Do Cardinals Migrate? You Won’t Believe This

cardinals migrating

You cannot miss a cardinal. Their brilliant scarlet feathers make them stand out in the greenery of spring and even more so in winter. They are popular birds with gardeners and bird lovers, and they are said to represent confidence and balance.  The behavior of birds is interesting, with some choosing to migrate and others choosing to stay through the winter months.

Cardinals, unlike most songbirds, do not migrate. They are found the entire year in the same area. They move to a neighboring area in winter if food becomes scarce in the place where they nested during summer.  They have adapted to freezing temperatures by growing an extra layer of feathers.

Cardinals are songbirds that are clearly seen and heard in gardens. They have adapted to surviving cold winter months but do better when a concerned, caring human helps out by providing a well-stocked bird feeder.

Do Cardinals Migrate South For Winter?

The majority of songbirds move south in winter to avoid the icy weather.

Cardinals are an exception and do not migrate. They can be found throughout the year in the same area.

Why Do Cardinals Not Migrate?

Birds usually migrate for two reasons. The first is that they are unable to find food during the winter months. Cardinals have overcome this by feeding mainly on seeds and nuts during winter. Seeds are rich in oils that boost body fat that is released to increase body heat.

They also feast on insects that overwinter under tree bark.

Cardinals have strong beaks that stab into bark crevices and rip off small pieces of bark in the hunt for insects.  Cardinals are known for storing seeds, nuts, and dried insects for use during the winter months.

The second reason that birds migrate is that they cannot survive the cold winter temperatures. Cardinals have developed several methods of combatting the cold. The most important of these is growing an extra layer of feathers.

Towards the end of summer, cardinals have a heavy molting period. As the new feathers grow, they include an extra layer of feathers that help insulate the bird. At the end of winter or the first hint of spring, the birds molt again and lose the extra feather layer to prevent overheating in summer.

Why Did The Cardinals Disappear From My Garden In Winter?

Although cardinals do not migrate, they will move to an adjacent area where food is more plentiful during the winter months.

If your garden has sparse food supplies during the winter, the birds may move a mile or two to find food supplies to help them through the winter.

In spring, summer, and fall, flying a distance to find food may not be a problem. Cardinals cannot afford to use precious energy reserves in the winter months by flying too far to find food. They will temporarily move to a region where food is more abundant over winter.

Where Do Cardinals Sleep In The Winter?

Cardinals live in many mid and eastern states of the USA, which become very cold during winter. Some people may feel concerned about these little birds, wondering where they sleep and how they survive the freezing winter nights.

Cardinals prefer to sleep in high boughs of trees with thick foliage that can protect them from predators and heavy snowfall. They may choose to sleep under house eaves, in barns, or under porch roofs in winter.

Cardinals are not cavity nesters and will seldom use tree hollows or enclosed birdhouses for nesting. Their defense mechanism is good eyesight with fast flight away from predators, which they cannot achieve if they are in a closed nesting area.

During the reproduction and nesting season, cardinals are territorial birds, and a pair of cardinals will vigorously defend their territory. During winter, however, cardinals form large flocks, which help them keep warm due to the body heat generated by so many birds.

How Do Cardinals Keep Warm In Winter?

Cardinals tense their breast muscles and shiver during the cold. The action of shivering uses kinetic energy to generate heat in the body, increasing the core temperature.

Cardinals grow fifty percent more down feathers for their winter robes. The down feathers help to keep the bird warm during the icy season. Down feathers can be fluffed up, which traps the body warmth and insulates the bird against the cold environmental temperatures.

Cardinals have a complex system of blood vessels that control the temperature of the blood reaching the heart. Blood in the feet decreases in temperature due to cold weather. If this cold blood arrived at the heart, it would cause a fatal drop in the cardinal’s core body temperature.

To prevent this, an extraordinary network of blood vessels known as rete mirabile allows heat to be exchanged between the warm arterial blood and the cold venous blood. The result is that the cardinal can maintain its core body temperature.

Like many other birds, cardinals use one foot to perch while tucking the other up into the feathers to warm. They keep swopping feet to prevent frostbite in the feet and toes. 

What Food Should I Offer Cardinals In Winter?

If you would like to keep the cardinals in your garden through winter, it is best to offer them food as close to their natural diet as possible. 

  1. Seeds such as thistle, sunflower, safflower, flax, and other garden bird mixed seeds can be offered.
  2. Crushed corn or millet are also high-energy foods.
  3. Mealworms.
  4. Suet and peanut butter offer high-fat food.
  5. Nuts and peanuts.
  6. Berries and other fruit. 

Ensure that you offer the food in a bird feeder with a roof to protect the seeds from becoming damp. The top will also help keep the rain, sleet, and snow off the birds as they feed.


Cardinals are not migratory birds. They stay in the same region all year, although they may show local relocation to areas with better food supplies. They may also move locally to join up with a big flock for added warmth in winter.

They can find food during the winter months and have several adaptations allowing them to survive cold temperatures.


Donald Bergeson

I have always been fascinated by the skill, strength, and beauty of birds.They help in maintaining a balance of ecological environment. At Best Bird Guide, I share all of my experiences and discoveries that I have got so far and inspire more devoted fans.

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