Cardinals are a familiar and beloved backyard bird found across much of North America. With their bright red plumage and distinctive songs, cardinals add a pop of color and vitality to gardens and parks. One of the most charming aspects of cardinals is watching parents care for their young. So when can we expect to see baby cardinals arrive each year?
The Cardinal Nesting Season
Cardinals are prolific breeders, capable of raising multiple broods over the course of a breeding season that corresponds with the warm spring and summer months. The exact timing of nesting activities varies across their range, beginning earlier in southern areas and later in more northern climes. However, some general trends emerge:
- Courtship and pair formation begins in late winter or early spring.
- Nest building typically commences in March or April.
- Egg laying normally takes place between late April and early August, depending on latitude.
- Incubation lasts about 12-13 days from when the last egg is laid.
- Nestlings fledge 10-11 days after hatching.
- Parents may go on to raise 2-3 broods per season.
From this timeline, we can expect the first baby cardinals to hatch out in May or June. The peak months for observing recently fledged young across most of the cardinal’s range are June and July. Later nests may result in juveniles appearing as late as August or even September before breeding activities wind down for the year. Knowing when cardinals begin building nests and laying eggs helps narrow down when to watch for those beloved fuzzy-headed chicks!
Cardinal Nest Locations
To find baby cardinals, it helps to know where adult pairs build their nests. Cardinals most commonly nest in thickets and dense shrubbery that provide shelter, such as:
- Small trees or saplings
- Shrubs like lilac, honeysuckle, rose, or hydrangea
- Vines such as Virginia creeper
- Briar thickets
Nests are compact, cup-shaped structures approximately 3 inches across, constructed from small twigs, grasses, leaves, and other vegetation. The inner cup where eggs are laid is lined with softer materials like fine grasses or animal hair. Pairs may nest up to 15 feet off the ground, but often much lower down. Even backyard birders may spot nests in shrubs right outside their windows!
Identifying Cardinal Nests
When monitoring likely nesting areas, look for these clues that cardinals may be settling in:
- Adults gathering nesting material and flying to a particular site.
- A female popping up and down from a concealed spot as she shapes the nest interior.
- Territorial behavior like males chasing off intruders.
Once birds start incubating eggs, a nest will show these signs of activity:
- Eggshell fragments scattered on the ground below the nest.
- Adults making frequent trips to and from the nest.
- Rotating incubation duties, with the female most often on the nest.
When Do Baby Cardinals Leave the Nest?
Baby cardinals grow rapidly under the devoted care of their parents. Cardinals are altricial birds, meaning chicks hatch featherless and helpless. Their eyes open by about day 3. Parents keep the nestlings warm and well-fed, supplying a diet of insects, seeds, and fruit.
Within 8-11 days, juvenile cardinals achieve most of their adult size. Their wings and tail feathers grow in quickly first, followed by body plumage. By days 9-12, young are ready to take their first flights. This fledging stage is risky, as chicks are still clumsy flyers. They remain dependent on their parents for an additional 2-3 weeks as they learn to fly skillfully and forage on their own.
You’re most likely to observe recently fledged birds in June and July. Listen for loud begging calls of clustered juveniles as parents keep busy finding food. Young cardinals may return to their nests to roost for a few days after fledging as well.
Signs of Fledglings
Here are some tips for identifying young cardinals once they leave the nest:
- Disheveled appearance with fuzzy downy feathers, especially on the head.
- Shorter tails and underdeveloped crests compared to adults.
- Drabber overall color in both males and females.
- Clumsy flight with much fluttering and weak landing skills.
- Constantly begging parents for food.
- Hiding under cover close to the nest.
Distinguishing Males, Females, and Juveniles
It can take practice to differentiate male, female, and young cardinals. This table summarizes some key ways to tell them apart:
|Character||Adult Male||Adult Female||Juvenile|
|Size||Larger||Smaller||Smaller than male|
|Plumage||Bright red||Pale brown overall with some red on wings and tail||Duller brownish-red, may show some crest development|
|Mask||Black||Reddish-brown||Initially dusky gray|
|Beak||Reddish-orange||Pale orange to tan||Pinkish changing to orange|
|Song||“What-cheer!” and variations||Soft chips and high whistles||Loud begging calls|
Cardinal Nesting Facts
- Pairs mate for life and often reuse the same nesting territory year after year.
- The female builds the nest over 3-9 days while the male guards the territory.
- Clutch size averages 3-4 eggs but may contain up to 5.
- Eggs are pale white or greenish-white marked with brown or purple blotches.
- Only the female incubates the eggs while the male brings food.
- Both parents feed the nestlings regurgitated insects and seeds.
- Males may feed fledglings while the female starts a new nest.
- Cardinals are victims of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds.
- Up to 40% of nests may fail due to predation, weather, or abandonment.
The active breeding season gives birdwatchers plenty of opportunities to observe baby cardinals in the making. Understanding their typical nesting timeline helps pinpoint the best chances to spot fuzzy nestlings or newly fledged juveniles. With a little patience, you may be rewarded with a front-row view of cardinal parents dutifully feeding their demanding brood. The squeaky chirps of young cardinals are sure signs that spring has sprung and summer won’t be far behind!