The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the Illinois State Bird. The cardinal was chosen for this honor in 1929 by a vote of Illinois schoolchildren. Illinois was the first of seven states to select this species as its State Bird.
What Does It Look Like?
The male cardinal has bright red feathers. The female has gray-brown feathers with dull red on the wings and tail. Both sexes have a crest of feathers on the head and a thick, red-orange bill with a black patch at the base. The immature has a black bill but otherwise is colored like the female.
How Big is It?
Cardinals are about seven and one-half to nine inches in length. Adults weigh between 1.5 and 1.7 ounces. They have a wingspan of about 12 inches.
Does It Make any Sounds?
The male and female both sing. Songs include “what-cheer cheer cheer,” “birdy, birdy, birdy” and “whoit, whoit, whoit.” Sounds are also made to communicate possible danger.
Where Does it Live?
The northern cardinal is a common, permanent resident statewide in Illinois. Cardinals can be found in woodlands, thickets, brushy and weedy areas, residential areas and parks.
What is the Nesting Season Like?
One male mates with one female during a breeding season. They may each a have different mate for the next breeding season. They can start reproducing at one year of age. Nesting occurs from April to August. The nest is built in a shrub, small tree, vines or briars from three to 20 feet above the ground. The female, assisted by the male, builds the nest of grasses, bark, vines, sticks and other plant materials in three to nine days. Two to five white eggs with dark streaks and spots are laid by the female. She alone incubates the eggs for the 12- to 13-day incubation period. Two or three broods are raised each year. The parents continue feeding the young for nearly a month after they leave the nest.
What Does it Eat?
This bird eats insects, grains, fruits and weed seeds that it finds on or near the ground.
Does Anything Eat It?
Domestic cats (Felis catus) and dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), hawks, owls and shrikes have been known to catch and eat adult cardinals. Eggs and nestlings are sometimes eaten by snakes, brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus), blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) and eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger).
What Else Should I Know About It?
• Cardinal nests are often parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird, which deposits an egg that the northern cardinal will hatch and raise, taking food and care away from its own young.
• Northern cardinals seem to have become more common over the past 200 years.
• Northern cardinals disperse seeds and eat insect pests.
• They visit backyard bird feeders often.
• They are active during the day, especially in the early morning and late evening. In winter they often roost in small flocks.
Can I Hunt It?
The northern cardinal is not a game species. It cannot be legally hunted.