The Cardinal, America’s Favorite Bird


male and female cardinals eating seeds from bird feeder

The cardinal (officially called northern cardinal since 1985) is America’s favorite bird. Seven states have named it as their state bird, including: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and

West Virginia.


With their bright red plumage, male cardinals are one of the most easily recognizable birds. Females are much more drab than the males, but still have some red feathers. Cardinals got their name from the red robes that cardinals in the Roman Catholic church wear.

Cardinals are average size songbirds. Their range includes the eastern United States and Southeastern Canada, as well as portions of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Cardinals can now be found in some areas outside their traditional range where they have been introduced by humans. This includes Bermuda, Hawaii, southern California and southern Arizona.

The cardinal’s diet is primarily seeds, although they will also eat insects and fruit. Because of their preference for seeds, they are one of the most commonly seen birds at backyard bird feeders. Away from the bird feeder, they usually feed on the ground. Unlike many other songbirds, cardinals do not migrate.

During the breeding season, cardinals become territorial. They can sometimes be seen attacking their reflections in sliding glass doors. Most cardinals build their nests three to ten feet off the ground in trees or shrubs. The nest is generally used only once. The female cardinal usually lays three or four eggs. They hatch after thirteen days of incubation and begin flying after another eleven days. Cardinals typically raise two or three broods each season, but sometimes

raise four.


Cardinals were once popular pets. People liked their beautiful red color and their singing. This changed in 1918 when the United States passed the Migratory Bird Act. Originally, this was in response to a treaty negotiated between the United States and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada). Eventually, Mexico, Japan and Russia would join this treaty. Birds were being kept as pets in Europe when Columbus first arrived in America. His discovery made all kinds of new bird species available. The three species from the United States that were most popular as pets were the cardinal, goldfinch and mockingbird.

Due to the fact that birds often die young in the wild, the average lifespan of a wild cardinal is only about three years. The oldest known wild cardinal was at least fifteen years old. The oldest known captive cardinal was 28 years old at the time of its death.

For hundreds of years, the cardinal has been America’s favorite bird. Once kept as pets, today they are watched while they eat sunflower seeds at bird feeders in backyards across the nation. Since they do not migrate, people can view them in winter, when their bright red color stands in stark contrast to winter’s drab colors.


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