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This account is dedicated in honor of Julie Schnuck, member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.
Among the most abundant species on the continent, the Northern Cardinal is broadly distributed in eastern, central, and portions of southwestern North America, from southern Canada to northern Central America, and has been introduced to Hawaii, southern California, and Bermuda. A member of family Cardinalidae, it is one of 3 species of Cardinalis, the others being Pyrrhuloxia (C. sinuatus) and Vermilion Cardinal (C. phoeniceus). This year-round resident has been expanding its range northward since at least the mid-1800s, taking advantage of moderate temperatures, human habitation, and provisioning at bird feeders. It is a popular visitor to bird feeders and is the state bird for seven states in the United States.
Named for the male's red plumage, the Northern Cardinal is strongly sexually dichromatic— males are brilliant red and females are primarily grayish tan with red on the wings, tail, and crest, and often also small amounts of red on the face and upper breast. This species is omnivorous with a diet consisting mainly of seeds, fruits and insects. Red plumage color results from ingestion, metabolic conversion, and deposition of carotenoid pigments obtained from the diet during molt. Plumage coloration may signal individual quality and/or behavioral attributes. Redder males, with more densely pigmented plumage, have territories with greater vegetation density, and may be larger and have higher reproductive success. In females, redder underwing plumage is correlated with body condition, whereas darker face mask plumage (melanin pigmented) has been correlated with aggressive behavior in some populations. Carotenoid pigmented plumage in both the male (breast color) and female (underwing covert color) has been positively correlated with parental care. Studies in urban and rural environments have reported different relationships between plumage color and behavior or reproductive success— these differences may relate to habitat differences between rural and urban environments (see Sexual Behavior: Ornamentation), and/or to variation in color measurement and analysis techniques.
Both males and females sing. Female song from the nest appears to provide the male with information about when to bring food to the nest. Local song dialects are apparent; mates and neighbors share most or all of their song repertoires, and repertoires diverge increasingly with increased distance, although some song elements are reported to span the species range.
The Northern Cardinal is socially monogamous, but DNA-fingerprinting studies reveal extrapair paternity in 9–35% of young. Both sexes care for nestlings, but males may contribute more food. Predation rates are high on nestlings and eggs, and only 15–37% of nests produce fledglings. Nests are parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) and Bronzed Cowbird (M. aeneus); egg removal by Brown-headed Cowbird females may have a greater negative impact than does competition from cowbird nestlings.
Generally speaking, this species has received a great deal of research attention. Major areas of study have included communication (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20), anatomical and physiological control of sound production (e.g., 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27), parental care (28, 29, 15, 16, 30), hormonal control of behavior and general hormone physiology (21, 31, 32, 33, 30, 34, 35, 36, 37), effects of nest parasitism by cowbirds (38, 39, 40, 41, 42), nest placement and defense (43, 44, 15), extra-pair fertilizations (45), molt (46, 47, 48), habitat and dispersal (e.g., 49, 50), and effects of urbanization and of non-native vegetation (e.g., 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56). This species is regularly sampled in surveys of mosquito-borne viral infection rates in passerine birds (e.g., 57, 58, 59, 60). Research has been geographically biased to the eastern United States; more information is needed from populations in southwestern North America, and introduced populations.