With a rare leaf for a roof in the rain, With a rare cap for his cardinal hood, The cardinal bird remains (Excerpt from “The Cardinal Bird” by Orrick Johns)
The Northern Cardinal is a smallish bird that belongs to the Cardinalidae family. Other birds in the Cardinalidae family include the tanagers, painted buntings, and grosbeaks.
The northern cardinal can be found throughout the eastern and northeastern parts of the United States. They can also be found as far south as Mexico and Central America. They have a preference for woodlots, places with shrubs and thickets, and suburban areas.(1)
The male northern cardinal has the brighter red plumage, while the female is a duller red. However, both the male and female have the same black face and thick red-orange bill.
Their bright red plumage makes them easy to spot when they arrive in your neighborhood. This is especially true in the winter.
Cardinals are non-migrating birds and the poet Orrick Johns wrote about their year-round residency in his poem “The Cardinal Bird”.
“The Cardinal Bird” by Orrick Johns
The summer goes away With the white leaf of a dusty day; With the yellow leaf of beech And the red leaf of the maple; The summer has no mind to stay With the shrunk brown leaf of the apple, The shrivelled hang-stone on the peach. But it matter little how branches bleach, The cardinal bird remains. The long red body of the cardinal bird, With a rare song and a rare word, Moves from the peach-tree to the wood. With a rare leaf for a roof in the rain, With a rare cap for his cardinal hood, The cardinal bird remains (Excerpt from “The Cardinal Bird” by Orrick Johns)
In the poem above, Johns wrote about the Cardinal’s song. It turns out that both the male and female cardinals sing and their song usually lasts about 2 or 3 seconds.
Poet Nancy McCleery wrote about how the cardinal’s song related to other bird songs in her poem “December Notes”.
“December Notes” by Nancy McCleery
The backyard is one white sheet Where we read in the bird tracks The songs we hear. Delicate Sparrow, heavier cardinal, Filigree threads of chickadee. And wing patterns where one flew (Excerpt from "December Notes")
McCleery’s poem comments on how the cardinal has a heavy voice. I may not completely agree with this classification as the cardinal’s typical song, which is sometimes described as sounding like “whoit cheer, whoit cheer, cheer-cheer-cheer”, seems pretty bright and airy to me.
When the Europeans came to North America they noticed this bird’s plumage and red caps resemble the garments of the Roman Catholic Bishops.(6) This is actually where the name cardinal came from.
The northern cardinal’s relationship to the Church and Christianity might have led to the belief that when you see a cardinal in your yard you have a visitor from heaven. The old saying, “Cardinals appear when Angels are near”(7) does a nice job summarizing this belief.
Poet Alfred Noyes wrote about the mysterious nature of our avian neighbors in his poem “The Old Meeting House”. Although this poem doesn’t necessarily identify the birds as the gentle reminder of those who have passed, it does link the cardinal to the spirit world.
“The Old Meeting House” by Alfred Noyes
Its quiet graves were made for peace till Gabriel blows his horn. Those wise old elms could hear no cry Of all that distant agony— Only the red-winged blackbird, and the rustle of thick ripe corn. The blue jay, perched upon that bronze, with bright unweeting eye Could never read the names that signed The noblest charter of mankind; But all of them were names we knew beneath our English skies. And on the low gray headstones, with their crumbling weather-stains, —Though cardinal birds, like drops of blood, Flickered across the haunted wood,— The names you’d see were names that woke like flowers in English lanes (Excerpt for "The Old Meeting House")
The northern cardinal, like many other birds, has made its way into our history, folklore, and poetry. Whether you believe that the cardinal is a messenger from the spirit world or just another wonder of the natural world, it should be a reminder that the other-than-human species that we share the world with are special and deserve our care and respect.
If you have a favorite myth, legend, or poem about the northern cardinal, please share in the comments below.
- Northern Cardinal-Overview; All About Birds
- Orrick Johns; “The Cardinal Bird”: Poetry Foundation
- Northern Cardinal-Sounds; All About Birds
- Nancy McCleery; “December Notes”: Poetry Foundation
- Garth C. Clifford; “Cardinal Symbolism & Meaning”: World of Birds
- Tom May; Exploring Red Cardinal Biblical Meaning and Symbolism: Love to Know
- The Facts and Myths About Cardinal Birds: Maryland Nature.org
- Alfred Noyes; “The Old Meeting House”: Poetry Foundation
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