Northern Cardinal

Hey guys, welcome back! Today, we have one of the more recognizable birds in North America; the Northern Cardinal. Although, if you live in the Rockies or further west, you probably have never seen one before. It’s weird to me when I start thinking about stuff like that. Like, how a bird can be so common here, but just a few hundred miles away, they’re rare, or even nonexistent! If you are in the U.S. east of the Rockies and have a bird feeder, chances are really good that you’ve had one (at least) come visit. Like their grosbeak and bunting cousins, cardinals enjoy a diet made up primarily of seeds; a fact given away by their large, conical beaks which are perfect for crushing and opening seeds.

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Female Northern Cardinal, Central Park, NY

The Northern Cardinal is probably most known for its red coloration. They can be quite striking. Like other birds with red feathers, their coloration comes from the way the bird metabolizes certain pigments found in food. Mutations in this gene, as well as diet, can affect the vibrancy of the red color, with Northern Cardinals producing yellow feathers on rare occasions! Northern Cardinals are sexually dimorphic, like a lot of birds. This means the males look different from the females. The female (pictured above) is a tan or brown color, with red highlights on the crest, wingtips and tail. And while the male gets all the attention, personally, I think the female is much prettier.

Northern Cardinal, Central Park, NY

The Northern Cardinal is so beloved that it is the state bird of 7 U.S. states (more than any other bird) including my home state of Ohio! They are also the mascots of dozens of sports teams, usually depicted in the logos with a yellow bill, rather than the actual reddish-orange. Kind of weird when you think about it. Like, if you look at the St. Louis Cardinals logo, nothing looks weird about the bird, but if you replaced the yellow bill with an orange one, it wouldn’t look right, even though, technically, it would be.

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Male Northern Cardinal, Central Park, NY

Their call is a very short “chip” that can sound very similar to a chipmunk, while their song has been described to me as sci-fi lasers (pew pew pew.) Little known fact to non-birders, but for most species of songbird, it’s the male who sings, while the female doesn’t. The Northern Cardinal is one of the few songbirds where the female does sing, usually while she’s on the nest! Cardinals (as well as Blue Jays) can sometimes be seen in late summer completely bald! While the phenomenon is not limited to just those species, it is certainly most common among them. It’s simply that some birds molt that way. The why isn’t fully understood, but if you see a bald Cardinal, don’t worry, it’s just fine!

Northern Cardinal Female1
Female Northern Cardinal, Central Park, NY

Despite their commonness in the eastern half of the U.S., I don’t tire of seeing them. I remember them as the first “colorful” bird I ever knew. As a kid, I thought they were some kind of special rare bird because they were the “state bird.” As if that was some sort of title it had won in a gladiatorial contest or something. Northern Cardinals aren’t migratory, but they do certainly seem more common in the winter. Their popularity on Christmas cards, and holiday and winter decorations has solidified their status as a winter bird. When I worked in Central Park, my coworkers and I had a contest of sorts, trying to get different bird species to eat out of our hands. Actually, I think just having a bird land counted. Anyway, my coworker Jeff had determined that the first to get a cardinal would be dubbed the winner. I’m not entirely sure why Jeff chose the cardinal. It could be that they were common enough, and loved eating seeds. It could be that we had heard of them landing and eating out of peoples hands before. Or it could simply be that the Northern Cardinal is a pretty damn cool looking bird, and who wouldn’t want one to eat out of their hand. Today, years later, we’ve all gone our separate ways, keeping in touch periodically, but no one ever “won” that little contest. Which means I still have a chance to! Hahaha! That’ll wrap it up for today, but check back next time when we tackle one of the most notorious invasive species; the much maligned House Sparrow! See you then!

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