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.
How to Find a Cardinal’s 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.
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
By May 10, the chicks were being fed. The parents were arriving steadily every few minutes with more food.
Both chicks got fed each time I watched.
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.
He did feed both chicks as well.
Both birds would look around before leaving the nest.
The mother fed both chicks again just minutes later.
After having fed them yet again, she stayed to warm the chicks for a while.
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.
On May 12, the feeding frenzy continued. Pity the parents!
The Cardinals didn’t seem to mind me as I stayed far back but they certainly knew I was there.
I watched the male arrive and give food to the female.
He then fed some more food to a chick. She fed the other chick.
Eventually, the mother settled in to warm up the chicks again.
Did They Lose Their Nestlings?
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?
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.
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.
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?
The chick was still willing to keep eating even after the food was gone.
It’s mother arrived shortly with another meal.
How Long Does It Take Northern Cardinals to Raise a Family?
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.
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.
Have you watched Cardinals raising their families? Please share your experiences with a comment.