Northern Cardinals

northern cardinal © Johanna Wray
northern cardinal © Johanna Wray

Northern cardinals bring splashes of vivid color to the grays and browns of a winter garden. Cardinals are year-round residents in Massachusetts, and they use their bright, powerful beaks to crack open stubborn seeds and to slice open sugary fruits to help them survive the coldest months of the year. Come spring, their cheerful caroling can be heard in almost every neighborhood and farm.


The male northern cardinal is unmistakable, thanks to his rose-red plumage, pointed crest, and black mask. The female cardinal has a more subdued fashion sense, preferring pale tan and brown with a few rosy accents on the crest, wing, and tail. Both sexes have the same heavy, bright orange bill.


Cardinals often retain the same mate from one season to another, with males and females remaining together during the winter months. Despite this pair bonding, though, cardinals are not terribly social birds and rarely form flocks, even during the winter when many other birds do. Rather than walking, cardinals hop, whether on the ground or from branch to branch, and they eat a mixture of insects, plant buds, seeds, and fruits. Fruit and seeds predominate during fall and winter.


Once a rare bird in any season in New England, the increasing popularity of backyard bird feeders and the rise of suburbia have allowed cardinals to become common year-round in Massachusetts over the past fifty years. They are stable or increasing in all seasons. Learn more in the Breeding Bird Atlas 2