Favorite Bird Profile: Northern Cardinal

Favorite Bird Profile: Northern Cardinal

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

The other day a couple in our store asked where they could go to see a cardinal. We tried not to look too shocked; occasionally we do meet people who are not knowledgeable about our common birds. Perhaps they were just beginners; you have to start somewhere. Maybe they were from a different part of the world? As the conversation continued, we learned that the couple was visiting WNC from California where there are no cardinals. That explains it!

But it is definitely a jolt to the system when someone is on the hunt for a bird we see on a daily basis at our feeder. The mark of true naturalists is that they are fascinated by everything in their environment, even the commonplace.

The “official” name, Northern Cardinal, was changed from simply cardinal in 1985 to distinguish it from seven other cardinal species. The bright red robes and caps of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church sprang to mind when the species was first described and given its Latin name of Cardinalis cardinalis by famed Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. This beloved bird’s range extends from Maine to Texas, and south into Mexico. It’s easy to see why some folks refer to this beautiful bird simply as “redbird,” and why it has been adopted by no fewer than seven states, including North Carolina, as their official state bird. The female cardinal’s strikingly different greenish-tan feathers are just as beautiful.

Do not make the mistake, however, of believing that if you’ve seen one Northern Cardinal you’ve seen them all! Last winter a bright yellow cardinal showed up in an Alabama back yard and has been making the rounds on social media ever since. Bird experts think that it probably is a genetic mutation that renders the pigments that it gets from foods yellow rather than red. But we all are waiting to see whether it shows up again or if it is perhaps merely a factor of diet and changes back to normal. We are not sure how observers will know which one was the yellow one, if it has now transformed back to red!

Another cardinal showed up in Illinois a few years ago that had male red feathers on one side and female feathers on the other, an extremely rare occurrence indeed! Known as bilateral gynandromorphs, there have been fewer than 50 documented sightings of this condition in nature.

We are hoping that this piques your interest for watching nature with a different approach, more attuned to differences and variation. If you do wish to attract more Northern Cardinals to your backyard, put out a feeder with sunflower seeds. They seem to prefer feeders with flat places to stand rather than small perches. Very soon we will listen for the cardinal’s clear, resonant songs declaring territories for mating. It is one of the birds that has a great variety of song patterns, so it is a little challenging to learn. A couple of easily-recognized patterns are “purdy, purdy purdy,” where the second syllable is a higher pitch than the first; and “cheer, cheer, cheer,” where the “eeer” slides down in pitch.

Enjoy these beautiful songsters and always remember that even the commonplace in nature can be quite fascinating!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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