Cardinal feeding baby birds

How to Care for Wild Cardinal Baby Birds

By Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen | Updated September 26, 2017

Things You'll Need

  • Margarine tub or basket

  • Box

  • Heat lamp or pad

  • Shredded newspaper

  • Rolled up cloth

  • Baby bird mash

  • Eyedropper / Tweezers

  • Large outdoor enclosure

Every year, wildlife rehabilitation facilities are presented with hundreds of baby cardinals. Some are accidentally "birdnapped" by people who assume a baby bird on the ground needs their help. Others are mishandled by well-meaning people who have no idea how to properly care for a baby cardinal. If you find a baby bird, be certain it needs your help before interfering. Then, find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you are a vet or rehabilitator, or there are none in your area and you must care for the bird yourself, be prepared for the hard work ahead of you.

Determine if the Baby Cardinal Needs Help

Observe whether the bird is fuzzy or feathered. If the bird is feathered, it is a fledgling and is on the ground learning to fly. The parents are still caring for it. Leave it alone, or if it is in a place where humans, dogs or cats pose a threat, move it to a low tree branch nearby.

If the bird is fuzzy, but the parents are around, try to return the baby to its nest or construct a new nest out of a margarine tub (with holes for drainage) or a basket and some grass. Hang the new nest in a shady spot in a tree near the old nest and observe.

Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area if the parents are dead, missing or have rejected the baby. Until you can get the bird to the rehabilitator, keep it in a quiet, warm place. Do not try to feed the bird.

If You Must Raise a Baby Cardinal

Place the baby cardinal in a box filled with shredded newspaper and/or rolled up cloth to simulate a nest. Keeping the baby on a flat surface may cause a muscular deformity called "splay legs. " Change the bedding daily.

Keep the baby warm. Provide a heat lamp several feet away from the baby's box, or a heating pad set on low underneath the baby's box.

Make a mash of three-quarters dry dog or cat food soaked in water overnight in the refrigerator. The other fourth of the mash should be made up of soft fruits (berries and seedless grapes) and a grain mixture for baby birds such as Kaytee Exact Hand-Feeding Formula for Baby Parrots. Add a vitamin such as Vionate. For very small babies, food should be prepared in a blender as a warm puree and fed from an eye dropper. Larger nestlings or fledglings need solid food that is crumbled or cut to size, fed with tweezers

Feed the mash to the bird at room temperature. Feed the baby bird every 15 minutes to 30 minutes from morning to night, or as often as it gapes (opens its mouth for food).

Move the bird to a larger cage or enclosure when it is feathered, but still indoors and in a warm area.

Place solid foods and tree branches in the bird's enclosure for the bird to investigate. Offer foods that are as close as possible to what the bird will find to eat in your area. Adult cardinals feed on seeds, grains, berries and insects. When the bird begins to eat on its own, cut down on hand feeding.

Move the bird to an outdoor enclosure once it is self-feeding. At this point, the bird should be eating a diet as close as possible to what it will find to eat in the wild. The cardinal needs to get used to the sights and sounds of the outdoors.

Perform a soft release when the bird is self-feeding and no longer begging for food. This means that you should open the cage door so the bird can leave when it is ready, but will still have the ability to return to its cage for food and water. Once you have not seen the bird for a few days, assume it has successfully made the transition to the wild.

  • It is not true that a mother bird will not accept a baby once a human touches it. Birds have a very poor sense of smell.


  • Never feed a baby bird milk of any kind or bread.

    Avoid contact with the bird beyond what it necessary to feed and clean its enclosure. An imprinted bird will not survive in the wild.

    It is illegal to attempt to keep a wild cardinal as a pet.


  • "The Complete Care of Orphaned or Abandoned Baby Animals; C.E. and Jackie Spaulding; 1980
  • "Principles of Wildlife Rehabilitation; NWRA; 2008

Photo Credits

Baby Cardinals: All You Need To Know (with Pictures)

What does a baby cardinal look like?

What do juvenile cardinals look like?

How big are baby cardinals?

How much do baby cardinals weigh?

Why do you never see baby cardinals?

What is a baby cardinal called?

What do baby cardinals eat?

Do both parents feed baby cardinals?

How do cardinals feed their chicks?

How many babies does a cardinal have?

What do cardinal eggs look like?

How long do cardinal eggs take to hatch?

When do cardinals lay eggs?

How long do baby cardinals stay with their parents?

The bright red-crested Northern cardinal is one of the most recognizable garden birds in North America. These birds ooze attitude and are easy to spot thanks to their red plumage, though the females lack most of the same signature red plumage as the males.

Every power-packed adult cardinal starts life as a baby bird; this is a guide to all you need to know about baby cardinals!

What does a baby cardinal look like?

Baby cardinals are born naked and blind with a small quantity of feathery down. They grow quickly, vastly increasing in size between day 1 and day 10, which is when most baby cardinals will have already left the nest.

At birth

At birth, baby cardinals are practically naked aside from some very fine grayish down that covers some of their feather tracts. They’re blind, and their skin is near-transparent, making them look somewhat yellowish. Despite being minuscule, baby cardinals can hold their heads up and can shuffle around the nest within just hours of being born. Northern cardinal hatchlings weigh just 3.5g (0.12oz) and measure just a few cm long.

Three baby cardinal chicks in the nest

Growth and development

As cardinals grow past the 7-day mark, they begin to grow out their predominantly brown-gray juvenile plumage. These first feathers are called pin feathers. Juveniles molt away most of their first feathers in the wintertime, developing their brown and red adult plumage. The crest develops around 10 days to 2 weeks after hatching and is typically present before the emergence of red adult plumage.

Juvenile cardinals look similar to adults in size and shape but lack red plumage until around November (some 6/7 months after the breeding season). The tail usually turns red first. Juvenile cardinals also have fluffy chest and underside plumage.

Baby Vermillion cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia (desert cardinal) and Red-crested cardinals are similar to the Northern cardinal, though they look different as they begin to molt and grow out their juvenile plumage. For example, the Pyrrhuloxia and Red-crested cardinals lack much of the red body feathers as the Vermillion and Northern cardinals.

A young Northern Cardinal fledgling, standing nearby to the nest

What do juvenile cardinals look like?

Juvenile cardinals are a light-brown color with fluffy undersides, breasts, and neck feathers. Their tails are short and may appear a faint rust-red, but otherwise, they’re pretty drab, and both the male and female lack red adult plumage.

However, juvenile cardinals still sport their distinctive crests, which develop in males and females from day 7 to 10. After a couple of weeks after fledging, juvenile cardinals are easy to identify from this crest, which is still a dull brown. Juvenile feathers begin to molt around 2 to 4 months after hatching but won’t resemble adult plumage until that year’s winter. At around the 1-year mark, young cardinals are nearly impossible to tell apart from adult cardinals. Juvenile cardinals have gray-brown bills that turn orange over two to four months.

It’s tougher to identify juvenile female cardinals as these don’t grow the same intense red plumage as the males. However, you can still identify juvenile female cardinals from adult female cardinals as female adults have red crests. In contrast, juvenile crests are mostly light-brown, and their beaks are also gray-brown and not orange-red.

Juvenile Male Northern Cardinal

Juvenile Female Northern Cardinal

How big are baby cardinals?

Baby cardinals measure just a few centimeters long. They’re born naked and blind, and are very small and vulnerable.

Baby cardinals grow very quickly indeed and weigh more like 25g by day 7, attaining much of their adult size and weight after around 2 weeks to 1 month. Baby cardinals grow quickly but won’t develop their full adult plumage until towards the end of the year in October and November.

How much do baby cardinals weigh?

Baby cardinals weigh just around 3.5g at birth. Cardinal chicks grow quickly, gaining two to three grams of weight per day for the first week. After around a month, juvenile cardinals will weigh near enough the same as an adult.

Female Cardinal watching over her baby in an old bird house

Why do you never see baby cardinals?

Like most birds, baby cardinals won’t emerge from the nest until they’re ready to fledge. However, baby cardinals aren’t actually an uncommon sight, so long as you know what to look for.

When baby cardinals fledge after just 7 to 12 days, they’re still very undeveloped and are poor at flying for another two weeks or so. A baby cardinal looks fluffy light-brown with a short brown crest - the crest is a great way to identify a baby cardinal from other similar baby birds that lack the crest.

Between fledging and being able to fly with confidence, baby cardinals might appear abandoned on the ground or a low branch or bush. While it might be tempting to move the bird, baby cardinals are actually fed by their parents for around 70 days in some situations - don’t be too hasty to ‘save’ young birds just because they appear abandoned! It’s often likely that the parents are watching nearby.

Close up of a immature Cardinal

What is a baby cardinal called?

There is no specific name for a baby cardinal. Once hatched, baby cardinals are called hatchlings. Then, they’re referred to as nestlings for as long as they remain in the nest until fledged. Once fledged, they’re called fledglings. Finally, baby cardinals become juveniles, and then adults.

What do baby cardinals eat?

Baby cardinals are fed insects and invertebrates, including beetles, larvae, and caterpillars primarily. Parents also provide their chicks seeds, berries, and other plant foods.

The chicks can’t digest tough foods for the first few days, which is why soft invertebrates and berries are preferable. Cardinals eat mainly seeds, berries, and other plant foods, but they increase their insect intake during the season - insects are full of fat and protein, which is ideal for the chicks!

Both parents feed the chicks, though this varies between couples - the female will make more feeding trips than the males in most cases. Some tougher or harder foods are partially regurgitated into the chicks’ mouths, but most are broken up and fed whole.

Close up of a female cardinal feeding chicks in the nest

Do both parents feed baby cardinals?

During the first two days or so after hatching, the male tends to bring food to the female, who will then feed the hatchlings. As the nestlings age, the male starts to feed the young birds more often.

Studies reveal that males feed the chicks around 40% of the time by day 3 and 60% of the time by day 8. Baby cardinals are fed for up to 70 days after fledging, which is much-elongated compared to many other small birds that leave the family unit much sooner.

How do cardinals feed their chicks?

Cardinal chicks are usually fed whole food items, but their parents also regurgitate food in the chicks’ mouths.

Cardinals have strong, chunky beaks which make them pretty good at manipulating and cracking tougher foods into harder pieces. Hard-shelled foods like seeds will likely be broken up and fed to the chicks in smaller pieces.

Both parents feed the chicks around 8 times per day, with an average of around 2 to 4 trips per hour. Feeding is more intense in the first days after hatching.

Cardinal feeding her young

How many babies does a cardinal have?

Female cardinals lay between 1 to 5 eggs, though 2 or 3 is average. Single-egg clutches are rare.

Whether or not all hatchlings in a nest will survive until fledgling or adulthood is a different question altogether. At hatching, a cardinal might have 2 or 3 babies, but after a month or so, one, two, or even all three babies may die from predation, starvation, or disease.

What do cardinal eggs look like?

Cardinal eggs measure around 2.5 x 1.8cm and range in color from gray-white to greenish.

Almost all cardinal eggs are quite heavily spotted or blotched with light or dark brown marks, though the shape of blotches varies widely. Blotches are usually concentrated towards the thicker end of the egg.

The nest and eggs of a northern cardinal

How long do cardinal eggs take to hatch?

Cardinal eggs are incubated for around 11 to 13 days on average.

Incubation times are possibly marginally higher earlier in the breeding season, probably because the ambient temperature is lower.

When do cardinals lay eggs?

Cardinals breed and lay eggs in March and April. At higher latitudes, egg-laying may occur in late April but rarely later. Early March egg-laying is also rare. Late-March to early April is most common.

Egg-laying usually begins within 1 to 8 days after the pair of cardinals chooses a nesting site and builds a nest.

Immature baby cardinal perched on a branch

How long do baby cardinals stay with their parents?

Baby cardinals fledge after just 7 to 13 days, but parental feeding continues for up to two months or even longer in some situations.

During this time, the young cardinal won’t stay too far from the nest and will regularly return for feeding. However, as the young cardinal learns to fly competently, parental feeding fades, and eventually, the juvenile cardinal will leave the family unit entirely.

Expert Q + A

Ask a question

Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.

How to feed the found chick, how many times a day

If you find a chick, the first thing you need to do is determine its species. Feeding granivorous, insectivorous and predatory chicks have their own differences. But in the early stages of feeding, you can use the same feeding methods, and then, after finding out what kind of bird you found, transfer the chick to the appropriate feeding.

Here is one of the most common feeding options for granivorous and insectivorous chicks. This nutrient mixture is well used for feeding for chicks and fledglings from the passerine family. To prepare our mixture, we need the following products: Boiled egg, low-fat cottage cheese, raw carrots, meat (beef, chicken, turkey), greens (lettuce, dandelion leaves, wood lice), hamarus and daphnia, Calcium gluconate (shell from boiled eggs) glycerophosphate , children's dry dairy-free porridge or boiled millet (without salt and fat on the water). nine0003

Action one. Boil the egg, free from the shell. We free the shell from the shell film. Grind the egg as much as possible, you can use a grater with small holes.

Second step. Boiled meat, it is better to take the pulp from the breast of a turkey or chicken and also chop or divide into fibers. The mixture will require meat 40 (for granivorous) and 60 grams (for insectivorous).

Third step. Take washed carrots of a small size, grate them on a fine grater, then squeeze the juice and we will use the remaining pulp. nine0003

Fourth step. We take not sour and not fatty cottage cheese. Cottage cheese should have 0% fat content, anything above is considered fat for poultry. We need 90-110 grams of cottage cheese. Sour cottage cheese must be boiled twice changing the water and then it will be suitable.

Step five. You can use greens to add the mixture, but you can do without it for the chicks. And so you can take the greens listed above, chop and add 1.5 teaspoons to the mixture.

Action six. To the above ingredients, add 1.5 -2 tsp. dairy-free porridge or boiled millet (well boiled, without salt and fat in the water). nine0003

Step seven. To the mixture we add the shell from the boiled egg, which must first be ground in a coffee grinder, plus one fourth of the crushed tablet of glycerophosphate. If it is not possible to find glycerophosphate, then you can purchase bone meal and add one fourth tsp. in powder form. At the very least, the shells are enough for now.

Step eight. We take chopped hamarus and daphnia and add about 1 tsp to the resulting mixture. Then we mix everything, it turns out a very thick, crumbly porridge, it should not stick to the fingers. If the mixture is sticky, you can add dairy-free porridge or powdered cereals. nine0003

From the resulting mixture we roll small balls no larger than a small pea, focus on the size of the chick's beak. You can feed 2-5 balls at a time and after each feeding drink plain water from an insulin syringe with a removable needle (without a needle) 4-6 drops. A week-old chick should be fed every 1-1.5 hours, older than two weeks of age every 2-4 hours, at three and four weeks of age you can feed 3-4 times a day. Do not forget that the chick is growing and, accordingly, one-time portions of food are growing. A very important point, do not forget to warm the chicks, because at their age they themselves cannot maintain normal body temperature. Warming up promotes better assimilation of feed. Don't forget to control your chick's weight. If possible, show the chick to a specialist. To control the work of the intestines, you can take the litter from the chick for a coprogram, this is an analysis of the digestibility of the feed. nine0003

Take care and love your feathered friends and they will love you back.

Veterinarian ornithologist
Chuguevsky VV

Veterinary clinic Bambi.

You can ask an ornithologist on the forum.

How we killed the thrush chick


Previous Entry | Next Entry

A hundred thousandth story on the topic "how to kill a fledgling". It's good for honesty and brevity. Straight up storybook. I would put it in school textbooks and in lesson plans. nine0003

Original taken from anna_nik0laeva in How we killed a thrush chick

A chick, a fledgling of a field thrush, was sitting and yelling right on the road, right on the highway. His parents circled and clicked their beaks nearby. To everyone who approached, the chick stretched its fledgling neck and began to open its beak and flap its tubular wings. He still did not know how to fly categorically. A man passing by almost stepped on a chick. "Be careful, there's a bird sitting here!" - I said. Together we thought about what to do with it. You can't leave it on the road. Cars drive every 5 minutes, on the corner, two meters from the road, sedate, house cats, black and white, rest. nine0003

It's not certain that they won't want to catch a bird. "Let's put him on top of the garage," the man suggested. Of course, we heard that they should not be touched with hands. Therefore, the chick was taken in a rag and the man threw it into the garage. After 30 seconds, the chick flew back. Fool. “I don’t have a second rag,” the man said, and threw it over the garage with his hand again. The chick fell silent but stubbornly rushed to the ground. In general, he was already just lying on the ground, then he opened his eyes and mouth, blood was flowing from his beak. In general, I regretted a hundred times. Let cats eat him, crush passers-by and cars, but now this little corpse is on my conscience. After all, whatever one may say, I had a hand in the fact that this fledgling broke his neck. Too bad for the bird. This was the last time I try to interfere with the natural process. Suddenly, the chick would have jumped onto the lawn. the cats would have been lying in a different place for a couple of days, or the parents would have dragged him away in 5 minutes, while there was no one, back to the nest. In general, they wanted the best, but it's best not to touch them at all. nine0003