by Alexandra Forsythe
Ask any group of people to list their favorite feeder birds and you’re sure to hear “Northern Cardinal” from most of them. People love this iconic bird with its regal crest and brilliant red plumage, and most people can identify them easily, particularly in the Midwest. In Indiana’s 2013-2014 Project Feeder Watch, the Northern Cardinal was the most often reported bird with 96.75% of feeders visited (second place went to the Dark-eyed Junco).
Even experienced birders who have seen so many exquisite birds favor the cardinal. John James Audubon said, “In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred.” Bird biographer Arthur Cleveland Bent said, “In the Cardinal we have a rare combination of good qualities, brilliant plumage, a rich and pleasing voice, beneficial good habits, and devotion to its mate and family.” Gene Stratton-Porter’s first book, “Song of the Cardinal”, was about a Northern Cardinal that was a superhero among its kind that cautioned people to take care of the birds around them.
Northern Cardinals were once prized cage birds until the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 banned keeping these birds as pets. The Northern Cardinal’s range was originally limited to the southeastern U.S. About a century ago the Northern Cardinal began expanding its range along the Mississippi River. By 1910 they had spread into southern Ontario. It has since spread into maritime Canada and is now very widespread. They have been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda. Seven states have chosen the Northern Cardinal as their state bird: Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Both the male and female Northern Cardinal can sing. When they make their distinctive upward sweeping whistle sound, they use the left side of their syrinx for the lower portion of the note, then they seamlessly switch to the right side for the higher pitched portion of the note. There is also often a soft “churring” sound at the end of the call. You can learn more about the way the Cardinal produces these sounds in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9LNexIoCW0
Many people see the Northern Cardinal as a sign of Christmas. On Amazon alone there are over 1,900 results for Christmas decoration cardinals and 1,700 Christmas cards, and on the internet there are countless Christmas wallpaper cardinals. The Cardinal is probably celebrated as a Christmas bird because of their brilliant red plumage that stands out so well against the snow. On the Christmas Bird Counts and Feeder Watches, make sure to keep a special eye out for this spectacular bird!