The answer to the question of whether cardinals mate for life isn’t just a simple yes or no.
For cardinals and other “mostly monogamous” birds, the reason to stay together is always to raise more and healthier chicks.
A female cardinal chooses a male that will defend her and their nest. She does not end her partnership with her mate just because the male fathers chicks with other birds.
Cardinals Do Not Mate for Life
All cardinals are capable of romantic shenanigans.
In a genetic study of Northern cardinals in Kentucky, for example, an average of 13.3 percent of chicks in each nest had a different male parent than the rest of their nestmates.
Male Northern cardinals are especially likely to try to mate with multiple females.
Female cardinals may abandon their partner at the end of one breeding season, but seek that mate back a couple of years later.
Females are not, however, likely to abandon their mates while they are raising their two broods of young cardinals every summer.
Scientists at Pennsylvania State University tell us that cardinals usually live to about the age of three years in the wild.
Since cardinals don’t mate and raise young the first summer after they are hatched, this means that each mating pair may have only one season to try to raise a new generation of birds in their brief average lifespan.
The cardinal’s mating habits, from courtship through mating through raising chicks and finding each other the next spring, are all about achieving reproductive success, however it can.
Also read: 12 Easy Ways to Attract Cardinals (Species Specific Tips)
How Cardinals Choose Their Mates
Cardinals often spend the winter in large flocks. If a flock of cardinals can find a reliable source of food, they will roost together at night for safety.
The idea is that if a lot of cardinals spend most of their time together, a smaller percentage will be killed by predators.
When the weather warms up in spring, however, cardinals leave the flock to seek mates.
Males search for a breeding ground. Sometimes they fly for hundreds of miles looking for an ideal nesting site with abundant berries and insects, good cover, and minimal competition.
If a male has never mated before, he will sing and dance to attract a mate.
Both male and female cardinals, unlike other songbirds, sing to attract a mate at the beginning of spring.
They can tell the difference between a male’s song and a female’s song.
Males react to other males singing with aggression.
But they will react to a singing female by flying to her location on the ground to court her with a mating dance.
The male touches down behind the female and walks around her in a semicircle, displaying his tail feathers.
Then he approaches her face first, and flutters his wings, opening them just enough to show the white feathers on their underside.
He hops around the female to give her another look. If she is not suitably impressed, she flies away.
If she stays on the ground, he continues courtship by feeding her beak to beak. At this point, the pair may decide to mate, and start scouting a good site for building a nest.
Also read: What Does It Mean When You See a Cardinal?
Female Cardinals Can Be Picky About Their First Mates
A female that has never mated before will watch the mating dances of several males before choosing a mate.
All other things being equal, the female will choose the male with the reddest feathers.
The reason for this, according to scientists at Pennsylvania State University, is what the brightness of the red feathers tells the female about the male’s success in finding a place to feed.
A male cardinal’s body cannot make the pigments that turn its feathers red.
It has to get these carotenoid pigments from colorful plant foods and insects.
A bright red male cardinal is well fed, giving the female that she and her brood will be well fed, too.
Ornithologists have confirmed that males with redder feathers deliver more food to the nest after the eggs hatch, clean the nest better, and have more offspring to survive to maturity.
The scientists also found that females mated with the brightest-colored males spent more time feeding their babies.
In general, the brighter the male, the better the nesting site, and the greater the chance of success. The female will choose her mate after just….
Cardinals Follow a Predictable Pattern After the Female Chooses Her Mate
Once two cardinals have paired off, there is a predictable sequence of events.
• Cardinals choose a nesting site in the fork of a suitable tree. They may find these trees in open woodland, in parks where the caretakers do not spray pesticides, and in orchards and gardens. When a suitable tree is not available, the female may opt for a tangle of vines or a prickly shrub. The female always chooses a nesting site in the territory the male has been defending. If she chooses a site on the edge of the male’s territory, there is a relatively high probability she will also mate with another male.
• The female does most of the work of building an open, shaped nest. The male will scavenge twigs, leaves, grasses, grapevines, loose bark, stems, rootlets, and pine needles. The female chops these materials to the right size with her powerful beak, doing all the actual work of building the nest herself.
• Once the nest is ready, the pair has sex—a lot.
• The female lays two to five eggs. She will spend 11 days incubating them. During this time, the male feeds her, once again, beak to beak, and the pair communicate by singing the same song to each other. Cardinals have a repertoire of about 12 songs they can sing to distinguish each other.
• The eggs hatch. The female broods the featherless hatchlings to keep them warm. The male feeds her at or near the nest.
• Both parents feed their baby birds. Nestling, hatchling
• The hatchlings become fledglings. The male continues to feed the fledglings while the female leaves the nest, feeds heavily, and gets ready to lay a second clutch of eggs.
• The female finds a second nesting site. The male continues to feed the young cardinals.
• The couple copulates again, a lot, and the female lays a second brood of eggs in the second nest. Raising the second brood takes the rest of the summer.
When the second brood is ready to go off on its own, both parents find a safe place to molt and grow winter feathers.
They spend less and less time together and more and more time with the flock.
They repeat the process the next spring, more often than not.
Three Likely Scenarios for a Mating Pair of Cardinals
At the end of the first breeding season, there are three possibilities for the relationship.
The female chooses the same male
If the summer breeding season was successful, the cardinals won’t spend a lot of time trying to find something better.
The male will stake out and defend the same territory, and the female will return to him to mate again.
If the area around the nest is undisturbed, the pair will keep coming back as long as both of them are alive. They will be (mostly) monogamous.
The female chooses a different male the next year
If the breeding season was not successful, the female might look for a different mate the next year.
She will reject her prior mate’s mating dance and couple with a different bird in a different location. This involves building a new nest.
The female partners with the same male but also copulates with other males
In some situations, the male is a good provider, but not the best sperm donor.
University of Kentucky scientists writing a journal article entitled Mate Guarding and Extra-Pair Paternity in Northern Cardinals, report that some females, especially Northern cardinal females, will mate with a second or third male to ensure fertility of their eggs.
What Happens If One Partner Dies?
Cardinals have a very short life expectancy in the wild. Very few cardinals will live four years to raise a fifth and sixth brood of young.
When one cardinal dies, or simply does not show up the next spring, the surviving bird does not waste any time finding a new mate.
Many cardinals become prey to domestic cats. Nothing you do for cardinals is more important than protecting them from both domestic and feral cats.
Frequently Asked Questions About Mating Cardinals
Q. How long does courtship last between two mating cardinals?
A. Cardinals don’t mate until their nest is nearly finished. That can take between eight and nine days.
Q. How long do baby cardinals stay in the nest?
Cardinals grow fast and usually leave nests within 10 to 12 days.
The baby is born in less than three weeks from the time the cardinal laid her egg.
Q. How many times a year do cardinals lay eggs?
Cardinals usually have two broods every season, but sometimes as many as 3 per team a season.
The female will lay 2-4 eggs every day, laying them in about 11-13 weeks.
Q. Do cardinals stay together as a family?
Northern Cardinals leave their nests a few days before their eggs hatch.
The birds are not going far, though, and stay at the nearby nest for another two or three months. Their mother feeds the children.
Q. How many times a year do cardinals mate and lay eggs?
A. Cardinals usually have two broods every mating season, but sometimes as many as 3 per team a season.
The female will lay 2-4 eggs every day, laying them in about 11-13 weeks.
In areas with mild winters, like California, South Texas, and Florida, cardinals may raise four broods of chicks every year, breeding every North of the year.
Other articles you may also like: