Northern cardinal

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More names for this bird

Anishinaabemowin: Misko-bineshiinh

Dakota: Pebduta

The Dakota and Anishinaabe were among the earliest people to name Minnesota’s plants and animals, as well as to understand them in relation to Minnesota’s climate and seasons. Those original names are still in use, and several are included on the Season Watch website.

Latin (or scientific name): Cardinalis cardinalis

The scientific community has a convention of assigning agreed-upon Latin names to every kind of organism. Using scientific names helps people communicate confidently about the same organism and organize lifeforms based on how closely related they are.

French: Cardinal rouge

Spanish: Cardenal norteño

More common names: Redbird, Virginia nightingale

A male northern cardinal is on the ground, looking the direction of the camera. It is bright red with a black mask around its eyes and bill, a pointy crest, and a long tail.
Northern cardinal (male)
March 25, 2022, Scott County, Minnesota
Photo © peterbregman, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)
iNaturalist observation

About the northern cardinal

  • The northern cardinal is a songbird between the size of a sparrow and robin with a thick, short bill, a crest, and long tail.
  • The male is bright red with a black mask around its bill. The female has a grayer mask around the bill and is pale brown all over with hints of red on the crest, tail and wings.
  • Adults eat mostly seeds and fruit throughout the year, including sunflower seeds (at feeders), wild grape, hackberry, sumac, various grasses and corn. However, nestlings are fed mostly insects.
  • Fun facts: Males are extremely territorial during breeding seasons and will attack their own reflection in windows or even car mirrors.
  • Northern cardinals do not migrate.

Visual guide to phenology

Unlike some birds, adult northern cardinals do not migrate or undergo visibly obvious changes in their plumage or bill color. Watch for changes in cardinal behavior at different times of year. Also pay attention to when young-of-year appear and develop.

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Note to observers

This page explains general clues to watch and listen for when observing northern cardinal phenology. However, this page does not explain how to identify this bird or collect data in a standardized way.

A single bright red cardinal is perched on branches that are covered with frost.
A bright red male cardinal is singing against a drab, gray sky.
A female cardinal is perched and singing. Her bright red bill is in the sunlight and her body is in shadow. The scene appears to be a forest or woodland.
A male and female cardinal are positioned with their heads turned and their bills touching. This is a courtship behavior.
A cardinal's nest is hidden within a shrub. There are two pale speckled eggs inside the nest.
This photo looks down at a nest with very recently hatched cardinals. One of them has its bill wide open revealing its bright pink gape.
A young cardinal is perched, probably in the understory of a wooded area. Its tail is very short and its crest feathers are not yet fully formed.
A group of four cardinals are foraging on bright green grassy ground. Three have dark bills and are probably young ones. The fourth has a typical bright red bill and may be a parent bird.
A brilliant red cardinal is perched in a wooded area. There is snow in the air and on the vegetation.

Audio resources

Visit All About Birds for recordings of songs and calls by northern cardinals.

Graphs and historical data

Note: The Orientation Center provides a map, as well as information on reading graphs; interpreting summary statistics, who collected the data and how; and how to download datasets for independent exploration.

Itasca County

Itasca County

First courtship

  • Earliest: January 28 (occurred in 2013)
  • Average: February 19
  • Latest: March 13 (occurred in 2005)
Scatterplot showing northern cardinal phenology observations in Itasca County, Minnesota

Download this dataset (.csv file)