Are Cardinals Winter Birds? (Let’s Find Out)

Winter birds do not need to migrate because they have adapted to live in cold climates. Instead, they stay in one area throughout the entire year.

Are cardinals winter birds?

Cardinals are winter birds that survive cold climates due to several key adaptive strategies. They have the ability to puff up their feathers to create an insulating layer of air that keeps them warm, and they nest in evergreen trees and shrubs, which are available during the winter. 

What Are Winter Birds?

Winter birds are those species that can survive freezing temperatures and do not fly south for the winter.

They have a number of adaptive qualities that allow them to stay warm in the cold, including a layer of fat and feathers that they can fluff up for extra insulation. 

Winter birds also survive by finding insulated places to roost, like tree cavities, shrubs, birdhouses, or evergreen trees.

In the wintertime, it’s not uncommon to find many birds tucking together into the same spot for extra warmth. In fact, there’s a story of a photographer who snapped a photo of 13 bluebirds sharing one birdhouse during the wintertime. 

In the wintertime, it’s challenging for birds to find flowers, insects, and plants to eat, but they can survive by eating high-fat seeds and nuts, as well as some fruits.

They can also survive by eating tree sap and carrion, as well as by grazing on suet and peanut butter. Bird feeders help winter birds stay fed throughout the winter but are not necessary to their survival. 

Common Winter Birds

While many birds migrate to wait out the winter, many survive all four seasons without relocating.

Each of these birds has survival mechanisms that allow them to live through the cold, along with a diet and habitat supported by winter ecosystems:

  • Northern Cardinal
  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • American Robin
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Snow Bunting
  • Mountain Chickadee
  • California Quail
  • Pine Siskin
  • House Sparrow
  • Red & White-winged Crossbills
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Lapland Longspur
  • Ross’s & Snow Geese
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Snowy Owl
  • Rosy-Finches
  • Hoary & Common Redpolls

Bird species have different coping strategies for surviving the cold.

For example, some ducks and geese have a heat exchange system in their legs, meaning that warm blood flows from the core towards their cold feet, and the blood returning to the core is heated up in the process. 

Small birds like chickadees and wrens tend to crowd together in tree cavities or birdhouses for warmth, especially at night. 

Chickadees and finches tend to rely on extra weight to keep them warm during the winter.

In fact, these birds often spend most of their winter days seeking out fatty food sources, and fat makes up at least 10% of their body weight. 

However, chickadees and others cannot put on too much weight, or they’ll be unable to fly fast enough.

So, they’ve developed a way to shiver by contracting alternating muscle groups, which produces heat.

Their shivering is even more effective than ours, in fact, due to the nature of their muscle contractions. 

How Cardinals Survive the Winter

Cardinals are winter birds because they have adapted their bodies to be able to live in cold temperatures and because they can live on the food available during the winter months.

They also do well as winter birds because their sources of shelter are available year-round.

Why Don’t Cardinals Fly South for the Winter?

Cardinals do not typically fly south for the winter because their food and nesting space is available in winter.

They prefer to roost in evergreens like pines and spruces, as well as hawthorn, blueberry, clematis, or grapevine thickets. And, they are not picky eaters.

Cardinals will eat a wide range of fruits and insects, along with many kinds of seeds.

Occasionally, cardinals will migrate, but only when food and shelter become especially hard to find.

When cardinal habitat is cultivated and preserved, they are much more likely to stay in the area.

How Do Cardinals Stay Warm During the Winter?

Cardinals are warm-blooded animals, which means that they need to make and store heat in order to survive.

This means that in addition to finding shelter, cardinals need to adapt their bodies in order to survive freezing temperatures.

One way that they do this is by puffing up into the shape of a ball, which minimizes heat loss. 

This feather-puffing mechanism works by trapping heat in the air between feathers, creating an insulating layer to protect from the cold.

This allows the bird to use its own body heat to create a kind of blanket around the body.

However, their legs do not have feathers and so require some extra attention in the wintertime.

Cardinals take care of their legs by standing on one foot, tucking the other up into their feathers for warmth. They alternate feet until both are warm enough.

How Cardinals Help Each Other Survive the Winter

Cardinals usually mate for life, and they are very committed to supporting their partners.

During the summer months, cardinal pairs will defend anywhere from 2 to 10 acres of land together, keeping other birds away from their territory. However, things change in the wintertime.

In the wintertime, cardinal pairs will join with other cardinal pairs to form flocks, ranging from 5 to 35 pairs.

These flocks will nest together in bushy thickets, making for a stunning sight. Other names for a flock of cardinals include college, radiance, conclave, and Vatican.

Conclaves of cardinals help each other find food and keep an eye out for predators. By combining territories, they can cover more ground while foraging, lowering the chance of food scarcity.

And by foraging together, they can stay protected from animals like the sharp-shinned hawk, who prey on cardinals and have an easy time spotting their red plumage.

Supporting Cardinals During the Wintertime

Because scarcity in food or shelter will occasionally force cardinals to migrate, it makes a difference to provide them with food or shelter.

By establishing bird feeders and planting the kinds of plants they like to roost in, you can ensure that cardinals have a place to stay year-round and will not fly elsewhere for the winter.

Cardinals are also more likely to stay in the area where there are bird feeders present, filled with any of their favorite foods, listed below:

  • Black oil sunflower seeds
  • Cracked corn
  • Suet
  • Nyjer seed (such as this Pendelton Turf Supply Nyjer bird seed)
  • Mealworms
  • Peanuts
  • Safflower seeds
  • Striped sunflower seeds
  • Sunflower hearts

If you’re looking to attract cardinals to your area, you can also choose a premade blend of their favorites, like the Kaytee Nut and Fruit Blend. 

The best kind of bird feeder for cardinals to use is a hopper feeder, meaning one that allows them to perch while they eat their meal.

For example, you could try the Perky Pet Red Cardinal Bird Feeder.

Another resource that you can provide to support cardinals in the wintertime is running water.

Their primary water sources are often frozen and unavailable during this time, so providing a drinkable water source can keep these birds in your yard year-round.

Conclusion

Cardinals are winter birds, surviving through seed-based diets, a fluffy coat of feathers, and a ready supply of evergreen trees and shrubs to nest in.

You can help support cardinals by providing more food, shelter, and running water for them during the winter months.

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