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September 20, 2014 / Leslie

Weekend Birding: The Cardinal Family

Several pairs of cardinals regularly visit my feeders and nest in the nearby bushes and shrubs. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the sight of baby cardinals and until now hadn’t seen any. Their spring nests were parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, a species that reproduces by laying eggs in other birds’ nests.

Juvenile Cardinal with Dad

Juvenile Cardinal

Last week my wait was over when I spotted a juvenile cardinal hiding in the shrubs near the sunflower seed feeder. Both parents were at the feeder and were coaxing the youngster out to forage for some seeds.

Here dad is showing junior the seeds on the ground. Notice the youngster has her mouth open; she would prefer dad feed her the seed rather than do it herself.

Juvenile Cardinal

Juvenile Cardinal

The young birds are almost as big as their parents and with only a quick glance can be mistaken for an adult. The easiest way to tell if a cardinal is a juvenile is by beak color. The adults will have bright orange beaks while the young birds have a darker, black beak. It will fade to orange during the molting period as their adult feathers grow in.

Young cardinals have gray and tan coloring and resemble the female until their new feathers grow in. This youngster looks like a female. The males show a tinge of new red feathers on the breast. This bird has new feathers in a soft brown tone.

Female Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

Cardinal parents are very attentive and every time I have seen the youngster, both parents have been with her. They are also very cautious birds and will fly off immediately if they see me. These shots were taken at a distance from up on my deck as I hid behind plants and railings.

If the parents look a little shabby with bald patches and scruffy feathers, it’s because they are molting. After a busy summer of nesting and raising their young, a bird’s feathers get a bit tattered and worn. Cardinals, like most songbirds, grow a new set of feathers each year after the breeding season.

Juvenile Cardinal Feeding Herself

Juvenile Cardinal

Success! A few days ago I finally saw the young bird feeding herself.

Cardinals breed between March and September, so this is a little late in the season for a new baby, but cardinals do not migrate so they will have plenty of time to raise their youngster and teach her how to find food and shelter.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Arti / Sep 20 2014 12:17 pm

    I’ve never seen a Cardinal. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen any red birds here in my neck of the woods. Guess they all belong to the Eastern U.S. and Canada. But I did see a few Monarch butterflies this time I visited Toronto, albeit I was looking for the Cardinal there. 😉


    • Leslie / Sep 20 2014 12:30 pm

      The cardinal’s range is expanding but they haven’t made it that far northwest yet. Mr. Cardinal isn’t looking his best in this photo. In another month he should have his shiny new feathers.


  2. laurelrainsnow / Sep 20 2014 5:28 pm

    I am pretty sure I haven’t seen a Cardinal…and I guess it’s because they don’t feel they should “go west.” Thanks for sharing!


  3. Suko / Sep 20 2014 6:12 pm

    Your Cardinal photos are exquisite! Thank you for sharing “your birds”, Leslie!


  4. BermudaOnion / Sep 20 2014 9:13 pm

    One of my earliest memories is of watching birds with my grandmother. She told me it’s easy to tell the male and female cardinal apart because the female has lipstick on. I love your photos!


  5. Karen B / Sep 21 2014 8:22 am

    I do see a pair of Cardinals flying through my back yard to the neighbor’s feeders but have never seen pictures like yours. They are magnificent! Thank you.


  6. Sheila (Book Journey) / Sep 21 2014 11:30 am

    I love that last picture – success!


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