Be Your Own Birder

Discover the Northern Cardinal

One of the most popular and desirable backyard birds, the northern cardinal is a favorite North American songbird for many outstanding reasons. While these bold birds are instantly recognizable by birders and non-birders alike, there’s a lot more to them than pretty red plumage!

Male Northern Cardinal – Photo by Dominic Sherony

Northern Cardinal Fun Facts

  • The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is also called the Virginia nightingale, redbird, and common cardinal. A flock of cardinals is called a college, conclave, Vatican, or radiance, and these bright birds often flock in winter when they gather at the best food sources.
  • This songbird belongs to the Cardinalidae family, along with their closely related cousin, the vermilion cardinal. Other cardinals, such as the crimson-fronted cardinal, yellow-billed cardinal, red-crested cardinal, and masked cardinal belong to the Thraupidae and Emberizidae families.
  • The brilliant red plumage and jaunty crest of the male northern cardinal is what earned these birds their name because it reminded European settlers of the red vestments and pointed hats of Catholic cardinals and other religious officials.
  • The bright red of northern cardinals’ plumage comes from carotenoids in their diet. On rare occasions, vibrant yellow northern cardinals may be seen, a genetic variation called xanthochroism. White northern cardinals have also been recorded, which is another genetic variation called leucism.
  • Both male and female cardinals sing, and females often sing more often and more elaborately than males. Females will sing while on the nest, which could be letting their devoted mates know it is time for a feeding.
  • These birds occasionally go bald, typically as part of their natural molting cycle. It can be startling to see a bald cardinal, however, as their dark gray-black skin is a stark contrast to the remaining red body feathers, and they can look like miniature vultures. The feathers will quickly regrow, however, including the characteristic crest.
  • Northern cardinals are called “northern” because they have the northernmost range of all the cardinal species, most of which remain in tropical areas in Central and South America. In recent years, the changing climate and the availability of supplemental food sources in winter has encouraged these birds to venture even further north.
  • The northern cardinal is the official state bird of seven states – Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. This is more than any other bird species. They are also popular mascots for schools and sports teams.
  • Because these birds do not migrate and their brilliant feathers stand out in a snowy landscape, they’re a winter favorite for birders and non-birders alike. Northern cardinals have been part of holiday decorations for generations, and are featured on everything from holiday cards and ornaments to cookie tins, gift wrap, candle holders, throw pillows, wreaths, welcome mats, and more.
  • While most northern cardinals live less than three years, the longest lifespan for a wild cardinal was recorded at over 15 years, and a captive cardinal lived to be 28. Because these birds stay in the same territory year-round, a birder might see the same individual cardinals visiting their feeders for years.
Female Northern Cardinal – Photo by Larry Hennessy

Adding the Northern Cardinal to Your Life List

This bird is an easy one for birders to find, not only because of its highly visible plumage, but also because it easily comes to feeders. Nature centers and wildlife refuges within the northern cardinal’s range are likely to have feeding stations that regularly attract these birds, and they’re also found in gardens, parks, and woodlands. Listening for their high-pitched call is a good way to know northern cardinals are nearby, and watching higher in the canopy and thickets can give birders a good look at their colorful plumage.

Learn More About Northern Cardinals

There’s plenty more to learn about these colorful birds, starting with…

Northern Cardinal in Spring – Photo by patricia pierce

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