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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Animal of the week: Northern Cardinal

There are few birds quite as striking as the Northern Cardinal. They are particularly noticeable when there is snow on the ground. The bright red male stands out from that white background. It is the state bird of Illinois and the state bird for six other states, as well. It is the mascot for many colleges and sports teams.

The Norther Cardinal is easily identified. Both males and females have a tall crest on their head. This differentiates them from some of the species with which they are often confused. They are the only bright red bird in Illinois that has this distinctive crest. The males are all red with a small black face and chin and have a red bill. The female is a tawny brown with red tinges to the wings, tail, and crest and a red bill. A juvenile looks similar to the female, but has a black bill.

The Northern Cardinal has a large range extending from the northern US to Mexico, east to the coast, and west throughout the Great Plains. Except for some desert-dwelling cardinals, they are not found west of the Great Plains. In Illinois they are year-round residents and can be found in pairs throughout the year.

Cardinals have a wide and varied diet. They tend to eat insects and larva. They also eat berries, seeds, tree and flower buds, and grass. In the winter months they forage on small berries and seeds. They are frequent visitors to all types of bird feeders; and if you keep your feeder filled throughout the winter, you are likely to see them. Planting trees and shrubs that produce fruit or seeds provides food, shelter, and nesting sites for Northern Cardinals.

The male Northern Cardinal is very territorial. It is not uncommon to see two male cardinals fighting over a territory. It is also common to see a male cardinal displaying or fighting its reflection in a window or mirror. Their song is very recognizable. It is a loud whistle characterized by "woit woit woit chew chew chew chew chew chew." They also sometimes sing "purdy purdy purdy purdy purdy purdy."

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