When the redbird spread his sable wing,
And showed his side of flame;
When the rosebud ripened to the rose,
In both I read thy name.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Thine Eyes Still Shined"

Scientific Name

  • Cardinalis cardinalis or
  • Richmondena cardinalis or
  • Cardinalis virginianus

    The Northern Cardinal, an American songbird of the finch family (Fringillid[ae]).

    Other Names

    The Northern Cardinal is also known as:

  • Cardinal (the most common referent)
  • Cardinal-bird, or cardinal bird
  • Cardinal grosbeak
  • Redbird, or Winter redbird
  • Virginia nightingale
  • History and Behavior

    In England in the 18th century the cardinal was known as the Virginia nightingale. In the 19th century, cardinals were highly-prized cage birds for their color and song. Thousands were trapped to be sold in northern markets and in Europe. This practice ceased with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

    The name "cardinal" was given to the bird because of the red color of its plumage bringing to mind the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals.

    The alternative name of Winter redbird comes from the fact that its red color stands out more clearly in the snow and that large flocks often are noted in the winter. The cardinal is nonmigratory, though some movement occurs in the summer and early fall. Oringally a southeastern bird, its range has been steadily increasing northward — having reached southern Ontario by 1910, Massachusetts in the 1950s, and having been spotted in the Canadian Maritime Provinces since then — and, to a lesser extent, westward. It extends south through Mexico to Belize, and has been introduced to Hawaii.

    The cardinal's diet consists primarily of seeds and insects, but also includes leaf buds, flowers, berries and fruit. Typical habitats include thickets and brushy areas, edges and clearings, riparian woodlands, parks, and residential areas.

    Appearance and Identification

    Both adult sexes have a high, pointed crest on the head; short, rounded wings; a long tail; dark red legs and feet; and a heavy, conical, coral red bill. The adult male cardinal has nearly all-over bright red plumage, which is dullest on the back and wings, and a black mask around the base of the bill, eye, chin and throat. The adult female's crest, wings and tail are reddish in color, but not the bright red of the male; her back is brownish gray, and her underside is pinkish brown. The juvenile of both sexes appears like the adult female, but more brown in color, a shorter, darker crest, and a darker bill.

    The cardinal is medium-sized, ranging about 8 to 9 inches in length, with the female slightly smaller than the male. It is the only all-red bird with a crest.

    The bird has a variable call, heard year-round, with local variations and "accents" noted. The song is described in some sources as "a loud 'cheer cheer cheer' or 'purty purty purty'." My own description of the former would note a rising tone on the "purTY purTY purTY," though I tend to hear it as a "tooWHIT tooWHIT tooWHIT," and a falling tone on the "CHEeer CHEeer CHEeer," which I tend to hear as "TYEEeel TYEEeel TYEEeel TYEEeel." The song is distinctive, easy to recognize, and fairly easy to imitate whistling. Both sexes sing (unusual for northern songbirds); after the males have established their territories but before nesting begins, females will duet with the males.

    Popular State Bird

    The cardinal is the State Bird for seven U.S. states, more than any other single bird (second most popular, with six states, is the Western Meadowlark):

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Sports Teams

    Additionally, the Cardinal is the mascot of several professional sports teams and innumerable college and high school teams, as is the Redbird.

    A DAY and then a week passed by:
    The redbird hanging from the sill
    Sang not; and all were wondering why
    It was so still—
    When one bright morning, loud and clear,
    Its whistle smote my drowsy ear,
    Ten times repeated, till the sound
    Filled every echoing niche around;
    And all things earliest loved by me,—
    The bird, the brook, the flower, the tree,—
    Came back again, as thus I heard
    The cardinal bird.

    — First stanza of "The Cardinal Bird," William Davis Gallagher

    Some sources consulted during this compilation

    • Chipper Woods Bird Observatory (www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/ncard.htm)
    • Cornell Lab of Ornithology (birds.cornell.edu/BOW/norcar/)
    • State of Mine: State Bird of Virginia (www.banders.com/stateofmine/statebird/statebird.html)
    • Northern Cardinal page at the US Geological Survey site (www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i5930id.html)