Male Cardinals Help Raise the Babies
The Northern Cardinal is one of my most favorite song birds. The male is a beautiful crimson red color and the females are lovely shades of fawn brown and red.
Besides being attractive looking, Cardinals have many endearing qualities, such as the males' song, the fact that they will readily come to a bird feeder and how both parents care for the young.
I have been privileged to observe and photograph Northern Cardinals during the breeding process. On this page I will share my photographs of the adults, their nests and babies. You'll also find some facts about and observations of the habits of this lovely bird.
Bright Red Male Cardinal
Many Cardinals begin pairing off in late winter here in south Louisiana. By late February (which is considered early spring here), courtship has begun. Pairs will share the feeders and the female will sometimes ask to be fed by the male.
Actually some pairs breed with the same partner for a few consecutive years. Sadly, the life expectancy of most song birds is short, only 2-4 years.
In March, males stake off their territory in a shrubby tangle and proclaim this property to be their own by singing loudly from the highest point. This discourages other males from trespassing.
In our habitat, they like to nest in the area around the pond and along the creek. That way a water supply is not far away.
Male Cardinals have a lovely song. To hear it, watch the video below.
Male Courting Female
Cardinal Singing Video
Nest and Eggs
The female Cardinal is responsible for building the nest of twigs, vines, some leaves, bark strips, grasses, weed stalks, rootlets and lining it with fine grasses.
She usually chooses a thorny or dense shrub somewhere in her mate's territory.
Normally, within a week of completing the nest, she lays from 3 to 4 bluish, speckled eggs. Incubation begins when the third or fourth egg is laid and lasts from 11 to 13 days.
Books About Nests and Eggs
When the baby Cardinals first hatch out, they are tiny, have no feathers and their eyes are closed. With their large beaks and body, they look like baby dinosaurs.
Soon their eyes open and feather shafts begin to form on their wings and they eat and poop... a lot.
When they are from 7 to 13 days old, they leave the nest. They have feathers, but can barely fly and don't really look mature enough to fledge.
The male feeds the young from the first brood, while the female builds a second nest.
Cardinal Babies Hatch and Grow
Books About Cardinals
Male Cares for Young
Dad Raises the First 2 Broods
Male Cardinals are excellent parents. They raise the first two sets of fledglings all by themselves, while the females build a second and sometimes third nest and incubate the eggs.
The female feeds the young babies while they are in the nest, but once they fledge, the Dad takes over.
As the fledglings grow, the young males begin to molt their baby feathers and begin to show red coloration in spots. The young females become more tan than gray. The dark beak on both sexes of chicks also gradually turns orange. You can tell the age of a young Cardinal by the amount of adult plumage they have.
When the pair is on their last brood of the season, the female also cares for the young fledglings.
The sunflower seed feeders are one of the first places the parents bring the older fledglings when they are trying to wean them.
It can be quite comical when fledglings, almost as big as their parents, just refuse to be weaned and stand amid a pile of sunflower seeds begging to be fed.
Cardinals like seed feeders with roomy perches and shelf type feeders like the ones below. We use upturned "Hurricane Katrina logs" to make a quick and easy shelf feeder.
Feeding the Fledglings
Male Cardinal in My Yard
Baby Male Fledgling
Immature Female Cardinal
Links to More About Nesting Birds
- Pictures of Birds - Prothonotary Warbler Nesting
Prothonotary Warblers breed in cavities in our habitat in southeastern Louisiana. I was able to photograph the nesting process, including pictures of the fledgling leaving the nest and have posted this photo journal here.
- The Cardinal's Nest
Every bird watcher and most children recognize the male Northern Cardinal, a Christmas symbol, but many people know nothing about its nesting and courtship
- Bird Pictures - Carolina Wren Babies and Nests
Red Cardinal in Holly Tree
© 2011 Yvonne L. B.
Tell us about your Cardinals.
Toni on May 23, 2017:
My cardinals are just building their nest now. I am excited this is the first time they have built a nest in my yard. Amazing to watch the female with the grass and the male flying with her. He follows her everywhere.
Ann B on May 24, 2016:
This is my first family. They showed up May 15,2016. He loves having his pictured taken. I'm sure they had been around for a few days. The babies hatched May 19,2016. This must be their first or maybe second batch. The Dad is awesome. The mom goes too, but the dad is not only a picture ham but a wonderful, protective, beautiful male.
I hope they stay around. I love having them. They say they are a sign from heaven. My husband died a little over 3 years ago and he loved birds. The difference is my husband did not like to take pictures. But this one does. I love them.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on January 14, 2016:
During the winter, yes. We often see as many as 15 male and female cardinals eating together at the feeders when food is scarce.
Kristine Hemauer on January 14, 2016:
I had 2 male cardinals by my bird feeder and one male cardinal eating from it this morning and close by was a female. Is that normal for them to be so close to each other? I live in Ellsworth, WI
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on August 02, 2015:
Thanks for commenting. I'm glad my pictures helped you.
Laura L Scotty from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 19, 2015:
Thank you for such wonderful pictures for me to use as research. I was trying to determine if what appeared to be cardinal fledglings near my bird feeder were in fact just that. Your pictures have identified them as such for me.
rose on June 25, 2015:
a cardinal made her nest right next to my deck railing in a bush resting against the deck. i had a hummingbird feeder just above it and changing the feeder never bothered the cardinal. she did have babies and she would let me peek at them, they just left the nest yesterday. what a joy to watch them .
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on June 16, 2014:
This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing in every aspect of writing.
I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb.
Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it. I love birds of all types. I used to feed them in my front yard since I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Neurothopy in 2003. I do not feel like it nowadays, and I did, at one time, teach my grandchildren how to feed birds. Your hub has somehow reignited that desire I had to feed my birds. So what if I hurt some?
Thank you for sharing such a wonderful subject as birds.
You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.
I cordially invite you to read one or two of my hubs, and be one of my followers.
That would make my day.
I am so honored to meet you.
Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama
Ann on April 17, 2014:
I ended up finding her some different worms in the ground and june bugs which she loved besides mealworms. All I had to do was lay them on the blanket in carrier and she would eat them. Was getting worried about her since she wasn't eating much sunflower seeds, so I was working on getting her filled on worms and insects. I also moistened and crumbled some kitten chow as suggested by other sites, but she didn't care about it. I let her by the open window every day to hear and see the birds. She was happy. I did notice her right wing was not flapping right, so I did find a rehabber and took her to her, so she in better hands now.
Ann on April 13, 2014:
Great post! I have many cats around and keeping them in as much as possible now since they are always looking for babies in low areas. I do keep bird feeders up to see all the birds in the area. My young cat got a baby cardinal that left it's nest who was in a bush cuz of feathers there. I saved "her" which I believe it's a female because most feathers are showing female colors with bright orange beak. I have her in large cat carrier for few days now. Put some sunflower seeds in bowl and water in another. She eats and drinks from them. She not doing too good on breaking seeds open, so I have some already un-shelled I put in with the shelled and she eats those even though she still tries to break shelled ones. I also feed her "live" meal worms, but not sure how many to feed her. I give her five in morning and five in evening. That ok? I can't find any info on it. She doesn't have her tail feathers yet, and she flops around. She bit the heck out of my finger when I first picked her up in a little soft blanket. She still wants to bit me. She's like an ornery little kid! LOL cute little thing. She gets excited, not panicked, when she sees me now probably cuz of the meal worms. I don't want to put her back outside with my cats around until she can fly. How long do you think that will take? She looks completely like a female except no tail, very few gray feathers on her chest. I put her outside in her carrier this morning with cats inside to see if mommy and daddy would come around. They came and seemed very excited to see her. Daddy kept coming by to check on her. Took her back in later. Afraid to let her out.
Help on July 11, 2013:
Well, they are alive today and the father is still around, but I don't believe he is sitting on the nest. They are very young. I am hoping rain does not come again tonight, but the weather doesn't look good this week.
Help! on July 10, 2013:
Btw, I should add that a rain storm came thru this afternoon and they had no protection from the elements, other than the tree itself. I was really hoping the male would take over caring for them.
Help on July 10, 2013:
Thanks... Unfortunately we do not have any centers that would take them. It is very sad to see these babies without the mother. I laid the female out in the grass so he could see she wasn't alive, because he has been singing all day and didn't see her get killed. I will be surprised if they make it thru the night. It is so upsetting. The mother bird worked so hard and was such a delight to watch. He has been feeding them today, but I'm concerned because I don't think he will stick around as he sees the female not returning. :(. Makes me sick.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on July 10, 2013:
Babies that young needs to be kept warm. The father may feed them, if he is not taking care of the previous brood, but without the mother or feathers, they will be exposed to the elements. Are there any wildlife rehabilitators in your area? Caring for birds that young needs to be done by someone with experience.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on July 10, 2013:
A predator probably disturbed the nest and knocked the egg out.
Help! on July 10, 2013:
So sad our mother cardinal was killed today. Will the father take care of the babies? They are 3 days old.
bebesmom ohio on May 21, 2013:
love love love cardinals they are certainly a delight to watch..love watching them feed the babies. they built their nest under the spouting on the side of our front porch.one day we saw a baby in our rhododendrum bush sitting quietlty for daddy to come and feed him.. and of course he did as we watched, a truly awesome scene!!!!!!
Grandmaofmany on May 02, 2013:
We live in Louisiana. On the back wall of our brick house right beside the back sliding patio door we have a 2-bulb outside motion detector light. One day my son noticed a bunch of weedy looking branches hanging over the lights. He took it down. This happened two more times. Finally we saw a female cardinal again hanging those long weedy looking pieces over the light. This time we did not take it down. She continued to build her nest until now she is sitting on it. She and her nest are within arms reach of our back door. Sometimes she stays in the nest if we go out that door. Sometimes she flies away but always comes back. The mate is always close by. This happened after my husband changed the bird feed in the back yard to sunflower seeds mixed with some other kind of seed. We have a feeder in the front yard also with the same kind of seeds. We have seen Goldfinches, Indigo Buntings and today saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak feeding out there. We are thrilled about the different types of birds we see now since we changed the seed to a Sunflower mix. We also have pesky comical squirrels raiding the feeders.
donna Miller on April 29, 2013:
We had a cardinal build a nest in an artifical tree on our deck - there were two eggs - she sit on them for days - then when I looked (from a distance) one egg was in the nest and later we found the other one on the ground. I have not seen her since on the nest. I know it did not blow out of the nest. Can you tell me what may have happened. Thanks.
Traci on August 30, 2012:
Too late. He passed last night. So sad.
Traci on August 29, 2012:
A fledgling ended up in my egress window well a few days ago. I've watched the father diligently guarding him and feeding him suet and sunflower seeds from my feeders so I decided to leave him down there(there are many cats and dogs in the area) for his own protection. However, I haven't seen the father today...will he abandon the baby if he thinks it's a lost cause? Should I move the baby out of the well (which is like 4 ft deep)???
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on July 22, 2012:
Good question. Cardinals lay an egg each day and usually lay 3-4 eggs total. The egg on the ground could have been knocked out, but going from an empty nest to 3 eggs in one day is unheard of, unless a cowbird visited the nest. Some birds cover up their eggs when they leave the nest so the nest looks empty.
Debbie on July 18, 2012:
Found small egg in my grass and then tracked down an empty nest in my nearby privet. Next day I went to check and there were three eggs .have been seeing the parents flying in and out. Hope they all hatch. Why do you think the first egg was on the ground?
Bubbywatcher on July 09, 2012:
The cardinals on our deck are so very beautiful we all are amazed. A city gal from birth these magnificent creatures are a wonder to observe. Thank you for all the illuminating information and awesome photos. Makes me want to becomev a birdwatcher.
Thank you so very much.
gamomofthree on June 20, 2012:
Thanks! We were thinking cat too, but I dont recall seeing any in the area. Thanks for your help.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 20, 2012:
It could have been a cat or, if you live in a more rural area, a raccoon or possum. So sorry. Cardinals, especially first time moms, sometimes build nests in insecure places. Normally they build in a thicket or tangle of vines, but I guess in suburban yards, they use what they can find.
gamomofthree on June 20, 2012:
We have a cardinal nest in front of our dining room window. We have been watching the pair take excellent care of the two babies since last week. This morning when we got up, the nest was tipped upside down and no sign of the birds except for the male who has been hanging around. My boys found some feathers around the yard. Any idea what could have gotten them? Very sad for us, as they were so interresting to watch. :(
Audrey on June 09, 2012:
While watching the female cardinal at her nest I noticed she got something from the nest, white, and ate it. Could it have been one of her eggs
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 05, 2012:
Lisa and C. Stoddard,
This seems to be a good year for Cardinals in my neck of the woods. I'm glad to hear that they are doing well in other parts of the country.
C. Stoddard on June 05, 2012:
I live in Martin County Florida and I so enjoy watching the male take care of his family. He does feed his wife and guards his baby carefully as he sits in a hedge watching. Thanks for your helpful information.
Lisa Crawford on June 03, 2012:
Thank you so much. I have a pair nesting in my bush next to my front porch, 2nd year. This year we had 4 eggs, three that hatched and 2 that left the nest. I was so worried that they was to small, but now I'm smiling knowing that the little cuties are right on schedule.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on May 23, 2012:
They will probably build another nest somewhere nearby, but probably not in the same shrub as the nest that failed.
Randy C. Ball on May 20, 2012:
sooooooooooooo sad....We had a nest in a shrub...enjoyed the male taking care of his young...then this morning no activity ( storm last night) ...checked the nest and the young baby was dead....buried it and no more cardinals around....will they come back and try again?
Anita Guttenberger on May 11, 2012:
Thanks for the answer about the black bird. Thatmay be it.
geoffclarke from Canada on May 10, 2012:
Great article, naturegirl7. Cardinals are my favourite bird and I see them everyday in my garden. You can almost guarantee that they will be the first to arrive in the morning, and the last to visit in the evening. Great Hub, voted up and I'm eager to read more of your Hubs.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on May 10, 2012:
The larger black baby is probably a Cowbird chick. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds nest and the other birds unknowingly raise them as their own. With really small birds, like warblers, the cowbird baby will often knock the others out of the nest and the parents will end up raising just the Cowbird.
Anita Guttenberger on May 10, 2012:
A pair of cardinals is feeding a totally black bird, slightly larger than they are but who flutters its wings like the babies. What is this?
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on May 09, 2012:
The female does not start incubation until the last egg is laid. She usually lays 3-4. Sometimes, if a predator frightens a female from the nest, she will abandon it. Inexperienced females may also not be diligent nesters. You didn't say how long the nest had been abandoned. Wait and watch, you may be surprised. If the pair is still around, there is ample time for them to build another nest.
Matt on May 09, 2012:
We had a nest right outside our kitchen window in a honeysuckle. There are eggs in the nest and suddenly the female stopped coming to the nest. We have been sure to give them plenty of space but it appears the nest is abandoned. Why would they leave the nest with eggs. The adult pair are still in our yard daily.
momma2thekz on April 10, 2012:
What a great hub! We have a Cardinal building a nest right outside our bedroom window in a foster holly! My kids love checking her progress daily! We can't wait to see the eggs and the hatchlings! Thanks for the info and amazing pics!
kianna on February 11, 2012:
Dixiemagnolia on July 27, 2011:
This year we had three pair of Cardinals come to our back yard habitat. We live on 3 acres surrounded by woods. There are so many young at the feeders now that we can't keep up with who belongs with whom!They truly are a delight to watch.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on July 23, 2011:
Susarno and Nita,
Sorry for not responding sooner, susarno. When the babies first fledge, the parents keep them hidden in thickets and brush. You will probably not see them unless you happen upon them while walking in the woods.
The parents start bringing them to the seed feeders when they are trying to wean them. As Nita described, they look like female cardinals, except the beak is dark.
Thanks so much for the comments and I'm glad that the hub helped you.
Nita on July 23, 2011:
I saw a crested juvenile at my feeder with reddish feathers and a brown beak and didn't know what it was. I thought all cardinals had the red/orange beaks. Now I know it's a growing baby cardinal. Thank you for all the beautiful pictures and great information.
susarno on July 18, 2011:
After being housebound in early spring and living in a new place I was heartened and delighted to get know a cardinal pair.They are the epitome of grace and beauty and show their protective qualities like the most ardent of human couples. I am still watching but as yet have seen no babies although I see the pair several times a day. Could I be missing them somehow? Both male and female have been around for almost four months.
AmeliaKat on July 05, 2011:
We don't have any cardinals in our yard, mom talks about how pretty they are though. I am an avid birdwatcher and love seeing new species at our feeders. ymmmm finches..... So pretty, would love to see one up close.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 29, 2011:
Thanks Movie Master. Cardinals are one of my favorite birds. We are blessed to have so many of them nesting in our habitat.
Movie Master from United Kingdom on June 29, 2011:
Hi naturegirl7 I have never seen a cardinal, what a beautiful bird, veru informative hub and fabulous photos, thank you.
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 11, 2011:
Jimmie... and such a handsome fellow, too. And good with the kids. ;)
Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN USA on June 11, 2011:
The cardinal is one of my favorite birds. I grew up in NC and now live in TN, so we see them often. I notice that when they are at the feeder, the female is always accompanied by a male. What a good "husband!"
Yvonne L. B. (author) from South Louisiana on June 11, 2011:
Thank you so much Ann. Coming from such a superb wildlife photographer, your comments mean a lot. I really love your work.
annmackiemiller on June 11, 2011:
Absolutely beautiful - can' find enough words to describe it. voted up and stuff and thumbs up for facebook and twitter.