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Cardinal Courtship Behavior


Dear Bird Folks,

We have a pair of courting cardinals in our yard. The male will hop over to the female, gently take her beak in his own and hold it there for a few moments. It looks for all the world like they are kissing. From what I can tell he is not feeding her but simply offering her some affection. We have been taught that birds’ behavior is totally instinctive, but it appears to me that my birds are actually necking. Please advise.

– Sandy, Orleans, MA


Oh, man, Sandy,

I hate these kinds of questions. No matter what I say I’m going to upset somebody. Yes, I know, I usually upset somebody anytime I write something. But this is one of those topics that really puts people over the edge. Half the people want to believe mated birds are really in love with each other. That group includes you and the French guy who made that mushy March of the Penguins movie. The other half of the population feels that love is strictly a human trait. That group includes many researchers, scientists and Spock. The third half of the populace doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about such things. Those people are probably taking the right approach.

If there were an award for being the perfect bird couple, cardinal pairs would most certainly be nominated. Since they often remain in the same territory their entire lives, it means the cardinals you saw clinging to your feeder during a blizzard in January are likely the same birds that are building a nest in your cedar tree in May. In addition, the male and female cardinals are sexually dimorphic. That doesn’t imply they are kinky; it only means the male’s plumage is distinctively different than the female’s. When we see a cardinal couple we can be certain that one bird is female and one is male. This is not the case with many other bird couples, however. For example, Mute Swan pairs often remain together for years, but since both sexes look the same we can’t be sure if the couple is made up of one male and one female or if they are members of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Club.

Another cool thing about a cardinal couple is that they have a progressive relationship. Typically, it’s the male songbird’s job to do all the singing. He gets up early and sings as loud as he can to announce his territory, while the female stays at home quietly putting on her face. Cardinals do not follow this rule. The females are excellent singers and can match whatever the males sing. Married couples often sing as a duet, making them the Steve & Eydie of the bird world.

In addition to announcing their territory, pairs may also sing to communicate other important information to each other. They could be warning each other about predators or other problems. Right now researchers don’t exactly know what the birds are saying to each other, but they hope to know for sure when the long awaited Cardinal to English dictionary is released next spring.

Apparently, all the extra singing causes the female to work up an appetite because she insists that the male bring her food as part of the courting process. Mate feeding is a fairly common ritual among birds, and humans for that matter (a good meal can lead to a great night). But Mrs. Cardinal is rather demanding. By quivering her wings, baby bird style, the female will entice the male to give her food, sometimes as frequently as once every fifteen seconds. It is thought that mate feeding helps the birds establish a bond, but there may be more to it than that. Some feel that the female is actually testing the male. She could be trying to gauge what kind of provider he is. If he brings her a steady supply of seeds and worms, then he is a keeper. However, if the best he can find for her are bits of Doritos and Slim Jims, then she’ll probably dump him…unless she happens to be from certain parts of the South. Then he’d be the perfect mate.

Some folks interpret mate feeding as a form of kissing. That’s understandable because that’s what it looks like. But if you think about it, passing food beak-to-beak is the only way birds can feed each other. Remember, they don’t have hands and can’t possibly afford silverware. The other thing to consider is that there are thousands of different bird species, with each species having its own weird courtship rituals. Have you ever seen a fat, spastic tom turkey strut his stuff? He hardly seems very romantic. He looks more like he has some kind of neurological disorder. Yet, it works for him.

I’m pretty sure what you saw was nothing more than mate feeding. I know you said you didn’t see any food being passed, Sandy, but you either just couldn’t see the food or the male was simply going through the motions in an effort to fool the female into thinking he had food for her. If that’s the case he’s making a big mistake. She may decide that he is not a good provider and he could end up spending the rest of the summer all alone, listening to Steve and Eydie records. That will teach him.