Getting To Know The Cardinal: The Bird You Think You Know

The Cardinal
Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Lakeside Living. Click here for the magazine issue.

“It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds”


You may not be an avid bird watcher or be able to identify each feathered friend that lands in your yard or samples the buffet at your birdfeeder, but odds are, you know a cardinal when you see one. Sporting their showy scarlet feathers and pointed crests, cardinals are the pop star icons of the bird world. Little do these ruby-red cardinals know that seven states have claimed them as their official bird. Even sports teams want these 8-inch songbirds in on the action. 

It’s the one bird we think we know, but do we really? 

One reason they may seem so familiar is that they’re non-migratory. Maybe they know a good thing when they see it, or maybe these birds just don’t feel the need to travel; either way, they are homebody birds, preferring to live and stay within a mile of where they were born. 

Like us, they can also have an embarrassing moment or two in front of the neighbors. Fierce defenders of their zone, cardinals often mistake their own reflections as intruders and essentially make a big show of attacking themselves in front of windows, mirrors, and even shiny car bumpers. While we would all probably blush a bit if we got caught picking a fight with ourselves in the mirror, that’s not why these birds are bright red. 

It’s simply a case of: you are what you eat. Male cardinals, in particular, have carotenoids in their feather structure, so the more carotenoid-rich foods they eat, the more vividly red they get. Like in many bird species, the females are less colorful, but their tan feathers are set off with a red-orange hue like they just went to the salon for a lightly tinted rinse. 

Romance isn’t lost on these birds either. During courtship, the males prove their love and care by finding the tastiest morsels and feeding their lady friends literally “beak-to-beak.” While in many bird species, only the males sing, that’s not the case with cardinals. With a song repertoire of at least 24 songs, spring means karaoke time, and pairs of cardinals have even been caught singing duets. 

For many, a cardinal sighting symbolizes something more than just a bird. An old folklore saying goes, “The cardinals appears when angels are near,” suggesting they are messengers from beyond. Like their Roman Catholic namesakes, cardinal sightings can be seen as symbolic counselors helping bridge the gap between this world and the next. 

Just as we know that there is more to someone than just a pretty face, the next time you see a cardinal, keep in mind there is more to birds than just their pretty feathers. 

the cardinal

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