The flashy Northern Cardinal is a common and beloved bird in the eastern United States. In earlier times the cardinal was considered a southern bird and was rarely seen north of the Ohio River. Cardinals now live quite happily in the northern tier of states and parts of southern Canada. Two factors, both involving food availability, have been responsible for the northern and western expansion of this bird in the past 150 years. The first factor is the change in the landscape of the continent. The cardinal thrives in “edge habitat,” areas which are full of tangles and thickets, but will not inhabit dense forests or open grasslands. The settlement of North America created prime cardinal habitat through the clearing of forests and through the ornamental plantings in towns and suburbs. The second factor is the proliferation of backyard bird feeders. With plenty of available food, twenty-first century cardinals will happily live far north of the range of their eighteenth and nineteenth century ancestors.
The bird we know as the Northern Cardinal has had many names through the years. It was formerly known as the Virginia cardinal or Kentucky cardinal, or simply as cardinal bird. In the early nineteenth century it was sometimes called Virginia nightingale, a name used by Lewis and Clark when referring to the bird in their journals. The term cardinal refers to the colorful crimson robes worn by the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. Our familiar red bird is called Northern Cardinal to differentiate it from two other members of its genus, the Pyrrhuloxia of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal of South America.
If you ask anyone to describe the Northern Cardinal, the two words most commonly used would undoubtedly be red and crest. The cardinal’s distinctive crest is its crowning glory. Because of their crests, both male and female cardinals can be easily identified in poor light simply by their shape. The crest is a common feature of many birds throughout the world. It is composed of a few longer feathers on the top of the head. Crests may be useful in making the bird look larger or fiercer in the eyes of a potential predator, or more appealing to the opposite sex. Most birds can raise their crests slightly when they are excited or alarmed, or displaying for a potential mate.