Where Do Cardinals Go in The Winter?
Do They Migrate?

Haven’t seen a cardinal in a while? Rest assured they haven’t migrated; you can keep the search going!

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Iñigo Navarro

May 30, 2021


Where Do Cardinals Go in The Winter? Do They Migrate? Thumbnail

What Is the Post About?

The cardinal is the leading reason for people becoming active birdwatchers as per research done by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

Your bird-watching experience is not complete until you have witnessed the beauty of cardinals in your backyard. While red can be seen on numerous birds, the cardinal’s magnificence is unmatched.

Cardinals are all-year-round birds. They do not migrate anywhere in winter or any other season. While it may be too cold to go outside, you can stay indoors by a window to watch these richly colored cardinals brighten up the winter sky and your backyards.

a cardinal male bird

Different Types of Cardinals

Abundantly found in America, Cardinals are the striking species that are hard to miss. While everyone is aware of northern cardinals, desert cardinals are also very common especially in the south and southwestern America.

Also known as pyrrhuloxia, the desert cardinals are closely related to the northern cardinals. Both the cardinals have a strong beak and a melodious chirp.

However, while northern cardinals have a complete red body, the desert cardinals have a grey and red color scheme with a larger crest. Their bills are also thicker and parrot-like.

The coloration for both the birds differs with each other and also their respective genders. There is not much difference between the two desert cardinals.

The female northern cardinal however is very different. If you didn’t know how it looked like, you wouldn’t even associate it to the northern cardinal.

a pyrrhuloxia bird

Where Can You Find Cardinals?

The cardinal is a famous bird that has been designated as the state bird of seven different states: Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

Northern cardinals can be easily found throughout North America. They are non-migratory birds that often do not travel as further as a mile from the place they are born in. They have been expanding lately and now are seen as far as New York.

Experts believe that the range of cardinals is expanding due to an increase in bird-friendly landscaping in metropolitan areas, as well as more people installing birdfeeders all year.

It is easier for them to survive outside of the woods if they find good habitat and feed all year. This is especially true in colder areas.

cardinal during winters

Generally, they like grassland environments with thick trees and bushes where they may hide and lay their eggs. Cardinals build their nests in thick foliage and opt for high, visible perches to sing from.

When Can You Find Cardinals?

Cardinals are seen mostly during dawn and dusk hours.

We know that cardinals do not migrate, they can be found all year round. It has been observed that the cardinals are the first bird seen in the morning and last at the night.

The truth is that there is no authentic research conducted to confirm this but bird lovers have noticed a pattern. Some possible explanations are:

  • They feel safer from predators
  • Less crowd and competition
  • Sufficient storage in beaks

One explanation is that they have a striking red body that becomes less visible in the darker hours of the day. It is seen as blacker than red.

This keeps them safe from possible predators that can easily identify them from afar in sunlight hours.

a red cardinal

Some predators are not even active this early so that is also an advantage. Another reason to justify the timings are that there is less competition earlier in low light hours.

The other birds tend to feed early and return to their homes before night. Cardinals often nest close to human habitats. Therefore, they can peacefully feed late without having to defend their post.

Did You Know?

Cardinals are extremely territorial? They might just fight their reflection if they happen to see themselves in a mirror or a window.

The big, powerful beak of the cardinal aids it in feeding rapidly and effectively. This is why they do not need to keep visiting the feeder throughout the day.

They’re even capable of breaking the husks of striped sunflower seeds, which have the biggest and toughest husks.

How Do Cardinals Survive During Winter?

For cardinals to fight the extreme weather, these birds are well-equipped to endure a chilly winter night. Their feathers are incredible insulators, and even exposed places like their feet have a complex network of blood arteries to keep them warm.

The Northern Cardinals are easy to detect and observe as they scavenge and frolic in the cold because of their striking red plumage.

Even the more softly colored females may be seen darting among the trees, with gorgeous red accents in their light brown wings.

a female cardinal songbird

How Do Cardinals Keep Safe During Winter?

Even though cardinals are generally famous for being territorial, they flock together in winter.

Winter makes them vulnerable to the weather and potential predators. The multiple measures they take to protect themselves from both things are:

  1. Flocking together

  2. Residing in high and dense trees

  3. Residing in well-built, and sturdy human structures

  4. Adapt their feed as per the climate

During the mating season, cardinals usually travel in pairs, but in the autumn and winter, they form big flocks of up to several dozen birds, abandoning their territorial habits and taking shelter together.

They live by the rule, ‘safety is in numbers’.

While their red plumage is the most attractive thing about them, it can prove to be quite dangerous for them. It makes them extremely visible and vulnerable to attack.

This why they choose densely covered trees that can keep them secure from potential attacks. It also gives them a snow cover.

Did You Know?

Cardinals sleep on the end of their branches so that the vibration caused by an approaching predator can be felt, giving them time to escape.

They also find refuge by sleeping within or in a barn, garage, or shed. These are difficult for a predator to climb and dangerous to approach. These structures make an ideal shelter from the climate and predators.

Another way cardinals protect themselves is by eating high-energy food during the day. They burn through fat reserves to maintain their body warmth on chilly nights. Because of this high energy expenditure, they seek up fat and protein-rich birdseed.

They may not be able to survive if they are unable to replace their fat reserves daily.

a cardinal on feeder

Things You Can Do to Help

When the cold of winter descends upon your yard, you may begin to be concerned about the birds’ ability to survive. They don’t have access to comforters, or heated fires to keep them warm.

What are you doing to assist the cardinals in your yard through winter? Where do they sleep at night? What steps have you taken to make them feel more at ease and secure?

These are all questions that you need to ask yourself if you are a bird lover or even a bird watcher. Bird watching isn’t mere entertainment.

To be completely involved in the process, you have to play a part and be responsible. Some of the ways you can assist the cardinals in winter are:

  • Provide natural vegetation for shelter
  • Build birdhouses
  • Provide correct feeders
  • Provide correct feed
  • Provide water bath

1. Natural Cover in Winter

You can help the birds by providing space near your home that provides them with shelter. The most ideal way to do this is by planting some trees and bushes around your backyard.

Even with fewer leaves, they serve as a good roosting place for the cardinals in winter.

While bushes may not seem the best for protecting the cardinals against predators, they do provide a great space for them to roost.

Roosting is very important for birds especially during harsh winter nights. You can also place roosting pockets on your trees.

2. Build Birdhouses

If you have a barn or a garage, cardinals may fly into these to seek shelter. They look for structures that can shield them against the cold winds or animals that may try to attack them.

If you don’t have a barn, however, it is very unlikely that you will build one for these winter birds.

In this case, you can install birdhouses in your backyard. Not every bird is comfortable going inside birdhouses but in the severe climate, it may be used as an option. The enclosed birdhouses also keep them safe from predators.

There are different types of birdhouses. Typically, birdhouses are made in a way that draws the cool air inside for hot summer birds.

You may improve birdhouses by adding protective coatings, such as wood chips or scraps of cloth. This will provide the needed insulation.

a cardinal bird house

Some birdhouses, on the other hand, are built to be used in the winter. The front wall of these houses may be detached and turned for winter usage.

It retains extra heat for its winter visitors by placing the entry hole at the bottom of the feeder.

3. Correct Feeders

Cardinals will nest near places that provide them with adequate food supply and a promising shelter.

Just like birdhouses, feeders should also be hung mindful of the weather. Cardinals stick around all year long. The feeders you choose need to be durable.

Useful Tip

Choose a feeder that sits between six and eight feet above ground level, and make sure it's a fixed feeder rather than a dangling one. Cardinals want a stable platform and may avoid perches that move under them.

For obvious reasons having a wide lid on your feeder is ideal. The lid will serve a dual purpose. It will protect the feed from getting ruined whilst giving shelter to the cardinals as well. The snow will ideally get accumulated on the top.

This is why it is also important to have a feeder that is easy to remove. You will have to clear out the accumulated snow and also occasionally clean or refill your feeder. While the birds may have natural insulations in their body, you do not.

Therefore, an easy-to-remove feeder will make the process fast without exposing you to the winter chills for a long time.

Different birds feed in different ways. Northern cardinals specifically like feeding on the tray.

So ensure that the feeder you install does not make the birds climb the feeder and pluck the seeds out.

Understand that like northern cardinals, even squirrels are active all year round. Normally I would recommend a feeder that is enclosed so the feed becomes inaccessible to the predators.

But since the cardinals like feeding out of the tray themselves, choosing a feeder that facilitates both things can be difficult.

Explore Audubon Bird’s Delight Squirrel Resistant Bird Feeder that provides a tray for the bird but closes the access from the weight of an average squirrel.

Audubon Bird’s Delight Squirrel Resistant Bird Feeder

A durable powder coated steel body which with squirrel's weight on perch closes access to seed

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4. Correct feed

Understand that most natural feed that is otherwise accessible to these cardinals gets buried in snow during winter.

They rely on the feed that is offered by North Americans and do not migrate in search of food. This is a great responsibility. You need to be active and aware regarding what feed is most suitable.

As I have mentioned before, they require highly nutritious feed to help them survive the severe weather. Some options for their feed that you can put out for them are:

  • Black-oil Sunflower Seed
  • Safflower Seed
  • Peanuts
  • Nyjer Seed
  • Suet

Did You Know?

Beef fat, nuts, and grains are used to make suet cakes. This high-energy diet is particularly vital in colder climates when a bird's metabolism must work overtime just to stay warm.

Keep Reading!

Now you know that cardinals do not go anywhere in the winter. They do not migrate and are quite adaptive to climate changes.

While they have survival instincts, there is a role you can play to help them stay around your yard in winter.

Make sure your property has enough shelter and nesting locations, as well as food supplies, to deter them from leaving. Choose the right kind and size of feeders.

Cardinals may appear flamboyant, but when it comes to refuge and breeding, they prefer quiet, secluded settings.

How to Choose the Right Kind of Bird Feeder: Types, Location, Size, etc.

Are you here searching for a suitable bird feeder for your garden? Well, you're at the right place because here we will discuss various bird feeders.

Iñigo Navarro Picture

By Iñigo Navarro

Bird Watching USA

My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

Posted in:

Iñigo Navarro Picture

Iñigo Navarro

Bird Watching USA

My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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