The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a North American bird in the genus Cardinalis; it is also known colloquially as the redbird or common cardinal. It can be found in southern Canada, through the eastern United States from Maine to Texas and south through Mexico. It is found in woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and swamps.
The Northern Cardinal is a mid-sized songbird with a body length of 21 centimeters (8.3 inches). It has a distinctive crest on the head and a mask on the face which is black in the male and gray in the female. The male is a vibrant red, while the female is a dull red-brown shade. The Northern Cardinal is mainly granivorous, but also feeds on insects and fruit. The male behaves territorially, marking out his territory with song. During courtship, the male feeds seed to the female beak-to-beak. A clutch of three to four eggs is laid, and two to four clutches are produced each year. It was once prized as a pet, but its sale as cage birds is now banned in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The Northern Cardinal was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae. It was initially included in the genus Loxia, which now contains only crossbills. In 1838, it was placed in the genus Cardinalis and given the scientific name Cardinalis virginianus, which means "Virginia Cardinal". In 1918, the scientific name was changed to Richmondena cardinalis to honor Charles Wallace Richmond, an American ornithologist. In 1983, the scientific name was changed again to Cardinalis cardinalis and the common name was changed to "Northern Cardinal", to avoid confusion with the seven other species also termed cardinals.
The common name, as well as the scientific name, of the Northern Cardinal refers to the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps. The term "Northern" in the common name refers to its range, as it is the northernmost cardinal species.
- Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis Linnaeus, 1758
- Cardinalis cardinalis affinis Nelson, 1899
- Cardinalis cardinalis canicaudus Chapman, 1891
- Cardinalis cardinalis carneus Lesson, 1842
- Cardinalis cardinalis clintoni Banks, 1963
- Cardinalis cardinalis coccineus Ridgway, 1873
- Cardinalis cardinalis flammiger J. L. Peters, 1913
- Cardinalis cardinalis floridanus Ridgway, 1896
- Cardinalis cardinalis igneus S. F. Baird, 1860
- Cardinalis cardinalis littoralis Nelson, 1897
- Cardinalis cardinalis magnirostris Bangs, 1903
- Cardinalis cardinalis mariae Nelson, 1898
- Cardinalis cardinalis phillipsi Parkes, 1997
- Cardinalis cardinalis saturatus Ridgway, 1885
- Cardinalis cardinalis seftoni Huey, 1940
- Cardinalis cardinalis sinaloensis Nelson, 1899
- Cardinalis cardinalis superbus Ridgway, 1885
- Cardinalis cardinalis townsendi Van Rossem, 1932
- Cardinalis cardinalis yucatanicus Ridgway, 1887
The Northern Cardinal is a mid-sized songbird with a body length of 20–23.5 cm (7.9–9.3 in) and a wingspan of 25–31 cm (9.8–12 in). The adult weighs from 33.6–65 g (1.19–2.3 oz), with an average 44.8 g (1.58 oz). The male averages slightly larger than the female. The adult male is a brilliant crimson red color with a black face mask over the eyes, extending to the upper chest. The color becomes duller and darker on the back and wings. The female is fawn, with mostly grayish-brown tones and a slight reddish tint on the wings, the crest, and the tail feathers. The face mask of the female is gray to black and is less defined than that of the male. Both sexes possess prominent raised crests and bright coral-colored beaks. The beak is cone-shaped and strong. Young birds, both male and female, show the coloring similar to the adult female until the fall, when they molt and grow adult feathers. They are brown above and red-brown below, with brick-colored crest, forehead, wings, and tail. The legs and feet are a dark pink-brown. The iris of the eye is brown. The plumage color of the males is produced from carotenoid pigments in the diet. Coloration is produced from both red pigments and yellow carotenoid pigments. Northern Cardinal males possess the ability to metabolize carotenoid pigments to create plumage pigmentation of a color different from the ingested pigment. When fed only yellow pigments, males become a pale red color, rather than a yellow.
Distribution and habitat
The Northern Cardinal is abundant across the eastern United States from Maine to Texas and in Canada in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Its range extends west to the U.S.-Mexico border and south through Mexico to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, northern Guatemala, and northern Belize. An allopatric population is found on the Pacific slope of Mexico from Jalisco to Oaxaca; note that this population is not shown on the range map. The species was introduced to Bermuda in 1700. It has also been introduced in Hawaii and southern California. Its natural habitat is woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and swamps.
The Northern Cardinal is a territorial song bird. The male sings in a loud, clear whistle from the top of a tree or another high location to defend his territory. He will chase off other males entering his territory. He may mistake his image on various reflective surfaces as an invading male, and will fight his reflection relentlessly. The Northern Cardinal learns its songs, and as a result the songs vary regionally. It is able to easily distinguish the sex of another singing Northern Cardinal by its song alone. Mated pairs often travel together.
Both sexes sing clear, whistled song patterns, which are repeated several times, then varied. Some common phrases are described as "cheeeer-a-dote, cheeer-a-dote-dote-dote," "purdy, purdy, purdy...whoit, whoit, whoit, whoit," "what-cheer, what-cheer... wheet, wheet, wheet, wheet" and cheer, cheer, cheer, what, what, what, what The Northern Cardinal has a distinctive alarm call, a short metallic 'chip' sound. This call often is given when predators approach the nest, in order to give warning to the female and nestlings. In some cases it will also utter a series of chipping notes. The frequency and volume of these notes increases as the threat becomes greater. This chipping noise is also used by a Cardinal pair to locate each other, especially during dusk hours when visibility wanes.
Song of the Northern Cardinal
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Northern Cardinals are preyed upon by a wide variety of predators native to North America, including falcons, all Accipiter hawks, shrikes, and several owls, including long-eared owls, and eastern screech owls. Predators of chicks and eggs include: milk snakes, coluber constrictors, blue jays, eastern gray squirrels, fox squirrels, eastern chipmunks, and domestic cat.
The diet of the Northern Cardinal consists mainly (up to 90 percent) of weed, grains, and fruits. It is a ground feeder and finds food while hopping on the ground through trees or shrubbery. It eats beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, snails, wild fruit and berries, corn (maize) and oats, sunflower seeds, the blossoms and bark of elm trees, and drinks maple sap from holes made by sapsuckers, an example of commensalism. During the summer months, it shows preference for seeds that are easily husked, but is less selective during winter, when food is scarce. Northern Cardinals also will consume insects and feed their young almost exclusively on insects.
Pairs mate for life, and they stay together year-round. Mated pairs sometimes sing together before nesting. During courtship they may also participate in a bonding behavior where the male collects food and brings it to the female, feeding her beak-to-beak. If the mating is successful, this mate-feeding may continue throughout the period of incubation.
Males sometimes bring nest material to the female cardinal, who does most of the building. She crushes twigs with her beak until they are pliable, then turns in the nest to bend the twigs around her body and push them into a cup shape with her feet. The cup has four layers: coarse twigs (and sometimes bits of trash) covered in a leafy mat, then lined with grapevine bark and finally grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles. The nest typically takes 3 to 9 days to build; the finished product is 2–3 inches tall, 4 inches across, with an inner diameter of about 3 inches. Cardinals do not usually use their nests more than once. The female builds a cup nest in a well-concealed spot in dense shrub or a low tree one to three meters (three to ten ft) off the ground. The nest is made of thin twigs, bark strips, and grasses, lined with grasses or other plant fibers. Eggs are laid one to six days following the completion of the nest. The eggs are white, with a tint of green, blue or brown, and are marked with lavender, gray, or brown blotches which are thicker around the larger end. The shell is smooth and slightly glossy. Three or four eggs are laid in each clutch. Eggs measure approximately 1 x .75 inches in size. The female generally incubates the eggs, though, rarely, the male will incubate for brief periods of time. Incubation takes 12 to 13 days. Young fledge 10 to 11 days after hatching. Two to three, and even four, broods are raised each year. The male cares for and feeds each brood as the female incubates the next clutch of eggs.
The oldest wild Cardinal banded by researchers lived at least 15 years and 9 months, although 28.5 years was achieved by a captive bird. Annual survival rates for adult Northern Cardinals have been estimated at 60 to 65%; however, as with other passerine birds, the high mortality of juveniles means that the average lifespan is only about a year.
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. Although some controversy surrounds bird feeding (see bird feeder for details), 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. It has an estimated global range of 5,800,000 square kilometers (2,239,392.5 sq mi) and a global population estimated to be about 100,000,000 individuals. Populations appear to remain stable and it has not reached the threshold of inclusion as a threatened species, which requires a decline of more than 30 percent in ten years or three generations. It was once prized as a pet due to its bright color and distinctive song. 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 15,000 US dollars and imprisonment of up to six months.
In the United States, the Northern Cardinal is the mascot of a number of athletic teams. 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. In college athletics, it is the mascot of many schools, including the University of Louisville, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Ball State University, Illinois State University, Lamar University, the Catholic University of America, Wesleyan University, Wheeling Jesuit University, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, North Idaho College and Saint John Fisher College. It is also the state bird of seven states, more than any other species: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. It was also a candidate to become the state bird of Delaware, but lost to the Blue Hen of Delaware.
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