10 Incredible Northern Cardinal Facts

Written by Jennifer Gaeng
Published: August 20, 2022
© iStock.com/BeyondMyLens
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The Northern Cardinal, sometimes referred to as the redbird or common cardinal, is a species of the Cardinalis genus. A medium-sized songbird, the northern cardinal measures 8 to 9 inches in length. It can be found in southeast Canada and the eastern United States, as well as further south via Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Additionally, it is an invasive species in many locations, including Bermuda and Hawaii. Its habitat includes marshes, woodlands, gardens, shrub areas, and shrub lands. The sale of this formerly beloved pet bird in the United States was outlawed by the MBTA (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) of 1918. Ready to learn more? Read on to discover 10 Incredible Northern Cardinal Facts!

1.      Northern Cardinals Are First To Rise And Last To Rest

Northern Cardinal in flight
One of the most popular birds in the US, the cardinal is the official state bird of no fewer than seven eastern states.

©Rob Palmer Photography/Shutterstock.com

Ornithologists don’t fully understand why this is the case, but they think it may be due to less competition from other birds at the feeders between the early morning and late evening. Males may also be less noticeable in low light, giving them some protection from natural predators.

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2.      Northern Cardinals Are Considered Granivorous

What Do Cardinals Eat image
Northern cardinals consume a wide variety of insects, such as true bugs, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, and ants.

Northern Cardinals are classified as granivorous animals because seeds are their primary dietary source. Their slender, strong, conical beaks are designed specifically for breaking apart nut and seed shells. They also consume insects such as true bugs, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, and ants. They even occasionally eat spiders, centipedes, and snails! Insects are primarily fed to the young. Most foods consumed are vegetable debris, including waste grain, flower buds, leaf buds, berries, and other wild fruits.

3.      The Northern Cardinal’s Name Is Historical

Most Expensive Birds-Northern Cardinal
The male behaves territorially, marking out his territory with song.

©Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

The Northern Cardinal got its name from the red biretta and distinctive Catholic cardinals’ robes worn by the males during the time of the United States’ colonial founding.

4.      There Is A Northern Cardinal Of Another Color

northern cardinal pair on tree branch
Occasionally, a cardinal’s plumage lacks the usual red pigment and is instead brightly colored yellow or orangish, giving rise to a yellow cardinal.

©Cathy Keifer/Shutterstock.com

Male cardinals are typically bright red throughout, with a reddish bill and a black face immediately surrounding the beak. Females have a generally light brown color with warm reddish undertones on their wings, tail, and crown, and their red-orange bills and black faces are identical.

Occasionally, a cardinal’s plumage lacks the usual red pigment and is instead brightly colored yellow or orangish, giving rise to a yellow cardinal. Xanthochroism, a genetic difference in the color of the Northern Cardinal’s plumage, is usually to blame for the species’ vivid yellow appearance.

5.      Northern Cardinals Have Unique Courtship Rituals

Male and female Northern Cardinals
During courtship, the male feeds seed to the female beak-to-beak.

©Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

The males use a technique known as “beak to beak” courtship when they give their female partners seeds to show their passion. It’s possible to suggest that the birds appear to be kissing if you let your imagination run wild. Particularly birds are renowned for their intricate courtship rituals.

During courtship, the male feeds seed to the female beak-to-beak. To woo a female cardinal, male cardinals, which have red body feathers as opposed to tan body feathers, have been observed spinning and twisting their bodies. The male behaves territorially, marking out his territory with song.

6.      In Certain Regions, Northern Cardinals Are Sometimes Called By Other Names

Northern Cardinal on a branch
Cardinals are known as the Winter Redbird because they stand out dramatically against the snow’s white background.

©Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

Other names for Northern Cardinals include Winter Redbird and Virginia Nightingale. In the 18th century, England is where the name Virginia Nightingale first appeared. Cardinals are known as the Winter Redbird because, in the winter, when they are the only red bird present, they stand out dramatically against the snow’s white background.

7.      Northern Cardinals Congregate In the Winter Months

Northern Cardinal on white background
The success of a group searching for food is greater than that of a single cardinal or pair.

©Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

Northern Cardinals abandon their territorial behavior in the winter and gather in flocks. The success of a group searching for food is greater than that of a single cardinal or pair. These groups of cardinals are sometimes referred to as a college, conclave, deck, radiance, or Vatican.

8.      Northern Cardinals Typically Don’t Migrate Like Most Other Species

cardinal perched on a bird feeder
Northern Cardinals can search for food all year round because their diet primarily consists of seeds and nuts.

©iStock.com/ANCHASA MITCHELL

In contrast to many other songbird species, Northern Cardinals prefer to overwinter in their preferred spring/summer habitat. Since migratory birds depend on insects or fruit for nourishment and their food supply decreases during the cold winter, many migrate to warmer climates in the winter. Northern Cardinals can search for food all year round because their diet primarily consists of seeds and nuts.

9.      Northern Cardinals Are Incredibly Territorial During Mating Season

Northern Cardinal with hatchlings
o protect his area, the male sings in a loud, distinct whistle from atop a tree or another high place.

©Agnieszka Bacal/Shutterstock.com

Male Northern Cardinals undergo a noticeable hormonal boost throughout the mating/nesting season. During this period, they have strong territorial instincts and will attack any visitors they perceive as dangerous to the brood. A territorial songbird, the northern cardinal. To protect his area, the male sings in a loud, distinct whistle from atop a tree or another high place. Other males who try to enter his domain will be chased away.

Numerous universities have adopted the cardinal as their mascot.

©iStock.com/EEI_Tony

They represent two professional teams, one of which is the Arizona Cardinals NFL franchise and the legendary St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Numerous universities, including Ball State University, Concordia University, Lamar University, the University of Louisville, and Wesleyan University, have adopted the cardinal as their mascot.


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About the Author

A substantial part of my life has been spent as a writer and artist, with great respect to observing nature with an analytical and metaphysical eye. Upon close investigation, the natural world exposes truths far beyond the obvious. For me, the source of all that we are is embodied in our planet; and the process of writing and creating art around this topic is an attempt to communicate its wonders.

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