Why are Cardinals Red?


She has a pretty choice to make.

The question begs finding out, right? As one might guess, it does have to do with getting a mate. The flamboyant birds generally score the females. At least that is what science always thought.


Flamboyant Fred the Red

What they are finding is that urban cardinals don’t have to be the brightest red!  Any guesses why? It is because of the ready food sources in a male’s territory from our backyard feeders. These birds have rich and ready chow. They can be a bit lazy in putting on that red coat.


Duller Red Cardinal in the City has no competition here.

Did you ever listen to a male cardinal singing? They are loud and that is another way they get the best mates. I read a study on grasshoppers (post) a while back that said city grasshoppers are louder than their country counterparts, which they need be to project over the surrounding city clamor. So I surmised that city Cardinals might be louder than country Cardinals. And I was right as I looked to Cornell to find it was true. Yep, Cardinals sing their hearts out in the city.


Poor Plumage Cardinal in the City. They can be ragamuffins and still score a chick!

So why bright red? Well, some studies have noted brighter males have a higher reproduction rate, maintain better territories and are better bird dads in parental care. The redness comes from what they eat in carotenoid-rich food of fruit and berries. Things like Dogwood, rose hips, grapes, apples and raspberries. But being a dazzling dude does have a drawback.  He could easily catch the eye of a hungry hawk and become dinner. So to eat your way to red or not, that is the question.


Strutting his stuff to impress the ladies.

Cardinals undergo an annual molt in late summer and fall at which time males acquire their plumage coloration for the following year. So they have to get the coloring right each year. Young cardinals may be less efficient foragers resulting in a duller red color.


They glow in the sun.

Picking a mate based on redness, females have encouraged the males to evolve the bright coloring.


Female and two beaus.

I guess it is the girls that want arm (whoops, wing) candy.


A very red contender.

Did you know cardinals have a low success rate of producing young? 40% of nests fledge just one bird. So why are there so many cardinals then?


Cardinal in the snow.

Since they don’t migrate, there is less stress and loss of life from this exasperating activity. Also, they have a really long nesting season, with nest-building starting in late February and continuing to nest well into late August and September.

Did you want to know something really unique about cardinals? Both sexes sing. And the females will sing with their mate. One thing I can not be sure of is whether they mate for life. Possibly they do, that is if one of the pair lives to the next year. Often at the feeder I will see them in pairs, even in winter when they are likely part of a larger flock.


Keeping an eye out.

They are not picky on where they nest either, selecting from a variety of suitable sources in trees, shrubs and vines.  They find nest sites even in deserts according to Cornell’s All About Birds, but more likely places are woodlands, shrubby bramble sites and home backyards of city and suburb.


Two male cardinals at the feeder in a snow storm.

One thing I found perplexing, they build nests to 15 feet off the ground. You would think higher is better.


Do you know any cool things about Cardinals? There is much more I observed or learned on these fascinating, animated little songbirds. What have you observed?


Cute pose.

I took some of these images on the first day The Backyard Bird Count, but when you get so many birds in a garden, how does one know they are not counting the same birds over and over? I just made a quick count for one minute.


Giving the stare.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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91 Responses to Why are Cardinals Red?

  1. Sherrie says:

    Hi Donna, Your is the most wonderful blog for nature and photography ever.
    I love receiving your blog and send it to my friends who also would appreciate your quality in life and the universe. You actually make me love winter even better. Do you change it up for Spring… You are an amazing women to have created this treasure !


  2. alesiablogs says:

    OH —-you are so cool how you study and than present to us the facts! I love the bright deep red in the birds!

  3. Just glorious Donna. I cannot imagine the number of hours you spend doing research to provide your readers with such detail with every post you do. You must love it. Margie

  4. I’m glad that it works for cardinals. When I dress in bright red and sing for the Mrs. I usually just get funny looks.

    On a serious note, awesome pictures, the contrast of the red against the backdrop of snow is just amazing. We don’t get cardinals here in Eastern North Dakota, the closest I’ve seen them is in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I’d be more than happy to roll out the welcome mat if any of those lovely birds wanted to journey up to our neck of the woods.

    • Cardinals were not always here and moved North over time. I read that somewhere, but could not find a second source to verify it. They are my favorite winter bird. It seems if they live here and in Canada, maybe they will move west someday.

  5. Ha, I worry about recounting the same birds too! I wonder if that is a problem for a lot of people. If someone is counting near a feeder the likelihood of double counting is high. This is such an interesting post. Do you mind if I share the link on my FB page?

  6. Very nice picture of cardinals!

  7. arlene says:

    Love this set. All your photos of the cardinals are so beautiful. I like your header too 🙂

  8. Mrs. Mickey Robertson says:

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I am so glad I found your site! I enjoy your work very much and want to thank you for sharing it. Your photos are breathtaking and the facts and comments you write are so interesting. Today’s blog is just so wonderful I felt I had to express my appreciation. Another post I especially enjoyed was about the birds in 1 degree F weather. Thank you for many joyful moments! Mickey Robertson

  9. quarksire says:

    wow, kewl, but no red birds in the rockies that i have found , all our birds are black an or blue,,,or sumwheres in between, ur cardinals dere’ are way kewl! 🙂 … Q

  10. janechese says:

    Great explanation and it makes sense.

  11. Lovely series of photographs and some very interesting background. Thank you!

  12. menomama3 says:

    Cardinals are spots of joy in the monochrome of winter and your photos capture them beautifully. I enjoyed the bird bio too!

  13. Cardinals have to be one of my most favourite breeds of bird ever 🙂 there colours are inspirational aswell as there character and charm. Plus they’re the closest little specie to my favourite mythological bird the phoenix so cool 🙂 . The photographers here are truly beautiful to great post! kate x

  14. Rose says:

    Fascinating info on my favorite bird. While I was reading the narrative, though, I was captivated by your photos, Donna–just gorgeous! I thought cardinals mated for life, but even if they don’t, they always seem so lovey-dovey to each other, which is one thing I like about them. I once saw a pair sitting on a perch in my garden, and the male must have been feeding the female, but it certainly looked like they were kissing:) I also like the fact that the male does his share in helping to raise the kids!

    • I thought they mated for life too. I saw an article that said they did from the University of Pennsylvania. Then I could not find Cornell saying it. Another site said what I wrote that it may depend on their life expectancy. This particular site said most only live one year too. I also read of the male feeding the female. They appear to be a very loving pair. The male brings the female the materials to build the nest while she sits and forms the nest around herself.

  15. NiranjanaVipul says:

    Your blog is a visual treat on nature… Its awesome.. Enjoyed it so much…Keep blogging 🙂
    Thank you,

  16. I’ve seen a cardinal or two, but knew nothing about them other than they are handsome birds. Thanks for the share and the awesome pictures.

  17. Debra says:

    The other day I saw a cardinal join a small swarm of house sparrows at the feeder. “This is going to end in tears,” I thought recalling many tales of how aggressive house sparrows can be. But the cardinal just shouldered one sparrow off the perch and made an annoyed chickadee noise at any other daring to get close. The sparrows meekly decided to cooperate allowing plenty of sunflower seeds for all.

    So I invented this little fantasy that somehow this cardinal had been orphaned and brought up in the hard knock world of the chickadee nation where everyone swore like sailors and puffed up like MMO fighters — a place where any bird that didn’t learn to intimidate others went without breakfast.

    Thx for the gorgeous photos!

    • That is so funny, I like to imagine that too. Most of the time I see the Cardinals not very aggressive to other birds. On occasion, I see one that will just not leave the feeder. They spend most of their time chasing their own kind off.

  18. Lovely photos. I am confused: if the red color has to do with mating then why would more food in urban environments mean that cardinals don’t get as red?

    • Debra says:

      I would guess that city birds might have a less varied diet which relies on protein rich and easily obtained sunflower seeds rather than going to the effort of foraging for berries (which might not even be available).

  19. All this excellent information on the Red Cardinal and it doesn’t grace our shores. Never mind, I enjoyed looking at your ones. Third picture from the top would make a very good alternative to the Robin, for a Christmas card.

  20. Thai Village says:

    This is so beautiful

  21. Our cardinals have less feeders and are bright red…they are elusive as they hang back in denser woods…just saw one this weekend on the edge of the meadow. Love your observations. Can’t wait to hear them singing again.

    • It is the same at the Falls woods. The dashing devils are all over the woods, but I have no problem getting them to come in. They are more accustomed to me being there. I also get them to come out in the open too. Once they know you and that you have seed to offer, they become more bold. But they are still wary enough to be safe. If they see or hear someone or something they are unfamiliar, they take off into the brush.

  22. Phil Lanoue says:

    Wonderful views of these crimson beauties!

  23. A.M.B. says:

    Beautiful photos! I love cardinals. Their red color against the white snow or muted winter landscape always cheers me up. We’re participating in GBBC, too.

  24. Annette says:

    What a cheerful post, Donna. You know how I love these birds :), very interesting too about the different behaviour and how they adapt to their surroundings.

    • I find the more I know on birds, the better photos I can get. I learned that from my bird watcher friends. Knowing their behaviors and habitats makes finding them that much easier. I can not wait until they start their field trips in 2014. I have seen birds I never heard of and I hope to get some photos of the migrating birds this year. I still have not seen the Snowy Owl, but that is my fault for not going where I know they are hunting.

      • Annette says:

        Lots of owls here, Donna! They sit on our roof and sing all night. Look forward to more of your bird pictures. Keep up the good work 🙂

  25. Carolyn says:

    You should know by now that if the word “cardinal” is in your post, I want to read it. Love these little birds, but I only get my fix from your images. No cardinals on this side of the Rockies. Life isn’t fair. I do have a life sized resin cardinal perched on my desk… a girl can dream, can’t she?
    Beautiful images as always, Donna… and great information.

    • Thank you Carolyn. You have the Scarlet Tanager right? I wish we had them here. Plus you get Anna hummingbirds, oh I like them too. And your Western Steller’s Blue Jay. I like their black head. Birds are amazing all over, even the ones with little color.

  26. This study by Ritchison and Klatt (1994) suggests that, of the nestlings they studied, 13.5% were a result of extra pair paternity (cheating, essentially). http://www.jstor.org/stable/1369114

  27. Wonderful post, Donna, and the pictures were awesome. I didn’t realize that they don’t raise that many young. It could be that is why they are so aggressive when around houses and cars by attacking windows on houses and mirrors on the cars. Also, here’s a question for you: Why are the Northern Cardinals larger than the Cardinals you find in the south (like in Florida and Mississippi)? Thanks.

    • Thanks Sue. I am glad you added how the males act around reflective surfaces when they are getting in the mood for love. 😀 I never see them do this, but I read they can go at their reflection for hours. Bird brained anyone? I did read a long time ago that birds of the same species are larger in the northern climates because they need the larger surface area to maintain heat during our cold weather. They have to eat more high energy foods in colder climates, more calories, bigger bird. Also, a larger surface area is helpful when facing the sun to gain warmth. Typically larger birds in general deal better in cold weather than smaller birds, doves excluded having not quite caught up to how many of our Northern birds deal with cold like the tough little Chickadee. What I read did not call out Cardinals specifically, but I am making a guess like I did on them singing at a lower frequency and projecting their song louder and farther.

      • Thanks for your response, Donna. We’ve had problems with the male cardinal at our windows for hours. Going from one window to another in early spring. After we put our screens up for the summer we thought that would solve our problem, but he still kept coming and making his rounds at all the windows around the house. Even the basement windows. I guess he finally gave up and left the area maybe to build a nest in a different spot. And we’ve seen them attack mirrors on vehicles, too. Especially if they are parked near a nest. Thanks for the info on the Northern Cardinal and why they are larger than the southern species. That makes a lot of sense and I hadn’t heard that before.

  28. Pat says:

    What great shots of these beautiful and fascinating birds.

  29. This is such an interesting and informative post Donna. You always put so much time and research into your writings and it is so much appreciated. I find it interesting about how the food Cardinals eat affects their color and how they have to maintain it! As far as mating for life…I am somewhat convinced that I see the same pair together year after year, but I wouldn’t know for sure. Maybe someday researchers will find out.

    • It works that way unless the bird appears blue. That is a really interesting subject. Blue is a structural color and appears by how we perceive it in light, where red and yellow are actual pigments in the feather itself. Red and yellow wavelengths pass through the atmosphere and blue bounces and scatters. Here is an article talking about how birds become blue to us. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-are-some-feathers-blue-100492890/

      I looked for the answer on the mating for life and although it is really likely, they did have evidence when a bird loses his female, he will replace her next season. That is different from birds like geese and swans for instance, birds more likely to experience the loss in ways we might imagine. When I was a kid, I remember the farm goose pair. The female got run over by a car and was in the middle of the road. He stayed by her side even in the dangerous situation. I tried moving the body off the road and was attacked repeatedly. He went on for months by her side until he was finally hit too.

  30. Wonderful Cardinal photos. So they get the color from eating certain fruits – that makes sense. I wonder if some birds absorb colors from certain fruits while others do not. I just thought of this since many birds eat the same fruits that Cardinals eat, but they don’t have that color. Is it a difference in overall diet, or something else?

  31. catmint says:

    so many interesting facts about cardinals – fascinating – now I want to know why rainbow lorikeets are rainbow coloured, so I’ll have to do some research. Thanks for another visually beautiful, stimulating post.

    • Thank you. I bet you could find out. Color in birds is fascinating, especially those in tropical regions. I read a Nat Geo piece on Birds of Paradise. It was what got me interested in how color works on birds. Also I read another Cornell paper on birds that molt to dull color. That post is coming up.

  32. Thai Village says:

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks 🙂

  33. acuriousgal says:

    I just love your blog, Donna…I think I’ve told you about a hundred times now. You really are the blog to go to for questions about nature. Beautiful pics of my fave bird!! I’m so excited that he Cardinal is sitting in my bushes near the window feeder. They have not gone to the feeder but seem to pick up the seeds that the Chickadees drop on the ground. The male cardinal that sits in my bushes is not that beautiful bright red….more of a ragamuffin(that quote of yours above cracks me up). His back and wings almost look black, very weird. Happy Monday!!!

    • Thank you. I love the cardinals as well. You might try to encourage them to the feeder by dropping a trail of food from the shrub along the ground to the feeder. Likely though, the cardinal comes in at dusk and dawn to the feeder when you might not be checking on it. They did that here before they grew accustomed and less wary. Now they are at the feeders all day long, plus they brought in many cardinals. That appears to be a key too. Once one pair was feeding, a small flock developed. It varies, but my tiny garden gets around 5-8 pairs of Cardinals all day long now. The worse the weather, the more of them that show up too. Every tree and lilac has cardinals waiting a turn at the feeders. Unfortunately, the trees now have many starlings too.

  34. This is great information. I especially like the photo of the four cardinals in the tree, probably because I never saw so many together in one place at one time.

  35. Chloris says:

    Lovely post. What beautiful photographs. I have never seen a cardinal but they look amazing. Are you sure you haven’t caught them and dyed them? The colour is fantastic.

  36. Victor Ho says:

    From our bird feeder on Long Island, the cardinals would sit in among the lilac bushes. No leaves in winter and even so it’s not so obvious to notice that bright red color. Of course if you are looking for it, no problem. But I have found myself seeing them blend in more than I realized. I agree that the bright red color is like a target when they are out in the open at the feeder.

    • The color really is a bulls-eye for hawks. None were lost in my garden from hawks this or last year. The young blue jays were not so lucky. Cardinals in my yard use many plants for shelter, but they do love the lilacs.

  37. Diane says:

    Absolutely stunning photographs…as always from your blog! And yes, I did learn a few things about the ubiquitous cardinal. They are the most frequent visitors to my feeders, both in Texas and Michigan. I have noticed that some are a more brilliant red than others; now I know why. Thanks for another informative, gorgeous post!

  38. Kevin says:

    Beautiful photos and words. I had to smile, though, as I imagined a children’s book with the city cardinal visiting the country cardinal. Stay warm!

  39. Really interesting read Donna! We love our cardinals that visit our yard so much and it is great to know even more about them! 🙂

  40. Marilyn says:

    Love your pictures of the Cardinals’ one of my favorite birds. Living on the edge of a forest in NC, we see them quite frequently especially in the winter when we put out our bird feeders. One evening as the sun was setting, I counted 23 in less than a minute at a spot where I throw the seed on the ground. I, too, was going to participate in the Cornel Bird count, but with the recent snowfall, there were to many birds visiting the feeders. I actually did a dry run and found I couldn’t keep up with all the different varieties and their movements. If only Cornel had a category where you could just say “lots of birds visit us:-)”

  41. Interesting! Thanks for another great post.

  42. Denise says:

    Nice to know why cardinals are red. But why do they have a pointy head? 🙂

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