Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis

Status: Common regular resident south and east, uncommon north, locally rare west. Rare regular spring, fall, and winter visitor outside breeding range.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM7063, Dec 1884 Unadilla, Otoe Co.

Taxonomy: Sixteen subspecies are recognized, 12 in Mexico and Central America, and these in the US (Pyle 1997): superbus, resident in southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico, canicaudus, resident from western Oklahoma to southeast New Mexico and southeast Texas, magnirostris, resident in east-central Texas and southern Louisiana, and cardinalis, resident from southeast North Dakota to northeast Texas and east to New Brunswick and Florida. Nebraska birds are cardinalis.

ResidentSince the early 1900s, Northern Cardinal has gradually expanded its range from the southeast (Bruner et al 1904) across the state westward, primarily along major river valleys (Short 1961), as woody vegetation developed. The range continues to expand, and individuals are regularly observed outside of the above mapped range, which represents the current established distribution of the species.

Normally a sedentary species, expansion results from immatures dispersing from the edge of the range in fall and wintering in a new location (Halkin and Linville 2020). There are winter records for most areas in Nebraska beyond the breeding range; such birds may overwinter, locate mates and nest in the following year.

As of 1958, it was breeding commonly in the eastern half of Nebraska and was uncommon to rare westward, with records as far west as the Panhandle (Rapp et al 1958). It was first reported in Lincoln Co at Sutherland 2 Nov 1933 (Tout 1947), but not until 6 Apr 1941 at North Platte, Lincoln Co and 13 Apr 1954 at Scottsbluff, Scotts Bluff Co.

The first record for the upper Elkhorn Valley was a midwinter specimen, UNSM ZM10621, collected at Neligh, Antelope Co 11 Jan 1909. Ducey (1988) cited Bruner’s (1896) statement that it bred at West Point, establishing its presence there prior to 1900. It was breeding in Wayne Co by 1953 (Gates 1953) and in Boone Co by 1984 (Bennett 1984). It is now present throughout northeast Nebraska.

In the Niobrara River Valley, this species continues as of 2019 to push westward. Brogie and Mossman (1983) found several singing males and territorial birds at the Niobrara Valley Preserve in 1982, listing the species as an uncommon “probable nester.” In 2008, the species was increasing in numbers and “spreading out” in Rock Co. Ducey (1988, 1989) noted an increase in numbers during the period 1984-88 at Anderson Bridge, some 20 miles west of Valentine, Cherry Co, and since then, the few reports included one at Smith Lake SRA, Sheridan Co 28 Sep 2009 which is located on Pine Creek, a Niobrara River tributary. two at Valentine NWR, Cherry Co 25 May 2017, and one at Merritt Reservoir, northeast Cherry Co 11 Mar 2018. In 2019, however, single cardinals were at the Eli Road crossing of the Niobrara River, about 10 miles east of Merriman, the Middle Boiling Springs Road crossing, and the Cody crossing, all on 21 Jul (Bill Flack, In 2021, singles were near Nenzel 6 May and at Chat Canyon 6 May.

Short (1965) found no Northern Cardinals at his camp southwest of Merriman, Cherry Co in 1964, but found a pair and collected the male (USNM 480458) south of Rushville in Sheridan Co in summer 1964. This pair was territorial, and the male had enlarged testes.

Rosche (1982) showed the species has a tenuous hold, at best, in the Pine Ridge region. Northern Cardinals were apparently seen along Bordeaux Creek, a tributary of the White River east of Chadron in Dawes Co in 1935 and 1936 (MacKinlay 1936). There were no further reports until 8 Apr 1954 and 2 May 1956 in Dawes Co, followed by reports 22 May 1957 Sheridan Co, and 2 Apr and 7 Sep 1959 and 20 May 1960 in Box Butte Co. Apart from the Sheridan Co record by Short described above, there were no more reports in the Pine Ridge region until 15 Nov 1987 in Dawes Co; the 20 Pine Ridge reports since suggest a gradual increase in numbers, with most reports since 2005. One was along the Niobrara River at Agate Fossil Beds NM, Sioux Co 20 Sep 2017.

Elsewhere in the Panhandle, reports are mostly in or near the North Platte River Valley. There are numerous reports from Scotts Bluff Co, where cardinals are rather widespread, albeit limited to the Valley itself. A long-time resident of Scotts Bluff Co noted in 2020 “They continue to surprise me with the frequency of reports” (Alice Kenitz, pers. comm.). There have been about 60 reports (as of Aug 2019), with dates year-round. It is apparent from dates in the DeLara yard near Mitchell that cardinals are appearing at feeders mid-winter, then apparently nesting nearby and bringing young to the feeders in summer and then dispersing; from 2012 to 2017 all dates were in the period 9 Dec-10 Jul (Kathy DeLara, pers. comm.). After first being recorded in Scotts Bluff Co in 1954, there were several Dec and Jan reports through 1976, followed by reports only in spring and summer through 1985. There were no additional reports until 1992, when it was listed as a “permanent resident,” although breeding was not noted until a male was seen feeding young near the North Platte River east of Scottsbluff 31 Jul 1994 (Silcock and Rosche 1994). One was at Wildcat Hills SRA 4 Jun 2019, three were at Stateline Island, North Platte NWR 30 Apr 2017 and seven were there 4 Jun 2019. Further east in the North Platte Valley reports have increased also; it was found at six Morrill Co locations in 1985 where previously only one location was occupied (Williams 1985), was found in the county in 2000 and has been resident at Bridgeport SRA since. Between Bridgeport and Lewellen there are few reports, notably at Oshkosh, Garden Co: 23 Feb 2013, 12 May 2016, 13 May 2021, and two on 14 Dec, two on 21 Jun 2016 at Broadwater, Morrill Co, and 21 Sep 2013 Mud Springs, Morrill Co.

Northern Cardinal has been recorded in the Loup drainage for some time. It was at Stapleton, Logan Co, as early as spring 1933, and apparently regularly from that time until 30 Jun 1969; since then there have been no reporters based in Logan Co. However, in 2018 one was at Tryon, McPherson Co 29 Apr and another at Arnold, Custer Co 29 Mar. One was in McPherson Co 19 Aug 2019, and one in Tryon 16 May 2021. The earliest report for Cherry Co is from Elsmere in the Loup drainage 25 May 1952. It was first reported at NNF Bessey, Thomas Co as early as the early 1940s, when 4-5 nesting pairs were present; Zimmer (1913) mentioned earlier unverified reports in winter, however, and it is now a “common permanent resident” there (Bray 1994). Two were at the Highway 97 Dismal River crossing in Hooker Co 26 Mar 2017, one was there 2 Jun 2019, one on 21 May 2020, and one was at nearby Shimmins Lake 26 Mar 2017.

Fewest reports are from western Sandhills locations away from river valleys: two on 11 May 2016 Arthur, Arthur Co, three there 30 Mar 2017 and two there 16-17 Sep 2017; 27 May 1999 Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co, and 25 Mar 2019, 2 Apr 2019, 27 May 2017, 17 May 2018, and 19 Jun 2017 in Alliance, Box Butte Co.

Cardinals are common in Ogallala and fairly common along the South Platte River Valley, but there are only these reports south of the North Platte River Valley in the Panhandle: 1 May 2005 Sidney, Cheyenne Co, 10 Jun 1990 Cheyenne Co, 6 Aug 2013 Bushnell, Kimball Co, 11 Aug 2015 Deuel Co, and 4 Sep 2009 Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co.

The Republican River Valley has been occupied for decades; it was apparently common along Frenchman Creek in eastern Chase Co as early as 1945 (Maddux 1989), and first appeared in Webster Co in 1915. There are several recent reports from Dundy and Chase Cos.

  • Breeding phenology:
    Singing: 13-30 Jan (three records)
    Nest building: 14 Mar-31 Jul
    Eggs: 20 Apr-3 Aug
    Nestlings: 23 Apr-14 Jul
    Fledglings: 17 May-31 Oct

   It was thought that 4-5 broods were produced each year in the Verdon, Richardson Co area. An unusual clutch of six eggs, all genuine cardinal eggs, was     found 12 May at LaVista, Douglas Co; Wayne Mollhoff (pers.comm.) noted that the largest cardinal clutch in his 71-nest database was five.

  • High counts:  100 at Wilderness Park, Lancaster Co 21 May 2020, 50 at Wagon Train RA, Lancaster Co 23 Mar 2020, 50 at Branched Oak Lake SRA, Lancaster Co 24 Mar 2020, 42 at Indian Cave SP, Nemaha and Richardson Cos 4 Apr 2004, 42 at Murray, Cass Co 18 Mar 2019, and 40 at Spring Creek Prairie, Lancaster Co 7 Mar 2010.


NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NM: National Monument
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited

Bennett, E.V. 1984. 1983 Nebraska nesting survey. NBR 52: 47-50.

Bray, T.E., B.K. Padelford, and W.R. Silcock. 1986. The birds of Nebraska: A critically evaluated list. Published by the authors, Bellevue, Nebraska, USA.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Bruner, L. 1896. A list of Nebraska birds, together with notes on their abundance, migrations, breeding, food-habits, etc. Nebraska State Horticultural Society 27th Annual Report pp 57-163.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Ducey, J.E. 1989. Birds of the Niobrara River valley, Nebraska. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 27: 37-60.

Gates, D. 1953. Birds at Wayne (Nebraska). NBR 21: 4-5.

Halkin, S.L. and S.U. Linville. 2020. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

MacKinlay, E. 1936. The Eastern Cardinal near Chadron, Dawes County. NBR 4: 84.

Maddux, E.H. 1989. Have the Northern Cardinal and Red-bellied Woodpecker expanded their ranges in Nebraska recently, 1968-1987? NBR 57: 87-92.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1961. Notes on bird distribution in the central Plains. NBR 29: 2-22.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1965. Bird records from northern Nebraska during the breeding season. NBR 33: 2-5.

Silcock, W.R., and R.C. Rosche. 1994. Summer Field Report, June-July 1994, NBR 62: 102-116.

Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.Williams, F. 1985. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 39: 931-933.

Zimmer, J.T. 1913. Birds of the Thomas County Forest Preserve. Proceedings Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union 5: 51-104.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 14 Jun 2021