Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.
The Northern Cardinal is perhaps one of the most recognized and beloved birds east of the Mississippi. Even non-birders can easily identify this bold red bird with the jaunty crest, and people across the region love it so much that it has become the state bird of more states than any other – seven, to be exact. Four of those states are in the Southeast Region: Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky.
Most nature-lovers are already very familiar with Northern Cardinals, so I though it would be interesting to dig up a few facts that might not be so widely known.
What’s in a Name?
- The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is one of just three species in the genus Cardinalis. The other two are the Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatu), found in Mexico and the Southeastern U.S., and the Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus), found in Columbia and Venuzuela.
- This species is referred to as “Northern” because it lives further north than the other two Cardinalis species. The name Cardinal (and the scientific Cardinalis) is an homage to the red robes and caps worn by cardinals of the Catholic church. According to WhatBird.com, a group of cardinals is sometimes called a “vatican”.
A Little History…
- One hundred years ago, the Northern Cardinal’s range was much more limited; in fact, it was seldom seen in the wild north of the Ohio River prior to 1886. Over the last century, its range has expanded north all the way to the maritime provinces of Canada. This expansion has taken place naturally, with only indirect help from humans. Nesting cardinals prefer small trees and shrubs, just like most of us do in our backyards, and the growing popularity of bird feeders provides food sources year-round in harsher northern climates.
- The bright color and sweet song of the Northern Cardinal once made it prized as a pet, and thousands were caught and sent north and overseas. This practice ended with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it illegal to hunt, capture, or sell these birds.
- Northern Cardinals are one of the few species of North American songbirds in which both males and females sing. Females sing in concert with their mates, especially while sitting on the nest, possibly to indicate their food needs. Nestlings learn their songs from other cardinals nearby, so cardinal songs can vary regionally.
- Cardinals eat seeds and fruits, and will supplement their diet with insects, especially during nesting when they feed their young almost exclusively on insects. The striking colors of both males and females come from cartenoid pigments in their diet, and brighter colored males appear to have more breeding success.
Enjoying Northern Cardinals in Your Yard:
- Northern Cardinals will visit nearly any kind of feeder, although they prefer those that simulate ground feeding, like platform or hopper feeders. In winter when food is scarce, they’ll eat most kinds of seed, but to draw them in summer, provide seed that is easily hulled or even pre-hulled, such as sunflower chips. In my yard in Central Florida, I provide safflower seed year-round and see cardinals pretty much every day.
- Many cardinals mate for life, or at least for the breeding season. They can live up to 15 years, and do not migrate, so you may have resident pairs in your yard for years at a time.
- In the wild, they nest in shrubs and small trees, so you can plant these to encourage nesting. They won’t use enclosed nesting boxes but may use an open-plan nesting shelf or ledge.
- You’ll know cardinals are getting ready to court and nest when you see a male offering seeds to a female beak-to-beak, or when you see a pair with nesting materials in their beaks checking out possible nesting sights together.
Do you have a fascinating fact about Northern Cardinals to share? Drop a line in the comments below and help others learn about this wonderful Southeastern native!