Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Version: 2.0 — Published February 12, 2021
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In eastern North America, range extends north to southwestern Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick (143), south-central Quebec (144), southern Ontario (145), southern Upper Peninsula of Michigan (146), northern Wisconsin (147), central Minnesota (148), and sparingly to southeastern Manitoba (rare resident; 149). Range extends west to southeastern South Dakota (150), west-central Nebraska, western Kansas, easternmost Colorado (rare and local; 151), western Oklahoma (152), and Texas, but rare in westernmost counties (153), and south to southern Florida (126) and the Gulf Coast. In the southwestern United States, range includes extreme southwestern and southeastern New Mexico, central and southeastern Arizona (154), and rarely (formerly?) southwestern Arizona (155) and adjacent areas of southeastern California along the lower Colorado River (156).
In Mexico and northern Central America, range includes southern half of Baja California (157); Pacific slope of Mexico from Sonora to central Sinaloa, and from Colima to Oaxaca, including Tres Marías Island; Mexican interior south to Hidalgo and northeastern Jalisco, and Atlantic slope from Tamaulipas to Yucatán Peninsula, including Cozumel Island, and south to northern Guatemala and northern Belize (158).
Various subspecies (cardinalis, superbus, “probably” canicaudus, and possibly other Mexican subspecies) introduced to Los Angeles County, California (near Whittier, El Monte, and Montebello, and in the city of Los Angeles; 128, 116, 156); as of 2020, infrequent records south to San Diego and rarely to northern Baja California (eBird). Introduced to Hawaiian Islands several times between 1929 and 1931, and now found on all main islands where common in lowlands; also found at higher elevations (159). Introduced in Bermuda by early 1800s (123). Reported from Swan Islands, 180 km north of Honduras, in January 1994 (eBird), and again in June 1996, with 4–10 birds noted on subsequent visits (160); more recently, described as resident (161). Given distance from the nearest breeding population (~450 km in Belize) and the isolation of the islands from the mainland, Anderson et al. (160) suspected that these birds are escapees, a view corroborated by local residents.
Likely escaped captive cardinals have been reported in various western states and provinces, including Washington (162) and British Columbia, but also in the United Kingdom; no evidence of established populations.
Rare in Montana with 14 documented records (through 2016) east of the Continental Divide; individuals likely arrived in the state via the Missouri River corridor (163). One accepted record of a vagrant in late June 2010 in southwestern Utah (Washington County) (164), and at least 5 reports of vagrants (through 2000) in southernmost Nevada (165, 166).
Historical Changes to the Distribution
The northern limit of the breeding range has expanded northward since at least the mid-1800s, and especially over the last 100 years. Northward expansion is likely related to 3 primary factors: warmer climate, resulting in lesser snow depth and greater winter foraging opportunities; human encroachment into forested areas, increasing suitable edge habitat; and establishment of winter feeding stations, increasing food availability. The breeding range has also expanded westward in the United States; few data are available for Mexico and northern Central America. See Demography and Populations: Population Status: Trends.
Northeast. At turn of twentieth century, common in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (167), but found in only two counties in southern New York (168). Between 1940 and 1960, populations moved into New England; first nesting in Massachusetts recorded in 1958 (169), Vermont in 1962 (170), and Maine in 1969 (171). By 1970, resident in 59 of 62 counties in New York (168), and by early 2000s, found throughout state but scarce in Adirondacks (172).
First collected in 1849 in Ontario, where the first nest for Canada was found at Pt. Pelee in 1901; by 1930, a rare resident in Toronto (173). Localized breeding extended north to Thunder Bay, Sault Sainte Marie, Kirkland Lake, and Ottawa by 1976 (174). Now a common breeding species in southern Ontario north to Ottawa Valley; range in Ontario has expanded further during 1980–2005 (145). In southern Quebec, where the first nest was found in 1965 (175), the range is concentrated in the St. Lawrence Lowlands and southern Appalachians, a significant northward and eastward expansion since the mid-1980s (144). In the Maritime Provinces, there were only scattered sightings in southern Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the mid-1980s, but by 2010, it was distributed along the Bay of Fundy and southern Atlantic coasts, stretching inland, especially in the lower Saint John River valley (143). Rare sightings in Newfoundland from 1970 to present (W. Montevecchi, unpublished data).
Midwest. Although historically known in southern Ohio, expansion into northern Ohio began in 1830s (176). First recorded in southeastern Michigan in 1884 (177), common by 1909; colonized Upper Peninsula by 1994 (178). In Wisconsin, rare in 1903, when limited to southern border of that state; expanded into most northern counties by the 1980s (179). First sighted in Iowa in 1906 (180). In Missouri, significant increases coincided with conversion of forest and prairie to park and residential land; numbers in some areas increased 50% from 1916 to 1970 (181). Entered Minnesota in late 1800s and expanded northward and westward; by 1930, resident north to the Twin Cities; by 1960, had expanded to central (Morrison County) and western (Lac Qui Parle County) portions of the state (182).
Great Plains. First reported in South Dakota in 1877, where initial expansion moved up the Missouri River; now widespread in southeast quarter of state (183, eBird), uncommon and local in northeast, breeding in Aberdeen and Pierre (150), and expanding rarely to the west (184). In Nebraska, expanded west along both the Platte River and Niobrara River, perhaps owing to increase in riparian woody habitat (185). Rare resident in southern Saskatchewan (186, eBird), but breeding not confirmed (C. S. Houston, personal communication).
Southwest. First recorded in the 1870s in south-central Arizona (187); has since expanded west and northwest and is now common throughout central and southern Arizona, west to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and north to edge of the Mogollon Plateau (154). Very small population along lower Colorado River valley of southeastern California (156) and adjacent southwestern Arizona (188), but may not persist south of the Bill Williams River because of habitat loss (155, eBird). Introduced in Los Angeles County, California, before 1923 (128); small population remains (156) and appears to have expanded southward to San Diego and possibly northwestern Baja California (eBird). See also Distribution: Introduced Range and Systematics: Subspecies).
Mexico and Central America. Limited Information. Appears to be expanding from coastal Mexico into interior (189). Resident in Swan Islands, 180 km north of Honduras (160, 161), where suspected to be escapees (see Distribution: Introduced Range).