How Long Does It Take Northern Cardinals to Raise a Family?

Like many people in southern Ontario, we are lucky to host a pair of Northern Cardinals in our yard. I’ve often seen the parents busily feeding fledglings that will perch on our fence and call for treats. I haven’t hunted for the nesting site, though. In the spring of 2016, I accidentally found a pair of Cardinals nesting very low in a shrub at Lakeside Park in Mississauga. As I visited over several weeks watching the arrival of the warblers of spring I kept an eye on the parents, nest and eventually the fledglings. I was wondering how long it would take these Northern Cardinals to raise their family.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Fledgling Begging Male May 15 On NaturalCrooksDotCom
May 15

How to Find a Cardinal’s Nest

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mama Nesting Material April 18 on NaturalCrooksDotCom
On April 18, the Cardinals were building their nest.

One of the easiest ways to find a bird’s nest is to follow the parents. Although they will try to wait till you are distracted, eventually you will see them coming and going from one location more than any other. When the pair I watched were feeding their young in the nest, they would take quite a random approach to their chicks. They would land several times in trees and bushes near the nest before finally swooping quickly in and out.

Incubation Time

Photo of Northern Cardinal Female on NestLakesideMay72016

On May 7 when I visited the park, the female Cardinal was incubating either eggs or chicks. There was no feeding activity so I suspect they were eggs. (Of course I stayed well back to avoid disturbing her.)

I did, however, approach a bit closer briefly when a Common Grackle began making menacing moves towards the nest despite the defensive behaviour of both the male and female Cardinals. The Grackle was more wary of me than of them and left.

Later that day, I saw the parents successfully drive away another Grackle.

Voracious Cardinal Chicks

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mrs Feeding Left Chick May 10 OnNaturalCrooksDotCom

By May 10, the chicks were being fed. The parents were arriving steadily every few minutes with more food.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mrs Feeding Right Chick May 10 On NaturalCrooksDotCom

Both chicks got fed each time I watched.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mrs Feeding Left Chick Again May 10 On NaturalCrooksDotCom

The mother fed them three times for each time the father fed them. But I noticed him giving her food once, so he may have been gathering insects for her to provide to the chicks.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male Feeding May 10 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

He did feed both chicks as well.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male a Chick May 10 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male 2 Chicks May 10 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Both birds would look around before leaving the nest.

The mother fed both chicks again just minutes later.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mrs Warming May 10 onNaturalCrooksDotCom

After having fed them yet again, she stayed to warm the chicks for a while.

I

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mrs Incubating May 10 onNaturalCrooksDotCom

I left her and the family in peace and moved on to search for more warblers.

Do Both Cardinals Feed Their Chicks?

On May 11, I watched briefly. Both parents arrived to feed the chicks.

Photo of Cardinal Pair Feeding Young Together May 11 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Photo of Male Cardinal Chick May 11 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

On May 12, the feeding frenzy continued. Pity the parents!

Photo of Northern Cardinal Papa May 12 On NaturalCrooksDotCom

The Cardinals didn’t seem to mind me as I stayed far back but they certainly knew I was there.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male Giving to Female May 12 OnNaturalCrooksDotCom

I watched the male arrive and give food to the female.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Pair Feeding May 12 On NaturalCrooksDotCom

He then fed some more food to a chick. She fed the other chick.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mother on Nest May 12 OnNaturalCrooksDotCom

Eventually, the mother settled in to warm up the chicks again.

Did They Lose Their Nestlings?

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mrs Bathing May 13 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

May 13 was a worrying day. I saw the mother Cardinal taking a bath in the drainage creek. I didn’t see, though, either bird visiting the nest. I worried that a predator had snatched the young.

I thought about checking the nest but I didn’t want to risk ruining anything if the chicks were in there and fine. So I went away uneasy.

Could These Be the Same Chicks?

Photo of Northern Cardinal Fledgling May 15 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

To my amazement, on May 15, I found the parents feeding a fledgling! I’m pretty sure there were two fledglings, actually. One was out on a bare branch and obvious. The other, if it was a youngster, was deep in a twiggy thicket. It was a bit difficult to know for sure because it’s possible the male was bringing food to the female, not a fledgling, in the thicket: you could see the male was feeding a brown bird but not enough detail to know that bird’s age.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Fledgling Sees Parent May 15 on NaturalCrooksDotCom
Long before I saw a parent, the chick saw one and made it’s opinion known!

At first when I saw the size of the fledgling, I thought that they must have raised a Cowbird chick. Cowbird chicks grow monstrously quickly compared to many chicks. But as soon as I saw the chick in profile, I could see it had the beak and crest and overall look of a Cardinal.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male Feeding Fledgling May 15 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

I still don’t know if this chick is from the same nest, though. The location is very, very close to the actual nest. But the size of the chick is surprising. How fast do they grow?

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male Feeding Fledgling Too May 15 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Photo of Northern Cardinal Male Finished Feeding May 15 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

The chick was still willing to keep eating even after the food was gone.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mama Fledgling May 15 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

It’s mother arrived shortly with another meal.

How Long Does It Take Northern Cardinals to Raise a Family?

Photo of Northern Cardinal Fledgling Waiting May 26 on NaturalCrooksDotCom

On May 26, this fledgling was very close to the nest. Since that is 11 days later, I think there were 2 fledglings but I’m not sure.

Photo of Northern Cardinal Mama with Food May 26 on NaturalCrooksDotComAlthough Cardinals will eat seeds from feeders they eat lots of insects and invertebrates. I think this is a snail but I don’t really want to know.

By my observations, this family had a nest no later than April 18 and had fledglings by May 15.

According to the Cornell University website, AllAboutBirds, Northern Cardinals usually incubate for 11-13 days and nest for 7-13 days. That would mean it could take 18 days from the start of incubation to fledging. So it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that I did see these same two parents feeding their fledged chick.

I think I watched one pair of parents raise two chicks to the fledgling stage. I’ll never be quite certain but I certainly enjoyed the glimpses of family life they shared with me. Warbler season was over, though, so I left the Cardinals alone after the 26th. I hope their chicks grew up to full-sized adults.

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