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Wild Birds in Your Backyard: The Northern Cardinal

Male Northern Cardinal one of the most common backyard wild birds you will find in the southeast
Backyard Wild Bird: The Male Northern Cardinal

Probably the most recognizable wild bird on the east coast is the Northern Cardinal. The vibrant red color of the male cardinal will make just about anyone stop and look. Given its good size, which is slightly smaller than a robin, (their length is around 8.5″) they are easy to spot on the feeder, in the trees, on the ground or even on a fence.

Although the male cardinal is bright red with that distinctive black mask and red crest the female is of a more muted color. The Female Northern Cardinal is more brown/gray than red. She still sports the crest on her head but has no black mask.

Female Northern Cardinal a favorite backyard wild bird
Backyard Wild Bird: Female Northern Cardinal

NESTING: Male and female cardinals tend to mate for life. They will build a nest in a dense shrub. She builds the nest though the male will be close by and may bring her some nesting material. The bird nest is a cup, consisting of twigs and grasses lined with a softer material such as hair. The pair may have 2 if not 3 broods a year. The male cardinal will bring food to the nest and then continues feeding after the new birds fledge (leave the nest). While he’s feeding she’s beginning the process all over again.

Molting: Interesting point about cardinals is that when they start molting, which is after nesting season, they may actually loose more feathers than expected. In the photo below you can see this male has actually lost his head feathers. He literally has a bald head. As far as we know there is nothing wrong with this particular bird has just molted all of his head feathers.

Male cardinal without his head feathers
Backyard Wild Birds: Male Cardinal missing its head feathers.

Feeding: The Northern Cardinal will eat on the ground or at just about any type of wild bird feeder. They eat primarily seeds and grains. Sunflower including black oil sunflower and hulled sunflower are a favorite food. The bird will also eat grains such as corn and millet. Finally there is a seed called safflower that cardinals love. Many backyard wild bird enthusiast use safflower because squirrels and starlings don’t tend to like it.

One final point about the Northern Cardinal, they don’t tend to migrate. So we here in Atlanta get to enjoy them year round. One of the only places in the United States where you can’t find cardinals is in the Southwest. You will not see one in California.

About the Author: David Peterson is the owner of the Best Nest of Georgia, Inc. which includes in its corporate family a retail store in NE Atlanta called the Wild Bird Center of Johns Creek Georgia. The Wild Bird Center focuses on bringing nature to your backyard using bird seed, bird feeders, mealworms, and bird houses to attract wild birds to your yard. You can reach the Wild Bird Center at 770-418-1990 or by contacting David via email:

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