The bright red male northern cardinal, with its conspicuous crest, is one of the most recognizable birds in North America. It is found abundantly through virtually all of the eastern United States in a variety of habitats, including suburban gardens. Although the cardinal can be secretive and remain hidden in thickets, males usually sing from exposed perches. The species is commonly attracted to feeders and open areas with birdseed. Its thick, reddish cone-shaped bill is specialized for cracking seeds. Polytypic. Length 8.8" (22 cm).
Identification Sexually dimorphic. Adult male: plumage unmistakable. Males are uniquely colored, with a bright red body, a black face, and an obvious, pointed crest. Adult female: females are similarly shaped, but are buffy brown in coloration, with a reddish tinge on wings, tail, and crest. Juvenile male: similar to adult female, but it is generally browner overall and has a bill with less reddish coloration. Juvenile female: lacks reddish tones in wings and tail.
Geographic Variation Four subspecies described north of Mexican border. Size and coloration varies clinally from east to west, with the eastern birds (cardinalis) being smaller, shorter crested, and duller red than the western birds (superbus). The other 2 subspecies, canicaudus and magnirostris, are more intermediate.
Similar Species In the East, the northern cardinal is not really confused with any other species. Note that the adult male summer tanager is also bright red, but it lacks both the crest and the black face. In the Southwest, the northern cardinal overlaps with the very similarly shaped pyrrhuloxia, but note their color differences. Female and immature pyrrhuloxias are very similar to female and immature cardinals. The pyrrhuloxia has a noticeably yellow bill that has a distinct downward curve to the culmen, whereas the cardinal has a distinctly straighter culmen as well as a pointier, reddish bill. The plumage of the female pyrrhuloxia is grayer and does not have red tones.
Voice Call: a sharp, somewhat metallic chip. Song: variable. A liquid, whistling cue cue cue, or cheer cheer cheer, or purty purty purty. Both sexes sing virtually all year, though females sing less frequently than the males do.
Status and Distribution Very common. Breeding: throughout the East, found in a variety of habitats, including woodland edges, swamps, streamside thickets, and suburban gardens. In the West, restricted mainly to southwestern Texas, southern New Mexico, and southern Arizona, where it is common in mesquite-dominated habitats, usually near water. Very rare along the Colorado River in southern California. Generally nonmigratory.
Population Cardinals generally expanded their range northward in the 20th century.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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