What is a Cardinal?

Mary McMahon

A cardinal is a bird in the cardinal family, a large family of birds related to finches found in both North and South America. In addition to the birds commonly known as cardinals, this family also includes buntings. These birds are famous for the distinctive red plumage seen in males. The color is reminiscent of the red traditionally used for robes worn by cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, explaining the common name for these birds.

Red zucchettos are reserved for cardinals.
Red zucchettos are reserved for cardinals.

Cardinals are songbirds with a crisp, clear call that includes a variety of sounds including whistles, metallic chirps, and trills. Some cardinals can become very communicative with other birds and may whistle and chirp back and forth for extended periods of times. These birds are nonmigratory, preferring to settle in regions with reasonably mild winters and stay year round. Although cardinals live in snowy areas, they do not live in extreme climates where winter temperatures drop very low, as they cannot survive in the lowered temperatures.

Males have bright red bodies with distinctive black masks and red crests. The females tend to be somewhat smaller and have a brownish coat, although they too have red crests and black masks. The differences between males and females are an example of sexual dimorphism, a physical trait commonly observed in birds. With males, the plumage dulls during the winter and brightens in spring in time for mating season, and the color appears to play a role in mate selection for female cardinals.

The cardinal is a seedeater. Both males and females have blunt, powerful beaks designed for cracking seeds. Some cardinals also eat insects and these birds can be a very useful form of natural pest control. Most people who live in regions where these birds are native will see cardinals at their bird feeders and bird baths, especially during the winter, when seeds can sometimes be difficult to find. Some companies make seed mixes specifically designed to appeal to cardinals, for people who are interested in attracting these birds.

Cardinal pairs nest in distinctive cup-shaped nests made of grasses and twigs. The eggs incubate for around two weeks and the female cardinal cares for the young while the male provides food. Once the nestlings learn to fly, they seek independence and territory of their own. Several US states have made the cardinal their state bird, including Illinois, North Carolina, and Kentucky, illustrating how ubiquitous these birds are in North America, especially in the eastern regions.

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