Cardinalis cardinalis

By Jesse B. Seamon

Cardinalis cardinalis, which is officially called the Northern Cardinal, is a popular bird known for the brilliant red color of the male. It is classified as a bird in the Finch Family (some scientists classify it in the New World Sparrow Family). The Finch Family is a part of a larger group of birds, which are known as the perching and singing birds. The Northern Cardinal is known to bird watchers as the redbird, and the Christmas bird, but it is most commonly called a Cardinal. Although the male is bright red the females are buffy-brown or olive. The male Cardinal has a black mask around his eyes and beak while the female lacks a black mask but does have dark areas around her eyes and beak area. Most Cardinals are between 7-9 inches (22 cm) in length, with cone shaped beaks, and a very obvious crest on the tops of their heads that they raise at any sign of danger. Although originally confined to the southeast United States the Cardinal has spread as far north as Canada. Cardinals have been introduced to California and Hawaii as well. They are commonly found in wooded areas, streamside thickets, and suburban gardens. They do not migrate but Cardinals are an aggressive species in populating new areas. In the past 100 years alone the cardinal has spread as far as Ontario, Canada.

Cardinals often mate in late March and early April, but there is a second mating season that usually takes place in May or July. After mating the female makes the nest out of twigs, bits of paper, weeds, plant stems, leaves, and any other useful materials that she can pick up. Although the female spends most of the time incubating the eggs it is not uncommon for the male Cardinal to incubate them for short periods. The female Cardinals generally lay about 4 eggs that have lots of spots and are lavender in color. The eggs usually have to be incubated for 12-13 days. After birth the young Cardinals usually stay in their nest for about ten days while being fed by both parents. Cardinals eat buds and berries when they are in season and they also nibble on grains and sunflower seeds. Cardinals also eat many insects and well-known crop pests such as cutworms, caterpillars, and boll weevils. This is helpful to many people because Cardinals save plants in their gardens and crops in their fields by eating these pests.

Cardinals are diurnal animals, and I often see them on my porch eating sunflower seeds, or I hear them singing beautiful melodies in the trees at my home in Roanoke, VA. Cardinals are the state birds of North Carolina and Virginia. They are well known for their chirping songs, which go to the rhythm of "cue, cue, cue", "purty, purty, purty", and "cheer, cheer, cheer."

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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