Oftentimes, birdwatchers and gardeners will spot two cardinals touching their beaks together in what might seem to humans like kissing.
However, birds are quite different from humans in terms of their relationships with each other. So, do cardinals kiss?
In short, no, what cardinals are doing when a male puts its beak up against a female’s beak is not classified as kissing. What it is in actuality is a ritual called “mate feeding” or “courtship feeding”.
In this article, we’ll dive into more detail about what goes on between male and female cardinals when they touch beaks (mate feeding) and why it isn’t actually kissing.
Let’s explore the following topics:
- Do cardinals kiss?
- What is happening when cardinals touch beaks?
- What is courtship feeding?
- When does cardinal “kissing” or “courtship feeding” occur?
- Do cardinals mate for life?
- Are there other ways that male cardinals attract female cardinals?
Table of Contents
Do Cardinals Kiss?
We previously noted that cardinals do not in fact kiss when they touch their beaks together, even when mating.
Kissing is a type of genetic mating behavior.
However, humans commonly mistake this behavior in avians for kissing.
In reality, though, humans are really the only mammals, besides chimps and bonobos, who engage in kissing.
What Is Happening When Cardinals Touch Beaks?
So, what is really happening when it looks like two cardinals are engaging in a kiss?
Well, there is actually a scientific explanation behind it that makes sense but is not so exciting.
When a male and female touch their beaks together, it’s usually because they’re engaging in courtship feeding (also known as mate feeding) – something that occurs just before the breeding season begins.
What Is Courtship Feeding?
Courtship feeding is a way for male cardinals to show off their dominance and seek out a mate that they may keep for a long time. This ritual is not at all about affection, love, or care, as kissing might be for humans. Instead, it acts as a way for the male cardinal to prove to the female cardinal that he is an optimal mate.
The male cardinal will present food to the female cardinal by carrying it inside of his beak.
He will actually feed the seeds or other food to the female cardinal by transferring it from his mouth to hers.
This is why it looks a bit like they might be kissing.
When Does Cardinal “Kissing” or “Courtship Feeding” Occur?
Courtship feeding occurs just before the breeding season begins. Breeding season for cardinals usually occurs in March, meaning courtship feeding will occur just before then. However, in some cardinal varieties, such as Northern Cardinals, there may also be a second breeding season between late May and July.
Courtship feeding also predicts how the relationship will be in the future.
If the male shows the female that he is a reliable mate by bringing her food during courtship feeding, she then knows that he will also be able to provide food to her during the incubation period, as well as the first few weeks of the chicks’ lives after birth.
Do Cardinals Mate for Life?
It’s very common among different bird species to mate for life – meaning they pick one mate and don’t turn to another for their whole life.
Birds such as cranes, eagles, and geese are all monogamous, but not every type of bird displays this mating behavior.
Cardinals do often mate for life, and this is one of the big reasons that people tend to wrongly believe that courtship feeding is actually kissing. People often project their human traits onto animal behavior, but in the case of cardinals, courtship doesn’t have the same qualities as human courtship or dating.
It is really a survival-based behavior for cardinals since the female cardinals will mainly have to stay in their nests for much of the breeding season and will need a healthy male mate to take care of them.
In fact, a lot of the breeding process among cardinals is a joint effort.
Not only do the males protect the nest and feed their mate and their young; they also help the female in building the nest in a private, safe location.
It’s also worth noting that cardinals don’t always strictly mate for life.
In Some Cases: Two mates will venture from their initial loyalties to mate with other cardinals, but they still tend to return to their original mate from time to time to maintain a bond of some sort.
Are There Other Ways That Male Cardinals Attract Female Cardinals?
Yes, courtship feeding isn’t the sole method that male cardinals use to attract female mates. The males will also use their songbird abilities to attract a partner. If the male is able to produce a strong and energetic song, then eligible female mates will likely get drawn to that male.
Also, it’s a commonly known fact that male cardinals are the ones with the bright red plumage, while the females don a brownish set of feathers.
Male cardinals will also show off their plumage during mating season to try and attract a female mate.
It’s a common misconception, due to the mating loyalties of this species, that cardinals engage in kissing in the way that humans do.
In reality, when a male cardinal touches its beak to a female cardinal’s beak, he’s engaging in courtship feeding.
This is a mating ritual that male cardinals use to prove themselves to be worthy mates, just before the breeding season begins.