29 Captivating Facts About Cardinal Birds That Will Blow You Away!

cardinal bird facts

Few birds are as striking or as easily recognisable as the Cardinal. Their dramatic red plumage means they stand out proudly in all surroundings and seasons. But what exactly causes those fire-hued feathers? How did they come by their rather religious name? And why do these romantic birds like to kiss one another? Here are 29 things you need to know about the captivating Cardinal bird!

29 Amazing Cardinal Facts

cardinal bird fact
  1. The Cardinal bird belongs to the Cardinalis genus of the Cardinalidae family of New World Passerine birds. There are three species of Cardinalis; the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), The Desert Cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus), and the Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus), with a further 19 subspecies of Cardinal birds. 
  2. Both Northern and Desert Cardinals are endemic to North and Central America, whilst the Vermilion Cardinal is native to the more limited territories of Colombia and Venezuela. Cardinals inhabit a wide range of habitats, from thick forests and woodlands to deserts and scrublands, to swamps and even backyards. 
  3. The Cardinal bird was first officially recorded by the Swedish botanist, zoologist, and, taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus in 1758, although the species wasn’t correctly classified until almost a hundred years later. 
  4. Although the appearance of Cardinal birds differs slightly between subspecies, they are still one of the most easily recognisable avians in the Americas. Each species has a small crest atop their heads, which they will raise when agitated and flatten when relaxed. Males have vivid scarlet plumage, coral-coloured beaks, and grey, black, or red masked faces, sometimes with grey or black flashes. The Desert Cardinal has a rather more muted plumage than the Northern and the Vermilion species. Mature Cardinals are usually around 20cm in length, with a wingspan of around 25cm. The distinct red hue of the male feathers helps them to attract a mate, as the females are more attracted to brighter coloured feathers. Facts About Cardinal Birds
  5. Cardinal birds are sexually dichromatic, meaning males differ from females in appearance. It is only the males which display the characteristic red plumage, whilst females tend to be a duller brown or olive colour. 
  6. Cardinals are monogamous throughout the breeding season, but they do not always mate for life. Some may change partners each year, whilst others will remain together for several years. 
  7. Both male and female Cardinal birds help to build the nests ready for breeding, and both sexes will take turns incubating their eggs. A pair of Cardinals may raise up to four broods per year, usually consisting of between two to five eggs each time. 
  8. Whilst courting, male Cardinals will feed females in a ‘beak-to-beak’ fashion. This behaviour is a way of showing affection, and it also looks very much like they are kissing! 
  9. Each year, Cardinals go through a moulting period to renew any damaged feathers. The process lasts around a fortnight, during which the bird will be completely bald! Juveniles moult more often than adults, as they gradually shed their infant plumage to develop their characteristic red feathers.
  10. Cardinals are granivorous, meaning their diet consists mainly of seeds, nuts, and grains. They will also eat fruit, snails, or insects, depending on the season. Cardinals tend to forage low to the ground either alone or with their mate. In winter when food is scarcer they will sometimes forage in groups. Hatchlings will eat insects exclusively until they fledge the nest, so their breeding season coincides with the summer when insects are more abundant. cardinal facts
  11. Cardinals’ beaks are very tough and bulky, enabling them to crack open nuts and seed husks with ease. 
  12. Cardinals are well known for their beautiful singing abilities. Unlike many songbirds, both males and females can sing. The males will sing to warn predators to stay away from their territory and to warn females and youngsters that danger is approaching, whilst the females will sing whilst brooding to signal to the male to bring them food. Sometimes mated pairs will sing together before building a nest. The females are capable of far more elaborate tunes than the males, who tend to use short, sharp chirps and tweets. 
  13. Prized for their beautiful singing abilities and stunning colouring, Cardinals were extremely popular pets in 19th century America, and as result, their population in the wild began to diminish. In 1918, however, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed which made it illegal to hunt, kill, sell, or keep a Cardinal bird in captivity. The punishment for violating this law is up to six months imprisonment or a fine of up to $15,000. Under this special protection, Cardinal bird populations flourished once more and they are now one of the most commonly seen birds in America. 
  14. Both the common name Cardinal and the Latin name Cardinalis were given in reference to the birds’ bright red plumage, which early settlers to the Americas thought were reminiscent of the deep red robes worn by cardinals in the Catholic church. The pointed crest atop their head also resembles the pointed caps of Catholic officials. 
  15. In keeping with the Catholic association, a flock of Cardinals is called a Vatican! cardinal fact
  16. Unlike other songbirds, Cardinals are generally non-migratory. Most Cardinals will spend their entire life within a few miles of where they were born. This is because they can happily subsist on nuts and seeds when fruit and insects are scarce during the colder months, so they don’t need to travel to warmer climates in the south in search of food. 
  17. To stay warm during winter, Cardinals will fluff their feathers up and down to trap warm air near their bodies. They are also known to shiver and can even voluntarily drop their body temperature by a few degrees to preserve energy. 
  18. Male Cardinals can become very aggressive when defending their territory against other birds, particularly during the breeding season. They are even known to relentlessly attack themselves when catching sight of their own reflection, mistaking themselves for an intruder. 
  19. In the wild, the average lifespan of a Cardinal is only around three years, mostly due to disease, predators, food scarcity, and accidents. The oldest known wild Cardinal lived for 15 years, which is around the average life expectancy for most captive Cardinals. The oldest recorded captive Cardinal lived to be 28 and a half years old! 
  20. One of the main reasons for wild Cardinals’ short expectancy is that they are heavily preyed on by larger birds such as eagles, hawks, and owls. Other animals such as snakes, squirrels, chipmunks, and domestic cats are notorious for feasting on Cardinal eggs. 
  21. Although not immune, Cardinals are naturally able to biologically suppress the West Nile Virus if they become infected. Spread by mosquitos, West Nile Virus is a common condition affecting over 300 avian species. It causes inflammation of the brain, paralysis, and often death. facts about cardinal
  22. The Cardinal is the state bird for seven American states; Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. They are also the mascot for major sports teams in both the baseball and football leagues. 
  23. The red colour of the males’ plumage is obtained from pigments, known as carotenoids, which are contained in the food that they eat such as red berries. These pigments travel through the bloodstream and give the feathers their characteristic hue. If red-coloured foods are in short supply, the Cardinals’ feathers will begin to fade! 
  24. Although extremely rare, Cardinal birds can have a sunshine coloured plumage, rather than a scarlet one! This yellow colouration is caused by a genetic mutation called ‘xanthochroism’, where the bird isn’t able to produce red pigmentation. Yellow Cardinals have been spotted in Alabama, Florida, and Illinois, and although their territory is probably just as widespread as standard Cardinals, it is estimated that the total population of yellow Cardinals is less than 2000. 
  25. Even rarer than the yellow plumage, some Cardinals are albino! Caused by a genetic mutation which means they lack any melanin or pigmentation at all in their plumage, albino Cardinals are completely white, with pale pink eyes. ‘White’ cardinals only occur in about one in every 1800 cardinals. 
  26. Another rare colouration found in Cardinals is known as ‘leucism’. This condition causes a partial loss of pigmentation, although not to the extent of albinism. Leucistic Cardinals will have sporadic patches of white or very pale feathers in amongst the usual red-hued feathers. 
  27. The top flight speed of the average Cardinal is around 20-30 miles per hour. 
  28. Cardinal birds are regular visitors to garden bird feeders, but unlike other birds, they will usually only visit either at dawn or dusk. Researchers think that this is because there is less competition from other birds at these times. fact about cardinal
  29. Cardinals are able to remember and recognise human voices, particularly when they feed regularly in a particular garden! Although generally shy, they can become quite friendly towards humans whom they remember and don’t see as a threat.  

Cardinals truly are a magnificent species of birds. Their elaborate songs and ravaging ruby-hued feathers mean they are some of the best-loved of American avians. Thankfully, due to legal protection and plentiful food supplies, the Cardinal bird population in America is flourishing, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to see this stunning songbird in the wild! 


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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.

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