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Cardinal (bird) facts for kids

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Cardinal (bird)
Male in Kentucky, United States
Cardinalis cardinalis -Florida, USA -female-8.jpg
Female in Florida, United States
Conservation status
Scientific classification
C. cardinalis
Binomial name
Cardinalis cardinalis
Northern Cardinal-rangemap.gif
Partial range of Northern cardinals. The species also occurs along the Pacific coast of Mexico from Jalisco to Oaxaca, and on the Islas Marías.

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a member of the cardinal family of birds in North America. The bird's name comes from the red-robed Roman Catholic Cardinals. Its crested head is also said to resemble a bishop's mitre. Cardinals have been also referred to as redbirds and Virginia nightingales. Cardinals were once popular cage birds for their bright color and rich, varied songs.


Male Northern Cardinal - Manhasset, NY 04
Male northern cardinal in Manhasset, New York

Males are bright, deep red with black faces and coral/red beaks. Females are a fawn/light brown color, with mostly grayish-brown tones & slight reddish tint in their wings and tail feathers, also with a bright coral/red beak. Both possess prominent raised crests and strong beaks. Young birds (male & female) are the color of a mother bird until the fall, when they will molt and grow their adult feathers.

Diet and feeding

Cardinals eat mostly seeds, fruits, small animals, and insects. They seem to especially like peanuts (unsalted). Cardinals are almost always seen in pairs; if one is seen, its mate will usually be nearby. Nestlings are fed insects by the parents. Both the mother and father raise the birds for the first 10 days, and during the next 10 days the father bird feeds the babies. At this point, the baby birds are considered fledglings, and can flutter among brush on the ground, but the parents still feed them until they are old enough to feed themselves.


Northern cardinals are preyed upon by a wide variety of predators native to North America, including falcons, hawks, shrikes, bald eagles, golden eagles and owls. Predators of chicks and eggs include snakes, blue jays, crows, squirrels, chipmunks, and domestic cats.


Northern Cardinal - bird (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Northern Cardinal on the Island of Kauai, Hawaii

Cardinals are abundant across the eastern United States from Maine to Texas and in Canada in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Their range extends west to the U.S.-Mexico border and south through Mexico to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, northern Guatemala, and northern Belize. They were introduced to Bermuda in 1700. They have also been introduced in Hawaii, and Southern California. Their natural habitats are woodlands, suburbs, gardens, swamps and thickets.

Mating and song

Northern Cardinal Pair-27527
The male often feeds the female as part of their courtship behavior.

Cardinals are a territorial song bird, meaning they mark and defend their territory with their song and whistle. The male sings in a loud, clear whistle from a tree top or other high location to defend his territory. He will chase off other males entering his territory. The pair sometimes sing together before nesting and the male may feed his mate. The female builds a cup nest in a well-concealed spot in dense shrub or a low tree. Both feed the young. Young fledged cardinals resemble adult females in coloring. The male will grow in bright red feathers as he matures and is eventually chased away by his sire.

These birds are permanent residents throughout their range, although they may relocate to avoid extreme weather or if food is scarce.

Cardinals learn their songs, and as a result the songs vary regionally. Cardinals are able to easily distinguish the gender of a singing cardinal by its song alone. Interestingly, however, male cardinals can learn songs from female cardinals, and vice versa, suggesting that differences in song between the sexes may be due to hormonal differences and not learning.

Relationship with humans

The northern cardinal is found in residential areas throughout its range. Backyard birders attract it using feeders containing seeds, particularly sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. An increase in backyard feeding by humans has generally been beneficial to this species.

It is listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List, with an estimated global range of 5,800,000 km2 (2,200,000 sq mi) and a global population of some 100 million.

In the United States, this species receives special legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also banned their sale as cage birds.

It is also protected by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada.

It is illegal to take, kill, or possess northern cardinals, and violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to US$15,000 and imprisonment of up to six months.

U.S. state bird

The northern cardinal is the state bird of seven U.S. states, more than any other species: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia; although in each case the particular state just refers to the bird as "cardinal". It was also a candidate to become the state bird of Delaware, but lost to the Delaware Blue Hen.

Symbols and mascots

St. Louis Cardinals logo
St. Louis Cardinals logo

In the United States, the northern cardinal (referred to as just "cardinal") is the mascot of numerous athletic teams; however, most teams portray the bird with a yellow beak and legs. (In real life, the beaks of both male and female cardinals are red.) In professional sports, it is the mascot of the St. Louis Cardinals of Major League Baseball's National League and the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, which for many years were also based in St. Louis. In college athletics, it is the mascot of many schools including Ball State University, The Catholic University of America, Illinois State University, the University of the Incarnate Word, Lamar University, the University of Louisville, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, North Idaho College, Otterbein University, Saint John Fisher College, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Wesleyan University, Wheeling University, and William Jewell College.

Stanford University's nickname, the (singular) Cardinal, is a reference to the color, not the bird.

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