Cardinal, a North American songbird of the finch family. Its natural range extends from western and southern Ontario, Canada, southward throughout most of the United States and into Mexico and Belize. In addition, the cardinal has been successfully introduced into Hawaii and Bermuda. It is the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The cardinalThe cardinal is a North American songbird of the finch family.

The cardinal, or “red bird” as it is popularly known in the southern states, is about nine inches (23 cm) long. The male has brilliant red plumage except for black face and neck feathers. The female has brownish-gray plumage with splashes of red. Both sexes have a high crest of feathers on top of the head. The song is a series of clear whistles.

The cardinal makes its nest in low trees, in bushes, or in thickets. It lays two to four eggs, which are white with shadings of purple and brown. The bird feeds on weed seeds, grain, and insects.

How Does a Cardinal Make Its Music?

Like all songbirds, the cardinal has a windpipe, or trachea (TRAY kee uh), inside its chest. At the base of the trachea is a special organ that only birds have. It is called a syrinx (SIHR ihnks). The cardinal uses its syrinx to produce sound and music.

Inside the syrinx are two thin membranes, or sheets. The sheets vibrate, or move back and forth rapidly, when air passes over them. As a cardinal sings, air is pushed out of its lungs and over the sheets. The vibrations create sound.

The syrinx has several muscles attached to it. As the muscles tighten and relax, different sounds are produced. A bird that can't sing has only a few muscles attached to its syrinx. But a songbird may have as many as nine pairs of muscles attached to its syrinx. These muscles allow the songbird to make different musical sounds.

Why Does a Cardinal Sing?

A male cardinal sings for two main reasons. He sings as a warning to other males. His song tells them to stay out of his territory. He also sings to “advertise” that he is looking for a mate. This is why his song is called an advertising song.With most songbirds, only the males sing. But with cardinals, the females also sing. A female cardinal often repeats the song her mate sings. A pair of cardinals may sing to each other all day long.

Each cardinal can sing about 10 different songs. Cardinals also have one call that’s all their own. It’s a high-pitched “Chip!” Other calls sound like “What cheer, what cheer!” and “Wheat, wheat, wheat.”

Are All Cardinals Red?

A male cardinal is bright red all over. In fact, he is the only North American red bird with a crest, or tuft of feathers, on his head. A female cardinal is mostly dull brown. But she does have a red crest, tail, and wings. Both the male and the female have black “masks” near their red-orange beaks.

Northern cardinals are one kind of cardinal. There are other kinds of cardinals living farther south. Many of these other cardinals are not all red. Yellow cardinals, for example, live in South America. Yellow cardinals are mostly yellow in color.

One cardinal, the gray cardinal, shares areas of the southwestern United States and Mexico with the northern cardinal. Both males and females look like female northern cardinals. But gray cardinals—unlike northern cardinals—have crooked, yellow beaks.

What Happens When a Cardinal Molts?

Cardinals, like all other birds, molt. When a bird molts, it loses a few feathers at a time. When new feathers grow in their place, the bird loses a few more. A cardinal molts at least once a year, usually in late summer or early fall.

A cardinal needs some of its feathers for flying. When the bird molts, it sheds only a few flying feathers at a time. That way, the cardinal can keep on flying even while it is molting.

A cardinal must work hard to keep its feathers in good shape. It uses its beak to preen, or clean, each feather. A cardinal must also take baths. First, the bird dips its head into a puddle or a birdbath. Then it beats its wings to spread the water all over its body.