal.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/overview#)

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