10 Fun Facts About the Northern Cardinal

What’s in a name? Who knows, but this bird has a whole bunch of them.
A bright red cardinal flies just above the snow-covered ground, against a sparkling white snow-covered background.
Northern Cardinal (male). Photo: Steve Jessmore/Audubon Photography Awards

Renowned for its striking red plumage, the Northern Cardinal is among the most abundant and cherished songbirds in North America. There’s no getting around it: People love cardinals. And why not? Both male and female are beautiful birds that are easy to identify and a joy to see. As such, the Northern Cardinal is the state bird for seven states, the mascot for innumerable sports teams, and even the subject of folklore.

Cardinals can be found in a wide variety of habitats—from deciduous forests to urban parks—throughout the eastern United States and Midwest, extending into western Texas and southern Arizona. They are year-round residents wherever they live and keep their crimson plumage no matter the season, providing a welcomed splash of color during snowy eastern winters. In early spring, their full-throated cheer, cheer, cheer song is an exciting sign that the seasons are shifting. Read on to discover more about this spellbinding species.

1.) Surprisingly, the Northern Cardinal’s original U.S. range was mostly southern, with the species beginning its expansion northward in the early 1900s. Experts believe a warming climate combined with the growth of towns and suburbs across the eastern U.S., which increased edge habitat and introduced yard feeders during winter, were the main drivers of this expansion. 

2.) So where’d the “Northern” in the bird’s name come from then? In 1983, the American Ornithologists’ Union—now the American Ornithological Society (AOS)—added this directional to the bird’s moniker to help differentiate the species from other, more southern species also bearing the name cardinal, including the Yellow Cardinal.

3.) As for the second part of the Northern Cardinal’s common name, that has long been inspired by the bird’s bright red plumage, which reminded people of the crimson robes and caps worn by the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. A group of Northern Cardinals can even be referred to as a college, conclave, or Vatican. (If you're into terms of venery, that is.) 

4.) The bird’s scientific name is Cardinalis cardinalis, but cardinals have had many colloquial names depending on their region, including: Common Cardinal, Cardinal Grosbeak, Red-bird, Cardinal-bird, Cardinal Redbird, Crested Redbird, Top-knot Redbird, Virginia Redbird, and Virginia Nightingale.

5.) Cardinals get their trademark red plumage from their food. While they are mostly granivorous, or grain and seed eating, cardinals also eat insects and a wide variety of fruits like wild grapes, dogwood berries, and mulberries. These fruits contain carotenoids that can create the reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks found in avian feathers.

6.) Not all Northern Cardinals are red—some can be yellow! Yes, different from the actual Yellow Cardinal, there can also be a yellow version of the Northern Cardinal. Cardinals with an orangish-yellow hue have been reported for decades. This deviation in coloration is caused by a genetic mutation that results in a bird missing the enzyme that converts yellow pigments in their food to red. This mutation only affects an estimated one in a million birds, so seeing a yellow cardinal is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

7.) There are currently 19 Northern Cardinal subspecies recognized by the IOC World Bird List, with 14 of them being found south of the United States in Mexico and the far north of Brazil and Guatemala. Researchers have proposed making some of the subspecies in the southwest their own species, but so far, the AOS has rejected the idea without more supporting data.

8.) If you ever see a bald Northern Cardinal, do not worry: Though the bird might look sickly, it’s actually just molting. Every year birds replace their worn-out feathers for fresh ones, typically replacing a few feathers at a time. But cardinals can often lose all their head feathers at once, giving them a decidedly punk-inspired look in late summer after breeding. 

9.) Female cardinals are among the more vocal female North American songbirds. They often sing while sitting on the nest to tell their male when to bring food and stay away, as the male's bright red plumage might expose the nest to predators.

10.) During spring and early summer, male cardinals are extremely protective of their breeding territory against intruders and other males. They can be so obsessed with protecting their turf that they often attack their own reflection in windows, car mirrors, or other shiny surfaces. Females are also known to exhibit this aggressive behavior, and for both sexes, it can last last for weeks.