December 2015 Bird of the Month

Northern Cardinal

Cardinal in the IceNorthern Cardinal male on an icy branch

(Click on any image to enlarge it.)

To many people, the quintessential image of a wintertime bird is the brilliant red of a male Northern Cardinal in the snow. The Northern Cardinal can be found throughout most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Central America.  The cardinal doesn’t migrate, so even those people who live in the bird’s northern range can see them all year round.

Can you see the difference between an adult male Northern Cardinal and the adult female?

Cardinal Male 11-30-15Male (left) and Female (below)

Northern Cardinal Female





Yes, like many species, the male has a much more colorful “coat”  – in this case, a brilliant red.  The female is lovely in her own right – with just a tinge of color in her buffy coat, she sports a bright red bill like her mate.

If you live in the U.S., it is possible that the Northern Cardinal is your state bird.  After all, seven states claim this species as theirs!

Tail of Cardinal I’d be singing, too, if I looked this gorgeous!

Cardinal Mid-Song







Cardinal Fledgling 2Here is a juvenile Cardinal.  It has just fledged (flown from the nest) and is still being tended to by its parents, while learning to feed itself.  It has a bit of food stuck in its bill!

Even though it does not have its adult feathers (and colors) yet, can you take a guess as to whether it is a male or a female?


Let’s compare an adult female and a juvenile Northern Cardinal.  Can you tell which is which? What characteristics did you use to decide?

Cardinal Fledgling

Northern Cardinal Female 2

Mother and Child Northern Cardinal in Crepe MyrtleDid you guess correctly? The  bird on the top is the juvenile, and the one below it is the adult female.  The juvenile may have colors similar to the female (not the brilliant red of the adult male, even if it is a boy).  The juvenile’s bill is also dull, not the bright red of the adult.

You can clearly see the difference in bills in this mother-child image to the left.

One distinguishing characteristic of the Northern Cardinal is its beautiful crest, making the bird recognizable by its shape even without seeing its colors.

Northern Cardinal Taking Off in SilhouetteCardinal Imitating a Tropical Bird



Cardinal without her hatWhat happened to this bird?  She looks almost prehistoric in this image, because she has lost all of the feathers on her head.

Actually, it is not unusual to see this phenomenon on a Cardinal or a Blue Jay. (I have had both at my feeders. I always feel like I should knit them little caps, but as you can see by this female feeding on golden safflower, they don’t seem to mind!)

The baldness can be caused by mites or it can simply be a case of a really bad (as in, all at once) molt.  In either case, soon new feathers will grow in and the birds and their lovely crests will be “back to normal.”

Cardinals are common birds at backyard bird feeders.  They enjoy black oil sunflower seeds and other types of seed.  Mine seem to be partial to pure safflower seed!  They also eat fruits  from trees, along with insects.

Cardinal Male with Safflower SeedNorthern Cardinal male enjoying some safflower seed

If you would like to learn more about Northern Cardinals, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website to learn all about them:

All About Birds: Northern Cardinal

All photographs on this website are copyright © Sunny Blue Productions, LLC.

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2 Responses to December 2015 Bird of the Month

  1. Elly says:

    So beautiful, Deb. I enjoyed the pictures and the writeup. I love your focus on one bird in depth too!

  2. Robin Petit says:

    Thank you, I love your pics and narrative. 🙂

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