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Home: The Toast

Previous Birds of the Month can be found here.

As the most popular choice of state bird, the northern cardinal has a claim to be America’s favorite avian species. Seven states call it their own: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. And little wonder—just look at him:

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The red feathers of the male are so bright they scarcely look real. Combined with the black face mask, they make him easily spotted even by those who struggle to identify a robin or a goose.

The bird’s name comes from its color and the shape of its crest, which looks like a cardinal’s cap:

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Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey, c.1520 (artist unknown)

The female, however, is neither as eye-catching nor as Wolsey-esque:

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Nevertheless, she has the same plump body and oversized red beak, while the red accents on her tail, wings and crest make her recognisably of the same species as her mate.

The northern cardinal sometimes goes by the name of common cardinal. Both names are entirely reasonable, since the bird has the most northern range of all cardinal species, and is extremely common. This last contributes to its popularity as state bird: it is resident throughout the eastern states Maine to Texas. Beyond the U.S., the northern cardinal can be found in Southern Canada and Central America, and the estimated global population is 100 million. This is a very healthy number (compare it with two other widespread species, the mallard and the American coot: 17 million and 6 million respectively). 

Northern cardinals live happily alongside humans, grubbing about in backyards just they do in woodland, shrubbery or swamps. They spend a lot of time low to the ground, looking for insects, fruit or seeds. If you live in a cardinal-dense area, you can easily attract them to your garden by hanging up a bird-feeder. They particularly like sunflower seeds, so invest in some of those.

Even if you can’t see a cardinal, you can recognise it by its whistling call:

In William Davis Gallagher’s (1808-94) poem ‘The Cardinal Bird,’ the cardinal’s song has a madeleine vibe to it, taking the speaker back to his youth:

Its whistle smote my drowsy ear,

Ten times repeated, till the sound

Filled every echoing niche around;

And all things earliest loved by me,—

The bird, the brook, the flower, the tree,—

Came back again, as thus I heard

The cardinal bird.

The poem continues in this vein for three more stanzas, each one ending with a variation on the two-line refrain. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on; suffice to say the speaker isn’t as happy as he used to be.

The call that inspired Gallagher has a number of meanings: males use it to defend their territory and as a warning, while both sexes use it to communicate with their mates. Males and females mate for life, and can live up to 15 years in the wild. The female is responsible for building the nest, but the male may help out by bringing her twigs and leaves. During courtship and breeding season, he will feed her beak-to-beak, as he later will their children.

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For such an attractive and well-known bird, the cardinal has inspired very little poetry beyond Gallagher’s. Musical cardinals are similarly thin on the ground. The National have a song called ‘Cardinal Song’ which repeatedly mentions ‘cardinal eyes’ — but as the bird’s eyes are its least striking feature (you can barely see them because they are hidden in the face mask!), it seems likely either that the song is referring to the religious kind of cardinal, or that the band are not keen birdwatchers.

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