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Bird Identification

Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis L 8 ¾" (22cm)

hear the song/call of the northern cardinal

Photo by Maslowski Wildlife Productions.

Northern cardinals are among the most regular backyard visitors in the eastern half of the United States, a nearly constant presence as long as sunflower seed is available. Even if they are not coming to feeders, they are likely to be hanging around the yard, because cardinals have adapted well to humans and suburbs. In fact, the cardinal’s fondness for the ornamental plants we favor has helped the cardinal population grow and expand.

Cardinals are not migrants, so if you have them in summer you will have them in winter, as long as you keep the feeders stocked. The difference is that the three or four cardinals you see in May or September can turn into 20 or 30 in December and January, especially following storms or during cold weather.

If you live beyond the range of cardinals, look forward to your first encounter with them. Be prepared to be shocked, though. No illustration or photograph truly does them justice. The males are clear, vivid red, with a black “face mask,” and females are soft brown with quiet, buffy shades on the breast. Cardinals’ bills are large and chunky, black in juvenile birds and turning to red or orange in adulthood. Males and females have a distinctive crest.

The cardinal’s songs are bright, clear whistles, such as what-cheer, what-cheer, or teew, teew, and there are many variations on these. Its call is a loud, sharp tchip.

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