Cardinal Courtship

Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don’t migrate so they’re a good species to watch for early signs of spring.  Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.

In February they begin to court.  The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies.  And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)

Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:

  • Lopsided pose :  The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
  • Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above):  The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
  • Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America):  In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes.  (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
  • Territorial Singing:  (audio above)
  • Counter-singing:  Female cardinals counter-sing with their mates.
  • Courtship feeding:  The male cardinal presents food to his lady, beak to beak.  Gene Wilburn in Port Credit, Ontario captured a male feeding his lady with a “kiss.”
Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Northern cardinal courtship, “The Kiss” (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)


Cardinals are courting.  Spring isn’t far away.


(photo credits: wing flash in the snow by Marcy Cunkelman, The Kiss by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

NOTE(*): On Groundhog Day the Spring Equinox is six weeks away … so it’s always true that we’ll have “six more weeks of winter.”

21 thoughts on “Cardinal Courtship

  1. When we lived in Indiana — state bird Northern Cardinal– the record for Cardinals was 10 pair on deck during a snow storm!! Soooo beautiful!!!

  2. I don’t need a rodent to tell me Spring is coming either. Valentine’s Day is our marker for Rochester peregrine courtship. They hang together now, but sweet activity is in full force in mid-February. Can’t wait.

    1. JoAnn, during the breeding season cardinals are territorial. They’ll sing, posture and chase but when that’s not effective they’ll fight. Cardinals stop caring about territory in late summer or early fall when the breeding season is over. They will start it up again in late winter, sometimes as early as January.

  3. Is it normal for a female cardinal to do a courtship display? I had a male and female on my roof yesterday, the female was fluttering her wings and twisting her head from side to side, almost flopping it down on each side, over and over. She actually sang (what I thought was) the male’s song while doing so.

    Is this standard? This particular female has also been attacking her reflection in the windows for a while (like the males used to do). She’s very dark, almost colored like a male, but not red like the males.

  4. On the feeder ~ Male & female, half the size, and the female trembling her mouth. Then another female arrives carrying on the same way. Is this mating or male training young ones? to eat? Or?

    1. Norma, it is probably fledglings begging. Fledging cardinals have grayish beaks. Females have orange beaks

    2. Ive a mated pair sitting in my hanging basket… of fake flowers & a light! Lol They’ve made a beautiful nest…am assuming eggs have been laid.
      Most years, its mourning doves … first year for cards! Excited!

  5. There was a female Cardinal just sitting at the bird feeder in the cold rain for about an hour. Is it sick? Is this normal? Not much tree coverage as the leaves are gone. I keep all three bird feeders clean along with the bird bath.and the feeders are quite a ways apart from each other. I live in Traverse City Michigan.

  6. We have MANY cardinals on bird deck outside our BIG picture window. Many have come to flat plan (Cookie sheets) feedres for last 5 years. I just happened to see what I guess was part of mating ritual or male feeding fledgling.
    He was feeding the female with seeds!! She was fluterring
    her wings. SO COOL!! I felt privileged to see it!
    There were also about 4 females around after mating ended. Were they offering themselves as next?

  7. Our male cardinal is constantly flying towards our window is he going after his reflection he see in the window? what does that mean

    1. Evelyn, yes he is attacking his reflection because he thinks its another cardinal. He doesn’t realize he is seeing himself.

  8. Q: It’s the end of March in Boston and “my” female cardinal goes right to the feeder herself instead of seducing His Eminence into feeding her beak-to-beak. Is it too early, or are they just an old married couple who don’t bother with that adolescent courtship stuff?

    1. Craig, I don’t know but … maybe they aren’t as far along in the process & will do this in a few days.

  9. I have at least 2 – maybe 3 cardinal couples in my yard. There is a young male cardinal that will follow me from room to room (front, back, sides of my home). I always say hello and promise to check the feeder. Today I’m pretty sure a young male was flirting with me! I swear. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

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