The Story Of Northern Cardinal – West Virginia State Bird

The Northern Cardinal: The State Bird of West Virginia


Recognized for its vibrant plumage and melodious song, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a medium-sized songbird that has won the hearts of birdwatchers across North America. Since 1949, it has held the honorable title of state bird of West Virginia, a testament to the state’s appreciation for its natural beauty and melodious songs.

Physical Characteristics

As a part of the finch family, the Northern Cardinal boasts a unique and colorful appearance that sets it apart. With males presenting a striking bright red color and females a distinctive buffy brown hue, this bird offers a splash of color to any environment it inhabits. Both sexes exhibit a pronounced crest and a black mask, characteristics that further enhance their distinctive looks.

Distribution and Habitat

Northern Cardinals, known for their adaptability, can be found in a wide range of habitats. Originally, these birds resided in forests, their natural environment. However, over time they have migrated to suburban and even urban areas, making themselves at home in gardens and parks. Their non-migratory nature means that they are year-round residents in the regions they inhabit, allowing birdwatchers to enjoy their presence throughout the four seasons.

Diet and Behaviour

Equipped with strong seed-cracking beaks, Northern Cardinals are primarily granivorous, favoring a diet rich in seeds and grains. Nevertheless, they are also opportunistic feeders, meaning that they will consume a range of other food types if necessary, including fruits, insects, and even small animals.

The behavior of Northern Cardinals is just as intriguing as their diet. Known for their melodious songs, they use these tunes as a form of communication, a bird language that allows them to express various emotions and intentions. Additionally, these birds are fiercely protective of their young and their territory. Should a predator encroach upon their space, they will not hesitate to launch a defensive attack, showcasing their boldness despite their relatively small size.


Northern Cardinals have a remarkable lifespan for songbirds, often reaching up to 15 years in the wild. This is due in part to their adaptability and resourcefulness, traits that enable them to thrive in diverse environments and withstand various challenges.

A Deep Dive into The Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal has numerous intriguing facets that further enhance its charm. It holds the title of state bird not only in West Virginia but in six other states, namely Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky. This demonstrates the wide appeal and admiration that this bird enjoys across different regions.

Further contributing to its popularity is its status as the most favored backyard bird in North America. Many homeowners take delight in setting up bird feeders to attract these colorful creatures, adding vibrancy to their outdoor spaces. With its rich colors and captivating songs, the Northern Cardinal offers both visual and auditory delight to any backyard.

Aside from its physical allure, the Northern Cardinal also carries profound symbolic meanings. Regarded as a symbol of love, fidelity, and happiness, it is often associated with positive sentiments and auspicious events. In various cultures, the sight of a Northern Cardinal is considered a good omen, indicating that good luck is on the horizon.

History of The Northern Cardinal in West Virginia

The journey of the Northern Cardinal in West Virginia is a fascinating tale of human intervention and bird resilience. Prior to 1934, cardinals were only sporadic visitors to the state. However, the efforts of Dr. William H. Evans and Mrs. Frances C. Evans, two dedicated bird enthusiasts, helped turn this around.

Launching a campaign to breed cardinals at Cheat Lake Inn, a place they frequently visited, the couple provided the birds with nest boxes, fresh twigs, and various seeds to create a conducive environment for them. Their efforts bore fruit, as by 1939, cardinals were nesting successfully west of the Allegheny Front.

In 1928, ahead of their breeding success, the Northern Cardinal was named the state bird of West Virginia, signaling its growing distribution in the state. Today, it is the most widely distributed bird species in West Virginia, with its habitat spanning almost every county.

Characteristics and Behavior of Cardinals

Male cardinals are easily recognizable by their bright red plumage, black mask, and crest on the head. In contrast, the females are a duller brown color, offering a more subdued aesthetic. Despite their different coloration, both sexes contribute to the biodiversity of the regions they inhabit, adding their unique splash of color to the landscape.

The Northern Cardinal, like many bird species, is omnivorous. Its diet primarily consists of insects, seeds, and fruit. During the breeding season, however, insects make up a larger portion of the diet, providing necessary protein for the growing chicks.

These birds demonstrate monogamy, often mating for life. This enduring bird romance is another factor contributing to the Northern Cardinal’s symbolic association with love and fidelity. It is also a testament to the strong social structures that these birds form, underpinning their survival and propagation.

Reproduction and Habitat Preferences

Northern Cardinals are resourceful nest-builders, often choosing to build their nests in low shrubs or trees. The female takes on the responsibility of constructing the nest, which typically comprises twigs, leaves, and grasses. Once the nest is complete, she lays 3-4 eggs, which then hatch after approximately 12 days.

These fledglings, cared for by both parents, are ready to leave the nest after around 12-14 days. However, the young cardinals continue to receive parental care until they are ready to fend for themselves.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Northern Cardinal

Q1: Why was the Northern Cardinal chosen as the state bird of West Virginia?

A1: The Northern Cardinal was chosen as the state bird of West Virginia due to its distinctive appearance and beautiful song. Additionally, it is easily recognizable, and its non-migratory nature makes it a constant presence in the state throughout the year.

Q2: Are there differences in appearance between male and female Northern Cardinals?

A2: Yes, there are noticeable differences. The male Northern Cardinal is bright red with a black mask and crest, while the female is a more subdued buffy brown color with reddish tinges in the wings and tail.

Q3: What does the Northern Cardinal eat?

A3: The Northern Cardinal is an omnivorous bird, and its diet primarily consists of seeds, fruits, insects, and even small animals. It uses its robust beak to crack open seeds and consume other food items.

Q4: Where do Northern Cardinals build their nests?

A4: Northern Cardinals often build their nests in low shrubs or trees. The nest, typically constructed by the female, is made of twigs, leaves, and grasses.

Q5: How long do Northern Cardinals live?

A5: Northern Cardinals can live up to 15 years in the wild, which is quite long for a songbird. Their adaptability and resourcefulness contribute to their relatively long lifespan.

Q6: Are Northern Cardinals monogamous?

A6: Yes, Northern Cardinals are monogamous and often mate for life. Both parents share the responsibility of feeding and caring for their young.

Q7: Is the Northern Cardinal the state bird for any other states?

A7: Yes, in addition to West Virginia, the Northern Cardinal is the state bird for Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.

Q8: What is the significance of the Northern Cardinal’s song?

A8: Northern Cardinals use their song to communicate with each other. It serves a variety of purposes, from attracting mates to defending territories.

Q9: How did the Northern Cardinal become so widespread in West Virginia?

A9: Prior to the 1930s, Northern Cardinals were only occasional visitors to West Virginia. The efforts of Dr. William H. Evans and Mrs. Frances C. Evans, who initiated a breeding program at Cheat Lake Inn, helped establish a cardinal population in the state. By 1939, these birds were successfully nesting west of the Allegheny Front.

Q10: Why is the Northern Cardinal associated with love and happiness?

A10: The Northern Cardinal’s striking red color, its melodic song, and the fact that it mates for life have led to its association with love and fidelity. In various cultures, it is seen as a symbol of love, happiness, and good fortune.


As the state bird of West Virginia, the Northern Cardinal is more than just a beautiful creature. Its unique coloration, melodic song, and intriguing behavior make it a captivating presence in the bird world. Moreover, its status as the state bird of seven states and its symbolic associations with love, fidelity, and happiness highlight its cultural significance.

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