This post is not about Northern Cardinals, it’s about Cardinals.
Wait…what? That was probably your reaction, but it’s true: this post is about Cardinals, not Northern Cardinals.
Let’s backtrack for a moment. What do you think of when someone says the word “cardinal”? You probably think of a handsome bright red male with a black face and red bill or a beautiful reddish-brown female with a red-orange bill. Right?
The cardinal we’re most familiar with is the Northern Cardinal, of which I described above. But what if I told you that the Northern Cardinal is not the only cardinal around? And that cardinals can have other names, such as Scarlet Tanager or Blue Grosbeak? (Now you’re probably completely confused haha)
Many people don’t realized that the term “Cardinal” is used to describe a whole family of birds. The family name is Cardinalidae, which consists of 18 species and 7 genera (in North America that is. Worldwide there are 52 species in 11 genera). This family includes grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, as well as the Northern Cardinal which bears the family name and its Southwestern cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia.
As with all families, members of the Cardinal family have similar characteristics. These include:
- Bright and boldly colored males, females with brown tones
- Small to medium-sized, with stock bodies and relatively short tails, with males being slightly larger
- Stout conical bills (finch-like)
- Being primarily found in woodlands, brushy areas, and hedgrows
- Primarily feeding on fruits and seeds in the winter and insects and larvae in the summer
- Building cup-shaped nests in shrubs of trees
- Musical songs with whistled or warbled phrases, sharp and distinct calls (some females, such as the Northern Cardinal, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pyrrhuloxia, sing too)
The following Cardinals are found in North America:
- Genus Piranga: Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Western Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager
- Genus Pheucticus: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak
- Genus Rhodothraupis: Crimson-collard Grosbeak
- Genus Cardinalis: Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia
- Genus Cyanocompsa: Blue Bunting
- Genus Passerina: Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting
- Genus Spiza: Dickcissel
So the next time someone says something like “Hey, did you see a cardinal? “ or “Do you like cardinals?” you can answer back with “What kind?” (and really confuse them like I did in the beginning of this post). Then you can teach all your friends about the fascinating world of the family Cardinalidae :-).
What’s your favorite member of the Cardinalidae family? Tell me in the comments. (Mine are the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and of course, the beloved Northern Caridnal)