Bird Watcher's General Store

A Few Things About Cardinals - 04/06/01


Dear Bird Folks,

What is the average life expectancy of a cardinal? Do they mate for life? If one dies, does the surviving one take another mate?

- Dorothy, USA

Whoa Dorothy,

You sure are asking for a lot of info. What do you think this is, "20 questions?" You people from the "USA" sure are demanding. Below is probably more information than you really wanted to know about cardinals. So read this carefully, somewhere in this long diatribe you are bound to find the answers to your lengthy list of questions.

Believe it or not, the Northern Cardinal is a fairly new bird to the Cape Cod area. It's hard to imagine the Cape not having cardinals, but the first pair did not nest in Massachusetts until 1958. The Cardinal is really a Southern bird where, for years, Southerners referred to the Cardinal simply as "the red bird." However, McCarthyism and the red scare, plus a class action suit by a group of scarlet tanagers, put an end to most of that. In recent years, the Cardinal has been expanding its range north. I'm sure bird feeders have contributed to this expansion, but our suburban yards, with their plantings of shrubs and bushes, have probably done the most to help the Cardinals.

Back in the 1800's, Cardinals were trapped by the thousands and shipped overseas to be sold in cages as pets. Fortunately, that practice has been outlawed and our Cardinals were saved. Now, instead, we trap birds from foreign countries and keep their birds in cages in this country.

One of the reasons that we like Cardinals so much is that it's easy to tell the sexes apart. When we see a male Cardinal feeding a sunflower seed to a female, we think, "Oh, that is so sweet." But we don't feel the same warmth when another bird like say, a Blue Jay, does the same thing, because jays both look the same. We don't know if it's a male feeding a female or a female feeding a male.

A truly unique thing about Cardinals is that both sexes sing and both sound basically the same. In most other bird species, the male will pick an exposed perch and sing to announce its territory. While unlike human females, female birds are usually quiet. But female Cardinals sing right along with the male to let the whole world know that they are in charge of the area.

There seems to be some evidence that Cardinals do indeed spend the entire year with the same partner. But saying that they mate for life gives us the impression that they spend decades of bliss together until they retire to some Cardinal condo in Ft. Lauderedale. The fact is, a Cardinal life expectancy isn't much longer than a year. So the cute Cardinal couple that has been coming to your feeder for years is probably many diffrent birds. Although there are records of some Cardinals having lived more than 13 years in the wild, they certainly would have had many different mates over that time. Perhaps even as many as Liz Taylor.

There it is, Dorothy, the answers to all of your many questions are in that last paragraph - which means you could have ignored all of the other nonsense and just read the final few sentences. Kind of like reading a movie review. But just think of all the cool Cardinal info you would have missed.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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