Where Do Cardinals Go in the Winter?

© iStock.com/EEI_Tony

Written by Gail Baker Nelson

Published: December 12, 2022

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This songbird’s sweet sounds might be the first thing many people hear on a summer morning. Catching a glimpse of the unmistakable bright red plumage means that you might have a northern cardinal nearby.

These birds go by a few names, including cardinal-buntings, cardinal-grossbeaks, or redbirds. Northern cardinals are the state bird of seven states in the United States, and a baseball team is named after them.

What Is a Cardinal?

Red Animals - Northern Cardinal

Northern cardinals are territorial, and both sexes aggressively defend their territory.


Cardinals are passerine birds – which is any bird in the Passeriformes order. Passerines make up more than half the bird species worldwide, and people sometimes refer to them as perching birds. This is because their toe arrangement, with three pointing forward and one back, makes perching easier.

Within the Cardinalis genus, there are three cardinal species – the desert cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus), the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), and the vermilion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus). Of the three, the northern cardinal is the most familiar to residents of North America. This bird’s range has gradually expanded over the years, and it’s common throughout most of the eastern United States, parts of Mexico, and as far south as northern Belize and northern Guatemala.

Cardinals are song birds that learn the songs they sing – they aren’t born knowing their songs. So, there are regional differences in the sounds northern cardinals make. Unlike other songbirds, the female also sings as she communicates with her mate. According to scientists, about 75% of the cardinals will stay with the same mate until one of them dies.

Male cardinals are bright red with a tall crest on their heads and black face masks, and females are mostly brown or greenish brown with reddish highlights. Both sexes have cone-shaped orange-red bills. Males grow a little larger than the females and measure up to nine and a quarter inches, while the females are about an inch shorter.

Where You Can See a Cardinal

Human expansion has been good for this species. They are opportunistic and take advantage of the hedges people grow around their homes and the bird feeders they load with nuts and seeds. Ironically, even as their population expands, it’s their love thickets, brambles, and dense cover that keep them out of sight much of the time.

That said, if you live within their range, you have a great chance to see at least a few northern cardinals. Almost any bird feeder loaded with seeds and nuts will attract the birds. This species seems particularly fond of sunflower seeds.

Northern cardinals are territorial, and both sexes aggressively defend their territory. They’re obsessed with protecting their territory from anything and anyone. During the spring, male cardinals sometimes battle their own reflection in windows and try to drive off everything that gets too close. Usually, the aggressive behavior tapers off after a few weeks as the hormones responsible for the behavior diminish. However, one female kept attacking anything that entered her territory for six months without a break.

These birds typically raise two broods per year between March and July. The babies begin to leave the nest one to two weeks after hatching, and are fully independent by the time they’re two months old. After the parents drive them out of their territory, juveniles often flock together and mate the following year.

Do Cardinals Migrate?

cardinal lifespan

Cardinals are known for flying into glass windows and sliding doors.


Many birds migrate in the spring and fall to their ”other homes,” but what about cardinals? What do these birds do when winter’s chill cuts through the thickest coats?

One or two older sources say that northern cardinals are migratory, but most agree that they do not migrate. These birds stay put and make the best of winter. According to The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds, although this species does not migrate, it may move to a new area if food is scarce.

If they don’t migrate, why do we see more cardinals in the winter? There are a couple of reasons for this, and it’s partly their behavior and partly perception. In the spring, we see lots of cardinals jousting with one another and their own reflection. Then their hormones taper off, and they get busy raising families. In the fall, once all the babies have fledged, the birds are again free to roam as they please. In addition to their seasonal behavioral changes, the males’ bright red is a welcome pop of color against winter’s drab colors – making them incredibly easy to spot.

How Cardinals Survive Harsh Winters

Northern cardinals are year-round residents of wherever they make their home. These aren’t ”fair-weather friends” and don’t skip town when the weather takes a turn for the worse – so how do they survive? A northern cardinal has several tools in its survival arsenal. Depending on how cold it gets, a northern cardinal may use one or all of them.

Flocking Together

That old saying, ”Birds of a feather flock together,” is more than just an idiom. It’s a fact that many species flock together for various reasons. Even though northern cardinals are obsessively territorial during the breeding season, they roost together during the winter. Huddling together to share body heat, these birds often pass the winters in great condition.

Fluffing its Feathers

The lower the temperature dips, the more that northern cardinals must do to keep warm. As the weather gets colder, they begin to fluff up their down and feathers. They may look a little funny, but it gets the job done. Fluffing their feathers functions in the same way as an extra layer of clothing does for people by creating an extra layer of warm air against their skin.


Just like other animals, shivering generates warmth but expends energy. Yet, when necessary, northern cardinals shiver to create enough warmth to survive. However, it means that they need to find a way to eat more. This is where those bird seed feeders that people place in their yards come in handy: the give birds like northern cardinals a chance to load up on a few extra calories when they need it most.

Dropping the Core Body Temperature

When all else fails, and it’s just too cold, northern cardinals have one more trick up their sleeves. They can sustain a core body temperature drop of 3º to 6ºF. It’s a behavior that only happens on the coldest of nights, but hey – wouldn’t adjusting your body temperature be a nice trick? It takes less energy to maintain, so the shivering, flocking, and feather fluffing all do a better job.

How You Can Help

cardinal perched on a bird feeder

Cardinals prefer seeds that are high in fat and protein.


While many people wouldn’t want to help a brumating rattlesnake, they often like helping out pretty songbirds like northern cardinals. Unlike other birds, northern cardinals don’t typically use birdhouses, and much prefer ”roughing it” over those civilized human inventions. However, they sometimes take shelter under patios and the eaves of houses. The easiest and likely the most effective way to help a wintering songbird is to leave birdseed out for them during the winter. This species happily eats most commercial bird seeds but really loves those sunflower seeds.

Birds aren’t picky about what type of bird feeder you provide, and there are a few beautiful feeders available for you to purchase online. However, some people prefer making their bird feeders. If you’d like to make one, there are dozens of DIY bird feeder plans on the internet.

Regardless of which route you choose, the birds will probably be happy – northern cardinals usually forage on the ground where seeds fall.

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About the Author

Gail Baker Nelson is a writer at A-Z Animals where she focuses on reptiles and dogs. Gail has been writing for over a decade and uses her experience training her dogs and keeping toads, lizards, and snakes in her work. A resident of Texas, Gail loves working with her three dogs and caring for her cat, and pet ball python.

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