The common and familiar Northern Cardinal is
a bird whose range has expanded northward in the last 100
years. Originally a bird of the Southeast, the Northern
Cardinal's range expanded north and northwest along the
Mississippi River and its tributaries. In 1886 this
cardinal was found only occasionally north of the Ohio
River. By 1895 it had reached the Great Lakes, and by
1910, it was found in southern Ontario.
Since the 1950s, expansion to the northeast has increased
whereas dispersal to the northwest has slowed. The first
documented Northern Cardinal nesting in Connecticut was
in 1943; it reached Massachusetts in 1958, and has since
reached the southern Maritime provinces of Canada. The
Cardinal is limited in the West to areas where the annual
precipitation is at least 16 inches. Nationally, centers
of abundance for this cardinal are along the Mississippi
River and along the Colorado and Guadalupe Rivers in
Texas. Less-dense populations occur in the valleys of the
Ohio, Arkansas, Brazos, and Red rivers.
Cardinal Range Map
Cardinals are noted for their loud, clear whistled songs,
often sung from a high treetop song post. Females will
counter sing, duetting with malesusually after the
males have established territories and before nesting
begins. Local variations and accents have been noted in
Typical habitats are thickets and brushy areas, edges and
clearings, riparian woodlands, parks, and residential
areas. Here the nonmigratory cardinals feed on a variety
of foods including seeds, leaf buds, flowers, berries,
and fruit. Up to one-third of its summer diet can be
insects. Its winter diet is 90 percent vegetable matter,
especially large seeds. Winter flocks can be very large,
up to 60 or 70 individuals in areas of abundance.
Description: Northern Cardinals are a
medium-sized songbird (approximately 8.75 inches in
length) with short, rounded wings, a long tail, a heavy
conical bill, and a crest. Males are nearly all brilliant
red; brownish-gray-tinged scapular and back feathers give
the upper parts a less colorful appearance. The coral red
bill is surrounded by a mask of black that extends to a
dark eye and includes the chin and throat. Legs and feet
are dark red.
The female is soft grayish brown on the back with
variable areas of red on the tail, crest, and wings. The
underparts are a warm pinkish brown. Her coral red bill
is also surrounded by darker but not black feathers, so
her mask is not as distinct as the male's. Females are
slightly smaller than males.
The juveniles are like females but more brown in color,
with shorter crest and a blackish bill. They molt to
adult plumage in fall.
The only other similar all-red birds in North America,
the Hepatic and Summer Tanagers (Piranga flava and P.
rubra), can be distinguished by their lack of crest
and black mask and by their much slimmer bills. The
related Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) is a
similarly shaped bird with a similar song that may also
attend feeders in the Southwest. It is a gray bird with a
touch of red on its wings, tail, and the top of its
crest. The male has red on its face where the cardinal
has black and rose on its breast and belly. Both male and
female are distinguished by strongly curved yellow
parrot-like bills rather than the straighter and longer
coral-red bills of the Northern Cardinal.
In the 1800s Cardinals were much-sought-after cage birds
highly valued for their color and song. Thousands were
trapped in the south in the winter and sent to northern
markets, and thousands more were sent to Europe. This
trade ceased, fortunately, with the passage of the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Visit Shaw Creek
Bird Supply to see our selection of Northern
Copyright © 2003 Shaw Creek