SPECIES

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

Sylvia L. Halkin, Daniel P. Shustack, M. Susan DeVries, Jodie M. Jawor, and Susan U. Linville
Version: 2.0 — Published February 12, 2021

Systematics

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Systematics History

The genus Richmondena was used in literature until about 1966. Some authorities recognize subspecies C. c. phillipsi (105, 106) in southern Yucatan Peninsula as distinct from yucatanicus, but not included here.

Geographic Variation

Varies in overall size, shape, and relative size of bill; length and stiffness of crest feathers; relative lengths of wings, tail, and feet; relative extent of face mask (including forehead, lores, base of chin, and throat); and coloration, including color of face mask in females. Song dialects exist (see Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocalizations); also possible variation in winter flocking behavior (see Behavior: Spacing).

In a study of 605 specimens ranging from Massachusetts to Arizona, Miller et al. (103) found that Northern Cardinal bill sizes were larger in more arid environments and generally increased with warming temperatures, roughly as predicted by Allen’s rule. Larger bills may help to dissipate heat, but bill size associations with climatic variables were complex and inconsistent between males and females and across geographic areas. For example, over an 85-year period, cardinal bill size increased with warming temperatures in some regions, but only for females. Inconsistencies may be due to interactions between local selective pressures on bill size related to temperature, humidity, supplemental feeding, other correlates of urbanization, sexual selection, and differences between the sexes, including greater heat exposure for males singing from exposed perches.

When comparing genetics of Northern Cardinals from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in the southwestern United States and Mexico (igneus and cardinalis subspecies groups, specific subspecies not specified), Provost et al. (107) found genetic differences between groups on either side of the Cochise Filter Barrier. They also found inconsistent differences in behavioral responses of males to song playbacks that may (or may not) reflect mate choice decisions of females that would promote reproductive isolation (see Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocalizations: Geographic Variation and Priorities for Future Research). The multimodal nature of cardinal communication, including visual displays as well as song and calls (e.g., Behavior: Sexual Behavior: Pair Bond), makes it unlikely that song repertoire differences alone would lead to effective reproductive isolation of sympatric populations. Ortiz-Ramirez et al. (108) found genetic divergence and reduced gene flow among Northern Cardinals from western Mexico and its offshore islands in the Tres Marías Archipelago.

Subspecies

Eighteen subspecies. Ranges given below are based on Paynter (109) and Parkes (105), and additional references cited under Distribution. Characteristics are from Ridgway (61), or from original subspecies description if after 1901, unless noted otherwise. Subspecies are currently divided into two subspecies groups (cardinalis and carneus), separated on the basis of distinctive bill shape, crest feathers, and coloration, following the American Ornithological Society Checklist of North and Middle American Birds (110) and the Clements Checklist (111), which are separated on the basis of distinctive bill shape, crest feathers, and coloration. The monotypic carneus group has sometimes been considered a separate species, the Long-crested or Colima Cardinal (61). Two additional groups are recognized by some authorities (61, 106), with the cardinalis group being split into two additional groups, coccineus and igneus, which are separated on the basis of mask color in females as distinguished by Ridgway (61). Within groups, and to some extent among groups (when the cardinalis group is further divided), distinctions and diagnosable differences are slight; taxonomic recognition may not be tenable. Of note, strong individual variation in carotenoid coloration (based on carotenoid availability in the environment and individual health), the existence of gray or brown edging on feathers immediately after molt, the potential for fading of plumage in exposed environments, and the strong intrapopulation face mask expression identified in females (15) should be taken into consideration in future analyses of cardinal subspecies and may be a source of variation or confusion in designations here. W. E. Cook (unpublished data) found evidence for seasonal variation in bill length, and to a lesser extent wing and tail length, and cautioned that the season may need to be taken into account when comparing these measurements among subspecies. See Appendix 1 for measurements of subspecies.

Color names and modifiers are taken verbatim from Ridgway (61) or sources cited; nevertheless, only some of these colors are included in Smithe's (112) compilation and correlation with Munsell color notations. The terms "dark," "light," and "pale" refer to color value as related to a gray scale, while "intensity" refers to the degree of saturation. The terms "dull" and "bright", with no reference to spectral qualities, are more problematic: they appear to have been used by Ridgway and other authors to describe a combination of gray scale value, intensity, and hue (spectral color) and are based on human color vision capabilities. Munsell and Methuen color designations (e.g., 75, 76), as well as reflectance spectrophotometers (e.g., 113), have been used to describe differences among individuals in cardinalis. In the future more consistency in color measurement technique and terminology is needed in assessing subspecies.

Mitochondrial ND2 gene analyses by Smith et al. (114) for 6 intraspecific clades (the 4 subspecies groups noted above, plus separate groups for C. c. mariae and C. c. saturatus) showed strong support for phylogeographic structure in the following pattern, in Newick format: (carneus ((cardinalis (saturatus, coccineus))(igneus, mariae))). There was no mtDNA haplotype sharing among regions, except in the Mexican Gulf coast region. There was, however, a lack of reciprocal monophyly between the coccineus and saturatus clades.


EBIRD GROUP (POLYTYPIC)

Northern Cardinal (Common) Cardinalis cardinalis [cardinalis Group]


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis superbus

Systematics History

Ridgway, 1885. Type locality = Fuller's Ranch (a few miles east of Camp Lowell), Tucson, Arizona, United States.

Distribution

Extreme southeastern California (115) east through central Arizona to southwestern New Mexico and south to northern Sonora, Mexico. Introduced in vicinity of Los Angeles, California (116).

Identification

Largest subspecies; much larger than nominate cardinalis, and bill "relatively stouter," with black of lores in male not meeting across forehead.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis seftoni

Systematics History

(Huey 1940). Type locality = Santa Gertrudis Mission, central Baja California, Mexico (117).

Distribution

Central Baja California from about 28°N south to about 27°N.

Identification

Intermediate in size between igneus (see below) and superbus, with smaller bill than that of either of these.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis igneus

Systematics History

Baird, 1860. Type locality = Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Distribution

Southern Baja California, Mexico, south of about 27°N.

Identification

Smaller than superbus, and bill relatively shorter and thicker.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis clintoni

Systematics History

(Banks 1963). Type locality = Cerralvo Island, Baja California Sur, Mexico (118).

Distribution

Cerralvo Island, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Identification

Similar in size to igneus, wing length averaging shorter and bill length equal to or longer than those of igneus; males with paler and less intense red underparts and lighter gray dorsal feather edges than those of igneus, females grayer dorsally. Recognized provisionally by Paynter (119); endorsed by Browning (120).


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis townsendi

Systematics History

(van Rossem 1932). Type locality = south end of Tiburon Island, Sonora, Mexico (121).

Distribution

Tiburón Island and adjacent coast of central Sonora, Mexico.

Identification

Similar in size and bill shape to affinis (see below); males somewhat lighter red than affinis, with dorsal plumage paler and grayer; females paler, duller, and grayer buff than female affinis.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis affinis

Systematics History

Nelson, 1899. Type locality = Alamos, Sonora, Mexico. Considered by some authorities to be synonymous with sinaloensis.

Distribution

West-central Mexico in southeastern Sonora, southwestern Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and western Durango.

Identification

Larger than igneus (see above), but smaller than superbus; bill narrower than that of igneus.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis sinaloensis

Systematics History

Nelson, 1899. Type locality = Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Considered by some authorities to be synonymous with affinis.

Distribution

Western Mexico (central and southern Sinaloa south to Michoacán).

Identification

Similar to igneus but smaller, with narrower and longer bill, male more pure and intense red, female darker.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis mariae

Systematics History

Nelson, 1898. Type locality = Maria Madre Island, Tres Marias group, Mexico.

Distribution

Tres Marías Islands (María Madre, María Magdalena, María Cleofás), Nayarit, Mexico.

Identification

Similar in size to igneus (see above), but wings longer, tail shorter, feet larger, and bill more tumid (bulging).


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis

Systematics History

(Linnaeus, 1758). Type locality = northern America; restricted to South Carolina by American Ornithologists' Union in 1931 (122: 312).

Distribution

Eastern United States and southeastern Canada. Northern boundary southeastern South Dakota to southern Nova Scotia. Western boundary southeastern South Dakota, central Nebraska, western Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and central Louisiana. East to Atlantic Coast, except southeastern Georgia and peninsular Florida. Introduced in Bermuda (reportedly from Virginia; 123); Hawaii (from eastern United States; 124); and vicinity of Los Angeles, California (125).

Identification

Male and females plumages described in Appearance.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis floridanus

Systematics History

Ridgway, 1896. Type locality = Enterprise, northeastern Florida, United States. At least one authority judged the differences between cardinalis and floridanus as "too slight and clinal" to justify subspecific designation (126: 611).

Distribution

Southeastern Georgia and peninsular Florida (map of Florida boundary with cardinalis in Sprunt [127]), with some evidence of possible introduction of floridanus to southern California resulting from unintentional releases of cage birds in the early 1900s (128).

Identification

Both sexes smaller and darker than cardinalis; bill similar. Intergrades with nominate cardinalis on border of their ranges (62).


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis magnirostris

Systematics History

Bangs, 1903. Type locality = West Baton Rouge Parish, southern Louisiana, United States (129).

Distribution

Southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana (109), though Oberholser (63) suggested that distribution is broader, including central Oklahoma, southern Arkansas, south-central Texas, all of Louisiana, and southwestern Mississippi.

Identification

Larger and heavier bill, and larger face mask, than those of cardinalis, floridanus, or canicaudus. Otherwise most like floridanus, but wing slightly longer, tail shorter, and foot and tarsus larger; red of male head and underparts lighter than on floridanus, but more intense than on cardinalis; middle of female belly more whitish than on cardinalis.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis canicaudus

Systematics History

Chapman, 1891. Type locality = 48 km west of Corpus Christi, Texas, United States (130).

Distribution

Western Oklahoma south through central and western Texas and central and eastern Mexico from Coahuila to eastern Jalisco, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, and central San Luis Potosí. See Miller (128) on likely introduction in vicinity of Los Angeles, California. Intergrades with coccineus in northern coastal Veracruz.

Identification

Wings shorter and bill slightly larger than in cardinalis, males more intense red, black band across forehead narrower; females grayer above and paler beneath than cardinalis females, with less distinct face mask. Included as synonym here is "planicola," recognized by Oberholser (63). Western Texas canicaudus reported to differ at a subspecific level from southeastern Texas specimens (105).


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis coccineus

Systematics History

Ridgway, 1873. Type locality = Hacienda Mirador, near Veracruz, Mexico.

Distribution

Atlantic slope of eastern Mexico in eastern San Luis Potosí, Veracruz (except extreme south), northeastern Puebla, and northern Oaxaca. Intergrades with canicaudus in northern coastal Veracruz (105).

Identification

Bill larger and male plumage more intensely colored than cardinalis and contour feathers almost lacking grayish or brownish margins (other subspecies have grayish or brownish margins in newly molted feathers); female browner than in cardinalis.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis littoralis

Systematics History

Nelson, 1897. Type locality = Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico.

Distribution

Lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico.

Identification

Similar in size and plumage to coccineus, but male plumage more purplish.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis yucatanicus

Systematics History

Ridgway, 1887. Type locality = Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.

Distribution

Yucatan Peninsula, Campeche, and northern Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Identification

Similar to but smaller than coccineus; adult male slightly lighter red.


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis flammiger

Systematics History

Peters, 1913. Type locality = Xcopen, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Distribution

Central and southern Quintana Roo (Mexico), northeastern Belize, and Peten (northern Guatemala). See correction by Parkes (105) of name change by Paynter (119).

Identification

Similar in size to yucatanicus; male underparts and edges of wing coverts and primaries more intense red than on yucatanicus, and dorsal plumage has purplish tinge, darker than back color of littoralis; female underparts heavily washed with red from throat at least to breast, whereas in yucatanicus, red is absent or confined to a small area just below the black throat (105).


SUBSPECIES

Cardinalis cardinalis saturatus

Systematics History

Ridgway, 1885. Type locality = Cozumel Island, Mexico.

Distribution

Cozumel Island, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Identification

Smaller than cardinalis. Feet larger than those of yucatanicus; males may be indistinguishable from flammiger males; adult female breast much less red than that of yucatanicus or flammiger (105).


EBIRD GROUP (MONOTYPIC)

Northern Cardinal (Long-crested) Cardinalis cardinalis carneus

Systematics History

(Lesson, 1842). Type locality = Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico.

Distribution

Western Pacific Coast of Mexico from state of Colima to Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca.

Identification

Upper mandible shallower than that of any other subspecies, with less sinuated tomia; crest feathers longer and stiffer than those of other subspecies, and distinctly outlined, giving crest edges a jagged appearance, similar to Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus) of South America; female face mask black.

Related Species

Molecular phylogenetic analyses for 832 species comprising the New World clade Emberizoidea (95% of the total group), also known as the New World 9-primaried oscines (sparrows, cardinals, blackbirds, wood warblers, tanagers, and their relatives), show the closest relatives to the Northern Cardinal to be a clade uniting Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuous) and Vermilion Cardinal (C. phoeniceus) (131), with these 3 species as a group being most closely related to a clade of grosbeaks, including those in the genera Caryothraustes, Rhodothraupis, and Periporphyrus (131). This differs from an earlier study using 75 morphological characters (132) that showed Pyrrhuloxia as sister to Northern Cardinal, with Vermilion Cardinal as sister to them.

Hybridization

Hybrids between Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia have been reported in captivity (133) and in the wild in Arizona (134). In areas of sympatry, Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia are not known to exhibit interspecific territoriality; territories of both species were found to overlap extensively in Arizona (135) and southeastern Texas (136).

Nomenclature

The common name was modified from Cardinal to Northern Cardinal by the American Ornithologist's Union in 1982 (137). Colloquial names from the past include Common Cardinal, Cardinal Grosbeak, Red-bird, Virginia Nightingale, Cardinal-bird, Cardinal Redbird, Virginia Redbird, Crested Redbird, and Top-knot Redbird (138, 139).

Fossil History

Oldest known Cardinalis cardinalis fossils are from modern-day Florida. Four bones representing at least 3 individuals were found in latest Pliocene deposits (2.0–1.6 million years ago, MYA). Another individual is represented in an early Pleistocene deposit (1.6–1.0 MYA) and one individual from a late Pleistocene deposit (130,000–10,000 years before present). All bones were parts of beaks (140).

There are 3 known specimens from sites of prehistoric human habitation. A premaxilla dated 550–700 AD was recovered from an apparent burial site at the Hohokam Big Ditch Site in the upper San Pedro River, Pinal County, Arizona. Another premaxilla dated to about 1200 AD was recovered at Alder Wash Ruin, about 40 km from the Big Ditch Site. Three additional cardinal bones dating to the 1300s were recovered near the White Mountains in east-central Arizona (141). A partial mandible recovered from a prehistoric Puebloan site near Roswell, New Mexico, dating to ~1300 AD, suggested that Cardinalis cardinalis was transported and traded from Mesoamerica, as Northern Cardinal was not known to occur in New Mexico until the early 1900s (142).

Recommended Citation

Halkin, S. L., D. P. Shustack, M. S. DeVries, J. M. Jawor, and S. U. Linville (2021). Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.norcar.02