It is likely that you are aware that many birds tend to mate for life. Sure, there are some that get involved in almost human-like things like cheating and divorce, but it is at a much lower rate than occurs in the human race. You probably could name a couple of the most common bird species that mate for life – eagles, cranes, swans and geese. These all practice monogamy and the pair bond for life.
So, do cardinals mate for life? Cardinals are monogamous birds and will find a mate for life. Nest building is predominantly done by the female with help from the male, this will take anywhere for 3 to 9 days, usually in dense trees and shrubbery.
Northern cardinals are very popular garden birds. They can be found all year round in North America and their habitat extends across eastern states, to the north and south of the United States.
The northern cardinal adds a lovely dash of red to your garden. Males have a striking colorful plumage, while females are mainly brown, but do have splashes of red on their head, wings and tail. The best time to see cardinals at your feeder is first thing in the morning and at dusk. They are usually the last birds to feed in the evening and often the first bird you see in the mornings too.
Cardinal pairs can often be found at bird feeders and one way to attract them is to add sunflower seeds or safflower seeds. During colder winter months, they will need extra food provided as the cold weather will deprive them of the insects and seeds they live on. It is during these winter months that many cardinals will perish due to lack of food. As they do not migrate, you can leave your feeder out all year. They do like to perch when they eat, so make sure your feeder has a space for them to sit. A table feeder is ideal, or you can get bird seed feeders with special perches as well.
Seeing them at bird feeders may mean that they are nesting close by and if you see a male and female, it is possible they are mates. You may even see the male northern cardinal collect seeds to feed the female bird as she prepares and sits on the nest.
They will protect their territory too, so you may find they are protective of your feeder. If that happens, put more than one bird feeder out and space them apart. The male cardinals always help the female with nesting, so it’s only natural that they will do all they can to protect the female.
Being protective of their mate begs the question: do cardinals mate for life?
Do Cardinal Birds, Like Many Other Species, Mate for Life?
When it comes to finding a mate, cardinals make sure they attract the right partner.
The pair bond during the early stages of spring when the male cardinals begin their mating dance. If you enjoy bird watching, you may have been lucky enough to have seen this display. The male cardinal bird will try to attract females with a dazzling courtship display, involving his vibrant red feathers and bright crest, showing them off and swaying from side to side while singing a soft song. To really hit home to a potential mate that he is the right man for the job, he will start feeding the female to prove he will be a good provider for her and her young.
If you are lucky, you will even see the ‘cardinal kiss’. This looks as though the two birds are kissing, and while this may be a romantic notion, it’s not true. As part of the mating ritual, the male bird will find food for the female, and will feed it to her. As he does, their beaks will touch and it will look like a kiss.
Once they have found a mate, cardinal nesting usually takes place in thick shrubs or in the branches of trees, and you can see a nest from 1 foot off the ground up to 15 feet high. The northern cardinal prefers not to use nesting boxes but you can leave twigs, bark, paper and leaves around to provide them with the nesting material they will need. As cardinals are expanding to more north American states, you may find you are seeing them when you haven’t before.
Females will build the nest while the male cardinal keeps a safe lookout for predators and also for other males who may try to take over their territory.
Breeding takes place from March to September and most pairs raise 2 or 3 broods each year, with one around March and the second at some point between late May and July. After mating, the female cardinal will lay roughly 3 or 4 eggs and begin incubation which tends to last between 11 and 13 days until the eggs hatch. While this is happening, the male cardinal brings the female her food and keeps a protective eye on the nest.
When the female has the second brood, the male bird will care for the previous hatchlings as the female incubates the eggs. As these hatch, the male bird takes over looking after those chicks a well, while the female incubates the next brood.
In some cases, cowbirds will come and lay their eggs in a cardinal nest. They look very similar and the female cardinal may not know that she is incubating and feeding another bird’s chicks. If you see this, do not touch the eggs as the cowbird may come back and damage the cardinal nest if she finds her own eggs have disappeared.
The northern cardinal will always build a new nest for each new brood, so it’s not unusual for you to have more than one nest in your garden.
Once the chicks hatch, the female cardinal will brood them during the first 2 days of their lives. Both parents tend to the feeding of their chicks and even once they can be a bit more independent and can leave the nest, both males and females will continue to provide them with food for anything from 25 to 56 days.
If the pair have mated for life, then they will stay together until the next mating season, where they will return to build a new nest.
When They Don’t Stay Together
There are exceptions to every rule, especially when it comes to birds, as any birder will tell you. There are some birds who leave a specific nesting territory, for instance, and join up with a winter flock. However, it is often the case that the same pair will reconnect at the same nesting territory when spring comes around again.
Generally speaking, northern cardinals will mate for life, but they may not believe in monogamy. It has been shown in tests that not all chicks are from the same male bird.
While many cardinals stick together, not all will stay with the same mate, as some choose a different mate with each new breeding season.
It’s not known why they may choose not to stick together, but with some birds it may be as a result of a poor breeding season. If the eggs didn’t hatch or the babies did not survive, the male and female birds may blame each other and decide to choose another partner for the next season.
What Happens When A Cardinal Loses their Mate?
Although birds like cardinals do mate for life, to a certain extent, when one of their lives ends, they will seek out a new mate. On average, around 60% of cardinals survive every year, which sadly means around 40% of all cardinals die every year.
Many juvenile birds will not make it adulthood, and of those that do, the average life of the cardinal bird in the wild is 3 years. It can be longer as some have been recorded at 13-15 years old. Even with an average lifespan, a cardinal bird could change their mate 2-3 times.
While many of these deaths do occur during breeding season, they mostly happen during the cold and harsh wintertime. Like most birds, cardinals have to be careful as they have their share of predators. One disadvantage of being a smaller bird, is that they are prey to other larger birds such as owls and eagles and also to snakes and domestic cats.
Cardinals like insects and seeds, so they are often close to the ground looking for food. If they’re not paying attention, even squirrels and chipmunks will kill them.
So, what happens if cardinals lose their mate? Female birds often separate from the flock they associate with if their mate was killed during the last season. Cardinals always join their flocks during the non-breeding seasons.
As these flocks are only temporary groups and have a constantly changing membership, when the surviving cardinal rejoins the flock, they will take the opportunity to assess the qualities of potential mates, so they are ready to find a new mate for the next breeding season.
Once they do, they will go through the mating ritual again and will try to mate for life.
I don’t know about you guys, but the more I learn about birds, the more I realize how much they are like humans.
Yes, many birds have odd behavior and most eat way too many insects to be humans, but a lot of how they handle relationships, grief and moving on is very similar. They take their time to regroup, then look for that special one bird to mate with again and hopefully partner up with for the rest of their life.