Few songbirds attract as much attention as northern cardinals.
If cardinals were the color of dozens of sparrow species, would they be so popular?
Indeed, the magnificent northern red cardinal is embodied on major league baseball and national football uniforms, these are the reasons people buy expensive fruit-filled bird seed mixes and are the official bird of seven states – more than any other bird species.
Interestingly, the northern cardinal was named in reference to the Roman Catholic Church.
Cardinals, who are senior Church officials appointed by the Pope, wear red robes and caps. Clearly, the brightly colored plumage of male cardinals and their distinctive crests inspired someone long ago to name these noble red birds – both their common and scientific names – after Catholic cardinals.
Northern cardinals are medium-sized songbirds that are closely related to scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, and rose-breasted cardinals, to name a few.
There are only two species of the genus Cardinalis that occur in North America, and only the northern cardinal ranges that far north in the northern hemisphere, hence its name, “northern” cardinal.
This charming species of cardinal can be found everywhere east of the Mississippi River, including parts south of South Dakota to Texas and Mexico, as well as parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
Additionally, as northern Minnesotans have come to appreciate, the cardinal’s range appears to be shifting north. Cardinals are also regularly sighted in many Canadian provinces.
The apparent expansion of the cardinal’s population, which is possibly related to gradual trends towards milder winters, is also thought to be related to the popularity of feeding the birds year-round.
Northern cardinals, as is the case with any bird, are better able to withstand the harsh winter weather when food is not a limiting factor. The abundance of high quality birdseed will frequently keep birds including cardinals.
Cardinals, about nine inches long, have a wingspan of about 12 inches. Besides the bright crimson red feathers of the male and the characteristic crest of both male and female birds, male northern cardinals also display a black facial mask.
The female cardinal, like most other female passerines, is less brightly colored. Its plumage is a dull reddish-brown and its mask is gray. Both sexes have fairly large, conical beaks that are red or orange when fully grown.
One of the northern cardinal’s most pleasing traits is the male bird’s territorial song. Their songs are distinctive, strong and clear. The rich, sibilant song, once heard, is not easily forgotten.
Often written as “woit woit woit chew chew chew” or, another common variant, “pichew pichew pichew tiu tiu tiu tiu tiu tiu” are phrases that are easily imagined, even if the song has never been heard before. And although it is the male cardinal that usually sings from the canopy of its territory, both sexes sing.
The cardinal’s courtship behavior is also notable. Courting cardinals perform bonding rituals that include such interesting behaviors as beak-to-beak feeding.
A male bird searches for suitable foods, such as seeds and fruits, and feeds his mate from his beak to hers. Soon after, mating takes place and the female builds a nest – usually in thickets or low in a tree – and lays up to four eggs.
Two broods, sometimes more, are regularly raised each summer, with brood-rearing responsibilities shared by both parents.
Northern cardinals thrive throughout their range, including northern Minnesota. Cardinals are all over the Detroit lakes and are now seen regularly at Crookston and Bemidji.
With an estimated breeding population of over 120 million breeding birds, we can only hope that this magnificent red songbird continues to settle in the north as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR Wildlife Manager. He can be reached at