“Kissing” Cardinals

Image of two kissing cardinals, during their courtship ritual.

First of all, why do two cardinals appear to be “kissing” each other? As much as we would like to believe it’s a sign of affection, this behavior, also known as “mate feeding,” is most likely a sign of courtship. Common in the springtime before the breeding season starts — and when cardinals are searching for a mate. Now, let’s take a closer look at this curious, yet lovable, behavior.

“Cardinals engage in a behavior called courtship feeding,” said Erin Weeks in an excerpt from the series Get to Know Your Backyard Birds, “in which males fetch seeds and feed them to female mates. It is a delicate act by a typically assertive bird, and it’s easy to understand why humans interpret such a gesture as motivated by love and affection.”

What happens when cardinals “kiss”

“Cardinals, a non-migratory and socially monogamous bird, are one of many animals that perform behavioral displays,” according to Project FeederWatch. “Many animals use behavioral displays to communicate territory ownership and reproductive events. Birds especially are known for their elaborate courtship performances.”

However, “it turns out that courtship feeding [for cardinals] is not widespread as a mechanism for reinforcing lovers’ bonds to make them better co-parents.

Instead, the behavior appears to mostly be a function of nutrition. Female birds expend a great deal of their energy on reproduction, and their success rearing young can be increased by the convenience of a mate delivering food. The researchers found a higher incidence of courtship feeding in species where females shouldered a greater share of the reproductive burden–like building nests and incubating eggs alone–and thus benefited more from being fed.”

Although it may be difficult to see with the human eye from a distance, when two cardinals are “kissing” they are participating in common mating behaviors by exchanging food, like seed — even if their bills hardly appear open. See the following image to observe this behavior up close.

Watch the following video to see a female and male Northern Cardinal “kiss” and engage repeatedly in this courtship ritual.

This video is published by m90photo on Youtube.

By feeding one seed at a time to their potential mate – a continuous act and one of reliability and dependability – the male signals to the female they would be a great provider, or “father figure,” if you will. To further support this idea, Oxford Academic has identified “male [cardinals] that make a large investment in mate-feeding also tend to invest in feeding offspring.”

Cardinals are one of the most recognizable and beloved birds found in backyards throughout much of the U.S. and now you know why they “kiss.”

“The birds richly repay you for the trouble you take in attracting them and looking out for their interests.” — Joseph H. Dodson

Provide for the cardinals in your yard by offering black oil sunflower seed, whole sunflower hearts or even safflower seed in a platform feeder or tube feeder with a perching tray. Shop bird seed and bird feeders today at duncraft.com.



“Fledgling Romance: Why Some Birds Feed their Mates.” Erin Weeks. Get to Know Your Backyard Birds. The Raptor Lab. Aug. 19, 2013. Apr. 24, 2019. <https://theraptorlab.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/fledgling-romance-why-some-birds-feed-their-mates/>.

“Mate-feeding has evolved as a compensatory energetic strategy that affects breeding success in birds.” Galván, Ismael and Juan José Sanz. Behavioral Ecology, Oxford Academic. Jun. 21, 2011. Apr. 24, 2019. <https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/22/5/1088/253560>.

“Northern Cardinals know how to shake their tail feathers.” Alexandra Kirby. Project FeederWatch, The Cornell Lab. Cornell University. Jun. 1, 2015. Apr. 24, 2019. <https://feederwatch.org/blog/northern-cardinals-know-how-to-shake-their-tail-feathers/>.

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