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.”

5 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.

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