If you are wanting to learn scientific names, the Northern Cardinal has an easy one to remember: Cardinalis cardinalis. It's name refers to the Catholic church official with robes of the same vivid, scarlet color. It is the male of the species that sports this gorgeous red plumage with a black mask. The cardinal is a large finch approximately 8-9 inches in length and 45 grams in weight, or about eight quarters. Its distinct crest can be raised and lowered in communication.
The brilliant color comes, once again, from carotenoid pigments, chemicals producing a red or orange color, found in plant material that the cardinal ingests. Recent studies have found that brighter males have a higher reproductive success and territories with greater vegetation density. The male is responsible for most of the feeding and will bring the female food. The female will sing from the nest and it is believed this may give the male information about when to bring food to the nest. The nestlings are fed a diet of mostly insects, then given more seed and fruit as they get older.
The female has a more drab brownish-gray color with reddish wings and tail. This is so she is better camouflaged. Both sexes have a massive orange bill used for cracking seeds ( and fingers of bird banders! Ouch!). The young cardinals will look similar to the female, but they will have a dark gray bill instead of the orange of the adult.
Female cardinal-photo by John Howard
Young cardinal with gray bill
I had always wondered why a bird would want to be so brightly colored, that it would be a disadvantage to the cardinal because it could be more easily spotted by predators. But a light came on when a gentleman told me how his son could not see cardinals because he was color-blind. The cardinal, when sitting in a shrub, just disappears and his son cannot spot it at all. It then occurred to me that most mammals are also color-blind, so those predators would not be able to see the cardinal, either. They would still have to be wary around predators such as Cooper's Hawks, though.
Males are very territorial and will fight with other male birds that stray into their territory. I knew of one bird that would fight a mirror on a truck at the plant nursery where I used to work. Everyday this bird would viciously strike at his reflection in the mirror until he was completely exhausted. He must have been thinking, "Wow, this guy is tough!"
An interesting fact is that the cardinal is the most popular state bird. It is the choice for seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Many of us take the cardinal for granted. But in areas out west, the cardinal is less common. In California, the cardinal is listed as a species of special concern. This bird may eventually disappear from California due to habitat loss. Its habitat choice contains many small trees and shrubs including hedgerows, forest edge, grasslands with shrubs and plantings around buildings.
At feeders, cardinals love black-oil sunflower seed. They also like fruit trees in the winter, like hawthorn and crab-apple.