The northern cardinal is one of the most popular birds in North America. It's a songbird, popular state bird, sports mascot, and winter holiday symbol. Cardinals are instantly recognizable bright red or reddish tan birds with a distinct head crest and face mask. Test your knowledge and see what you already know and can learn about these red beauties.
What is a Northern Cardinal?
Northern cardinals are the Cardinalis cardinalis species and the most familiar member of the Cardinalidae bird family. They are closely related to grosbeaks, buntings, and tanagers, which are all songbirds that have brightly colored plumage.
Cardinal Bird Trivia
- The red coloration of northern cardinals' plumage results from carotenoids in their feather structure, and they ingest those carotenoids through their diet. On rare occasions, vibrant yellow northern cardinals may be seen; a genetic plumage variation called xanthochroism.
- These are dimorphic birds, and while the red males are instantly recognizable, the more camouflaged females are also lovely and elegant. Female cardinals are a soft, warm tan color with a bright orange bill and red edging to the wings and tail. Females may also show a red wash across the chest, though this varies between individuals.
- Northern cardinals occasionally go bald, losing all the feathers on their heads and showing bare black or dark gray skin. It can be a startling appearance but is a natural part of their molting cycle. In some cases, mite or parasite infestations can contribute to this temporary baldness, but the feathers will eventually regrow.
- These are granivorous birds that use their large, powerful bills to crack various seeds. They also eat fruits, berries, insects, and grains, allowing them to forage for different foods as seasons change. This diet adaptability helps the birds stay in the same range year-round.
- Northern cardinals are easy to attract to bird-friendly yards, mainly where sunflower seeds and safflower seeds are available in large hopper feeders, open tray feeders, and ground feeding areas. They will also visit birdbaths and roost in bushes and shrubbery.
- Both male and female northern cardinals are adept songsters, and males, in particular, may sing year-round. Females often sing while sitting on the nest, which may communicate the need for more food to their mates. Females also often have more elaborate songs than males. One cardinal may have more than a dozen song variations, and different geographic populations often have quite different songs.
- These are monogamous birds that may mate for life. If the pair can produce healthy offspring, they may remain together for some time, though cardinals will separate or "divorce" if necessary to find a more suitable mate to raise more chicks. A mated pair is often seen feeding together, with the male gently offering seed to his mate in a kiss-like gesture.
- Cardinal pairs remain together year-round and join with other northern cardinals to form large flocks in the winter, making a stunning sight when a large group of these birds is spotted in a snowy landscape. A flock of cardinals can be called a college, conclave, radiance, or Vatican.
- These can be aggressive birds that violently defend their territories, and males will chase away competitors. Cardinals will also attack their reflections in mirrors, windows, chrome bumpers, and other reflective surfaces, often spending hours attacking what they perceive as unwelcome intruders.
- The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is also called the common cardinal, redbird, and Virginia nightingale. Because these birds are so familiar and easily recognizable, they are often just called cardinals rather than their full name, northern cardinals.
- Northern cardinals belong to the Cardinalidae family. However, other birds called cardinals, such as the yellow-billed cardinal, red-crested cardinal, and masked cardinal belong to the Thraupidae family, while the yellow cardinal is a member of the Emberizidae family.
- There are more than a dozen northern cardinal subspecies, though only four subspecies are typically recorded north of Mexico. All the subspecies are instantly recognizable as cardinals, but there are subtle variations in overall size, crest size, and color intensity.
- Northern cardinals are found throughout much of the eastern, central, southern, and southwestern United States and in eastern Mexico and as far south as Guatemala and Belize. This makes the species the northernmost of the cardinal species, hence the "northern" part of its name. Most other cardinals are tropical birds. Northern cardinals do not migrate.
- While most northern cardinals live less than three years, the longest lifespan for a cardinal was recorded at over 15 years. Because these birds stay in the same territory year-round, a backyard birder might see the same individual cardinals visiting their feeders for several years.
- Thanks to bird-friendly urban and suburban landscaping and these birds' adaptability, the northern cardinal's range is expanding in many areas, including the north and west. There is some habitat loss and associated population declines in California, however.
- Northern cardinals have been honored as the official state bird of seven states, the most of any single bird species. Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia have designated the northern cardinal as their symbolic bird.
- These birds are famous mascots, not only for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the Arizona Cardinals NFL team but also for different schools. Lamar University in Texas, Ball State University in Indiana, the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh are represented by the cardinals. Many other high schools, junior highs, and elementary schools also use cardinal mascots.
- In the 1800s, northern cardinals were popular as cage birds for their brilliant plumage and sweet songs. Bird poaching was a threat to cardinals, but, fortunately, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other legislation.
- Because of their beauty, dedication to mates, and musical songs, cardinals are among the most popular species among birders and non-birders alike. Cardinal motifs can be found on many bird-themed gifts, including figurines, crafts, collectibles, and more, and they are popular on Christmas cards and for many winter decorations.
Common Bird Diseases & Parasites. Mass Audubon. 2021.
Northern Cardinal Life History. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Northern Cardinal Sounds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Crane, Tanya Dewey; Kari Kirschbaum; Jonathan. Cardinalis Cardinalis (Northern Cardinal). Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
Northern Cardinal Range Map. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Northern Cardinal Fact Sheet. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 2009.
Northern Cardinal. American Bird Conservancy. 2021.