Northern cardinals don’t migrate and don’t molt into a dull plumage, so you’ll see the arresting birds in winter’s snowy backyards. They’ve have come to symbolize winter bird feeding.
The birds are one of the common year-round feeder visitors in the Twin Cities area and throughout much of southern Minnesota. The bright red males with black faces are unmistakable. The greenish-red females, which have the same conical beak and crest, are beautiful. The distinctive crest can be raised and pointed when agitated or lowered and barely visible while resting. Both male and female are typically 8-inches long and have a 12-inch wingspan.
Cardinals are usually the earliest birds at our feeding station in the morning and the last to leave at dusk. They never tire of sunflower seeds but like cracked corn and other seeds, too. They prefer to feed on the ground or on a tray feeder.
The current range of the northern cardinal includes all of the eastern United States, west into the Central Plains, and extreme southern Canada. This is an expanded distribution from a century ago, as landscape changes have provided more habitat.
Northern cardinals are relatively new to Minnesota. They first arrived in the southeast in the late 1800s. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that they established permanent residency in the metro area. In recent years, observers have seen a few cardinals in the Brainerd and Lake Mille Lacs areas, along the North Shore, and at other northern Minnesota locations.
Jim Gilbert worked as a naturalist for 50 years.