The Northern Cardinal

CardinalI counted no less than 16 cardinals around our bird feeders recently, and remembered my grandma Roark sayings that a gathering of cardinals was a sign of snow.  Maybe it was coincidence, but it sure enough snowed that night and the next day.  It perked my interest enough to study up on this very familiar bird.


The most often used name for the bird is the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), but many just call them redbirds.  The name refers to the cardinals in the Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps.  It is probably the most recognizable bird in our area, with its bright red body, black face markings, and sharp crest on their head.  The female has most of the same markings, except the body color is a more subdued brownish-red color with tinges of red in the wings and tail.  They don’t migrate and so are always around to look at, plus they have adapted well to humans and like to hang out in yards and parks.


So what’s the day in the life of a cardinal?  In the wild they like to hang out in low vegetation like shrubs and small trees and forage for food on or near the ground.  Here’s your fancy word for today: cardinals are primarily granivores, meaning they feed on grain and seeds.  Their short, strong beaks are perfect for crushing hard seeds or their coatings. But they also feed on a variety of insects and fruit during the warmer months.  Family life of the cardinal is pretty typical for most songbirds.  In the Spring males will court the female by showing off his bright colors (the brighter the better), and  will often bring food and  feed her beak-to-beak.  Once a pair gets together they often mate for life.  After courtship the female finds a hidden spot in a dense shrub and builds a cup shaped nest of twigs padded with grass or pine needles.  She will lay a clutch of 3-4 eggs and incubate them around 12 days.  The male feeds her during this time.  The young birds “fledge” (grow muscle and feathers) quickly and are able to leave the nest around 2 weeks after hatching. The male will care for and feed each brood as the female lays and incubates another batch of eggs, usually three clutches per year.


Cardinals give us much pleasure in hearing them sing.  For the male cardinal it’s all business however, as singing is how he identifies his territory and tells other birds male cardinals to steer clear.  Female song birds normally do not sing, but the female cardinal is an exception, and will often vocalize from her nest.   The males song is easy to recognize, normally hitting notes that are repeated several times.  Some common phrases sound like “cheeeer-adote, cheeeeer-a-dote-dote-dote”, or “purdy, purdy, purdy, purdy”.   If you look up the cardinal on the internet you can listen to recordings and learn what they sound like, and yes there is a phone “app” for that. Male cardinals are fierce defenders of their territory and will often fight their own reflection in a window or car mirror relentlessly.


The cardinal is distinct enough to have been named the state bird in seven states, more than any other species.  It is the mascot for 11 college sports teams and two professional teams.  It’s often depicted in a winter scene on Christmas cards.  It’s definitely one of America’s favorite birds, and attracting them to your yard is easy.  Just put sunflower seeds in a feeder and stand back.  Having shrubs in your landscape is also attractive to them.

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