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Divorce Rates & Possible Cheating: Do Cardinals Mate For Life?

Du cardinals mate for life?

Cardinals are such gorgeous backyard birds! Their red colors lend a touch of cheer to the yard, especially on dreary winter days.

Even better, if your backyard has shrubbery, Northern Cardinals might nest in it. It’s hard to tell cardinals apart, but when they nest in the backyard year after year, I can’t help but wonder if I’m watching the same pair of birds.

Do cardinals mate for life? How strong of a bond do cardinal pairs form?


The Bonds Between Cardinals

It’s often said that cardinals mate for life. However, the reality of the situation is a bit more complicated. While Northern Cardinals do form long-term pair bonds, they can also get a divorce!

It is widely believed that 20% of Northern Cardinals pairs break up. This usually happens usually when is nest is unsuccessful. However, once in a while, cardinals also break up for unknown reasons.

Cardinal pairs can also “cheat” on their mates! It’s not that common, but according to an old study, biologists found that 13% of baby cardinals have fathers who are not their mother’s primary mate.

To prevent such cheating, male Northern Cardinals are very protective of their mates and will drive off and fight other male cardinals in their territory. However, despite these facts, Northern Cardinals do typically form long term pair bonds.

Northern Cardinals have strong binds and usually mate for life

Once a female chooses a male, in most cases, she stays with that same mate for the rest of her life. The two birds may defend the same territory all year long, or, they might flock with other cardinals in the winter and then nest together again in spring and summer.

Northern Cardinals might get divorces and be eager to find new mates because most don’t live longer than a few years.


How do cardinals find their mates?

Northern Cardinals find their mates the same way many other songbirds do. First and foremost, males have to look and sound impressive enough for a female to pick them.

To make this happen, in spring, male Northern Cardinals sing from a prominent perch over and over. At this time of year, they have fresh, bright plumage and louder voices than other months.

Although we aren’t exactly sure what female cardinals look for in a mate, they probably prefer males with bright and healthy plumage and a loud voice. Since the females are searching for a mate who can help them raise healthy offspring, a strong and healthy male is a basic requisite.

If a male is lucky enough to attract an interested female cardinal, the birds continue with courtship displays. These include male birds twisting and rotating their bodies while showing their chest, holding their crest down, and spreading their wings. They can also sing while giving a similar display.

Related: Bird names that start with N

Their fanciest display is when male cardinals fly into the air, raise their crest, and sing as they slowly descend toward the female!

To strengthen their pair bond, female cardinals also give simple displays where they hold their wings partially open.


Do Males Stay With The Family?

Female Northern Cardinals carry out a lot of the nesting duties but male Northern Cardinals definitely help too. The female builds the nest but her mate often helps her choose the place to build it.

During the 11 to 13 day incubation period, female cardinals incubate and take care of the eggs. However, her mate brings her food throughout the day, maybe a couple of times per hour. When bringing food, the birds communicate by singing.

Cardinals stay together for long periods

Thankfully, male cardinals do stay with their mates and even help them care for the young ones.

The female usually sings a quiet song or a just a few notes, and the male responds. He might feed her as she sits on the eggs, or bring her food away from their nest. Either way, the pair probably work together to try and avoid predators as much as possible.

If a predator like a crow or raccoon sees the nest, they’ll eventually get to the eggs and might even kill the adults too!

Related: How to attract cardinals to your garden?

When the eggs hatch, the father cardinal continues to bring food to his mate as well as the babies. For the first two days, she and the baby birds are entirely dependent on him.

By the third day, both parents bring food and keep feeding nestlings for 25 to 50 days after they leave the nest.


Relations Between Cardinals: Some Fun Facts

  • Northern Cardinals build cup nests made of twigs and grass, and lined with leaves, grass, fur, or hair.
  • Cardinals can raise one to three broods of young each nesting season.
  • Male cardinals are very territorial during the breeding season but can join flocks of other cardinals in the winter months.
  • Northern Cardinals have a wide variety of songs and more than 20 different types have been recognized. The best known cardinal songs are ones that sounds like, “What cheer! What cheer!” and “chew chew chew chew chew”.
  • To help their babies grow, male and female Northern Cardinals can feed them eight times per hour!
  • If a cardinal loses its mate, the bird quickly finds a new one. The new mate is often another cardinal that has lost a mate or one that couldn’t find a mate at the start of the breeding season.
  • Cardinal families can stay together for two months. After this time, young cardinals strike out on their own.
  • Male Northern Cardinals feed their female counterparts during courtship. When feeding them, it can look like the birds are kissing!


Frequently Asked Questions

Are cardinals lifelong partners?

Yes, cardinals are usually lifelong partners. However, they do have a 20% divorce rate.

Why do male cardinals feed females?

Male cardinals feed females to show that they are good at finding food, and to form a strong pair bond.

Do cardinals love each other?

It’s hard to say if cardinals actually love each other. However, they certainly form strong pair bonds where they show affection and devotion to each other.

Do cardinals mourn the loss of a mate?

Cardinals don’t usually mourn the loss of a mate. Since they might only live for a few years, cardinals can’t afford to waste any time in finding a new mate.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert


Friday 29th of March 2024

How can I keep the crows away. They perch on the high branches of trees in neighboring yards. They seem to be scaring the birds which normally feed from my bird feeders (especially in the morning hours).

Patrick O'Donnell

Friday 29th of March 2024

@Diane- Unfortunately, there might not be a whole lot that you can do. However, if the crows realize they aren't welcome, they'll leave. One idea is making loud noises to scare the crows away again and again until they don't come back. In the meantime, that will scare other birds away too but once the crows leave, the other smaller birds should return.

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