Northern cardinal

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Northern cardinal
Northern cardinal.jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom Information
Domain Eukaryota
Kingdom Animalia
Subkingdom Bilateria
Branch Deuterostomia
Phylum Information
Phylum Chordata
Sub-phylum Vertebrata
Infraphylum Gnathostomata
Class Information
Superclass Tetrapoda
Class Aves
Sub-class Neornithes
Infra-class Neoaves
Order Information
Superorder Passerimorphae
Order Passeriformes
Sub-order Passeri
Family Information
Superfamily Passeroidea
Family Cardinalidae
Genus Information
Genus Cardinalis
Species Information
Species C. cardinalis
Population statistics
Population Unknown (2018 est.)[1]
Conservation status Least concern[2]

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a songbird of the family Cardinalidae, and found throughout much of eastern North America. Often called the redbird locally, the northern cardinal is one of the most conspicuous wild animals on the continent, especially in winter, with the bright red coloration providing a sharp contrast in a white landscape. The namesake "cardinal" refers to the senior clerics of the Roman Catholic Church and the red robes they wear.


The northern cardinal is about 8.3–9.1 inches long, with a wingspan of 9.8 to 12.2 inches, and weigh 1.19 to 2.29 ounces. It has a strong, conical beak and a small, yet distinctive head crest. The two sexes differ in the coloration of the plumage, with males having a predominantly scarlet-red plumage with some brownish-red hues on the wings, back and tail, a black face mask. Females bear an olive-brownish plumage with reddish hues on the wings, on the tail and on the crest, as well as by a less well defined, rather gray colored face mask. Young birds are colored like the females, but without a face mask. Northern races are darker, southern races are more brightly colored red.

The call is a herald of springtime for many: a brightly-whistled "what-cheer...what-cheer" or "whoit whoit whoit"; repeated "chips" are used as either contact calls or alarms[3][4].


  • Cardinalis cardinalis affinis; western Mexico: southeastern Sonora to southwestern Chihuahua, western Durango
  • Cardinalis cardinalis canicaudus; western Oklahoma, western Texas to east-central Mexico
  • Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis; eastern United States
  • Cardinalis cardinalis carneus; Mexico: coastal Colima to Isthmus of Tehuántepec
  • Cardinalis cardinalis clintoni; Mexico: Isla Cerralvo
  • Cardinalis cardinalis coccineus; Mexico: eastern San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, northeastern Puebla, northern Oaxaca
  • Cardinalis cardinalis flammiger; Mexico (southern Quintana Roo), Belize, northern Guatemala (Petén)
  • Cardinalis cardinalis floridanus; southeastern Georgia, peninsular Florida
  • Cardinalis cardinalis igneus; Mexico: southern Baja California, north to latitude 27°N
  • Cardinalis cardinalis littoralis; Mexico: southern Veracruz and Tabasco
  • Cardinalis cardinalis magnirostris; southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana
  • Cardinalis cardinalis mariae; Mexico: Tres Marías Islands
  • Cardinalis cardinalis saturatus; Mexico: Cozumel Island
  • Cardinalis cardinalis seftoni; Mexico: central Baja California, south to latitude 27°N
  • Cardinalis cardinalis sinaloensis; Mexico: Sinaloa and Jalisco coasts
  • Cardinalis cardinalis superbus; extreme southeastern California to Arizona, southwest New Mexico and northern Sonora
  • Cardinalis cardinalis townsendi; Mexico: Isla Tiburón, adjacent coastal Sonora
  • Cardinalis cardinalis yucatanicus; Mexico: Yucatán Peninsula

Range and habitat

The northern cardinal is found mainly in eastern North America, from southern Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia in Canada, south to Guatemala and Belize, and from the Atlantic coastline westward to southern Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and southern Arizona. The species was introduced in Hawaii and southern California. A forest bird, it has also shown a preference for populated areas, living in open ground with plenty of bushes and hedges, in parks, gardens, at forest edges, in forest clearings and in riparian forests.


The northern cardinal's diet consists of 90% seeds, cereals and fruits. It feeds mainly by hopping on the ground, or among trees or shrubs. It also consumes beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, snails, wild fruits and berries, flowers and bark of elms. It will also take advantage of maple sap flowing from the holes previously drilled by sapsuckers and woodpeckers. During the summer, it prefers seeds that spread easily, but it is less selective in winter when food is scarce. Young birds are fed almost exclusively on insects.


Northern cardinals are monogamous, and remain with their partners for life[5]. Breeding season begins in spring, with singing duets[6] and the male bringing and offering food to the female. Females construct the nest, a cup-shaped structure about six inches in diameter made of twigs and softer inner material, and hidden within secluded areas of thick bushes or on a low tree, generally between one to fifteen feet high. New nests are built every year; old ones are not reused.

Egg laying begins between 1 and 6 days after the end of the nest construction. The female typically lays 4 eggs, sometimes less, very rarely more: the eggs measure just under an inch in length, and are white with gray-brown spots, and are more marked at the wider end. The female is the primary incubator, although it can be replaced by the male for short periods of time, The incubation lasts 12-13 days, and the young are fed by both parents.

Just 10-11 days after hatching, the young are ready to leave the nest, although they are not independent until at 5 weeks of age; after leaving the nest it is the male who takes care of them until fully independent, while the female lays another brood. In fact, cardinals have at least two, and sometimes as many as four, nesting periods per year, with a survival rate of 65%.


The northern cardinal and its young are subject to predation by various other animal species, among them various birds of prey (hawks and owls), shrikes, squirrels and chipmunks, snakes, and domestic cats and dogs. Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are also a threat, due to removing cardinal eggs (usually during the second nesting period[7]) and parasitically laying their own eggs as a replacement, with the cardinal parents incubating and raising the resultant chicks[8][9].

It was once considered a pet in North America; like the canary, the cardinal was kept as a cage bird, so much so that demand posted a serious threat to their numbers in the wild. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, signed by the United States and Great Britain (acting for Canada) put an end to that practice. Since then, the species has increased in numbers, with the expansion of human settlements and urbanization having a positive effect; one estimate puts the North American population at roughly 120 million birds[10].

The species is the state bird in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, reflected as well on special license plates from Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio. In addition, the cardinal is also popular as a mascot and namesake of American sports teams, in professional, collegiate, and grade school levels, with Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals and the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals the best known.