Featured Birds: Northern Cardinals

The Northern Cardinal is one of the most recognized and beloved birds in the world. Sporting teams take its name. Its picture appears on huge numbers of holiday greeting cards. More than half the land mass of the United States is outside the range of Northern Cardinals, but virtually all Americans would recognize one if they saw it.

When the first colonists from England arrived in America, they took notice of the wildlife. They didn’t communicate well with Native Americans, and so although every animal already had names, the colonists came up with their own names for what they saw. They named our robin for England’s beloved robin red-breast, even though the two species aren’t at all related. They named the Baltimore Oriole for its bright colors, which matched the colors on the family crest of Lord Baltimore. And they named the cardinal for the bright red color of the male, which was the same “cardinal red” as the robes of cardinals in the Roman Catholic church.

Many people associate the colors red and green with Christmas, and a brilliant cardinal shown in a bright green spruce tree against a beautiful snowy background is as iconic a winter scene as anyone could wish for, and a realistic one, too. We’re actually more likely to notice cardinals in this picturesque setting than when they’re skulking about in dense tangles where they roost, because the brilliant males sing when perched on exposed branches.

We call our species the Northern Cardinal even though it’s the only cardinal native to North America, because several other birds called cardinals are found in South America. Our cardinal ranges from the eastern half of the United States and southeastern Canada to Arizona and a few isolated spots in California. It’s also been introduced in Hawaii. There are no records at all from Alaska, yet. 

Cardinals are non-migratory, spending winter in the same general areas where they spend summer. They grow a thick coat of new feathers at summer’s end each year. Males don’t look as bright in their brand new feathers as they do by spring. The brand new feathers have brownish gray tips that, little by little, wear away. At winter’s peak, the plumage is still quite dense, with a thick layer of down feathers hidden under the outer feathers that we see, but as more and more of those dull tips wear off, more of the brilliant red is revealed in time for females to be wowed before nesting.

Cardinals have no trouble surviving extreme cold as long as they can rely on a nutritious and plentiful food source. Their favorite foods are sunflower and safflower; only extremely rare individuals take suet. They are most easily attracted to platform and hopper feeders, or to seeds scattered on the ground, especially near dense shrubs or a brush pile, but some readily come to tube feeders as long as the perches aren’t too small.