Featured Photo by Christy Mesker
- Physical Description: The northern cardinal is a mid-size songbird with a distinctive crest on the head. The cardinal measures approximately 8.5 inches long, weighs approximately 1.5 ounces, and has a wingspan of about 11 inches. The male is slightly larger than the female and is a vibrant red with a black mask on his face that covers his eyes and throat below the beak. The female’s plumage is a dull red-brown and she has a grey mask.
- Geographic Distribution: The cardinal can be found in southern parts of eastern Canada and down through the eastern part of the United States from Maine to Texas. Its range also extends west and south through Mexico to Guatemala and Belize.
- Environment: The cardinal prefers woodland, residential areas, and swampland.
Myths, Folklore, and Cultural Associations
The cardinal is easy to spot due to its coloring. It is one of the most popular birds and easily identified by birdwatchers and non bird watchers alike.
Like the robin, whose plumage also features a distinctive red patch, the cardinal is often associated with Christmas and the winter season. The color is bright and cheering. The cardinal’s presence year round and its appearance at backyard bird feeders may also contribute to this association.
The cardinal’s name is derived from the high-ranking clerics of the Catholic Church who wear rich red robes. The term cardinal is used to denote something with primary or essential qualities, such as a cardinal direction. The word comes from the Latin word, cardo, meaning hinge. Something that has cardinal qualities is so important that it functions as a keystone or axle; other things hinge around it.
The Cherokee believe that the cardinal is the daughter of the sun. Legend has it that if you see a cardinal flying upward, toward the sun, you will have good luck. Conversely, if you see if flying down toward the earth, watch out for bad luck.
“Then the Redbird, the beautifully singing bird, came up: “Let people have faith in me. I want to be able to sing joyful songs when it is going to rain.” So he was given that power. That’s why the old Cherokees believe that when they see this bird singing atop a tree it will rain. That’s all the power he was given.”The Thunder Nation and the Eagle, Cherokee story
The cardinal was the first bird to given state recognition. In 1926, it was made the state bird of Kentucky. It’s also the bird of six other states (Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia), making it the most popular state bird. It is also the name of the St. Louis professional baseball team and the Arizona Cardinals professional football team, and is the mascot of numerous university athletic teams, including the Stanford Cardinal, the Louisville Cardinal, and the Wesleyan Cardinal.
Omens and Divinatory Meaning
Examine the areas of your life in which you are, or should be, a leader. Is your confidence shaky? The cardinal tells you that you can handle it, and to believe in yourself.
It is important to be proud of yourself for your abilities or for the things you have achieved. The cardinal’s bright red feathers and cheerful song call attention to him wherever he goes. If you see a cardinal, it may be telling you to stand up, lift your head high, and take pride in yourself. Accept compliments that come your way, and acknowledge your achievements.
The cardinals bright red plumage also calls you to open yourself to creative energy. Have you been feeling blocked or dull lately? Are you looking for a new way to express yourself? Call on the cardinal to help you open up and get your creativity flowing again. The red feathers link it with fire, the element of activity, vitality, and passion. If you are feeling lethargic, the cardinal may lend you its energy to help you get back on your feet. Likewise, it can be a good bird with whom to work if you are struggling to handle depression.
If you are having difficulty dealing with anger, however, seeing a cardinal may remind you to take a step or two back. Red is the color of the root chakra, the energy center associated with stability, survival, and security, and feeling unsettled in any of these areas may be influencing your anger issue. Examine the areas of your life connected to these subjects for clues to the source of your emotional state, and move to make them better.
Associated energies: Leadership, self-worth, confidence, creativity, vitality, activity
Associated seasons: Winter
Element associations: Air, Fire
Color associations: Red, Black
REFERENCE: Birds, a Spiritual Field Guide, Explore the Symbology & Significance of These Divine Winged Messengers by Arin Murphy-Hiscock
I’ve enjoyed a few cardinals in my area. One wintry day, my sister and I got to see a cardinal up close right outside her bedroom window. The cardinal was hanging out in our bushes alongside the fence. We were awestruck by its beauty. It was rather magical to watch it chirp for a few minutes checking out its environment.
I once bought a journal that had a picture of a cardinal on it. It was my theme and my lucky muse for that year. Sometimes, I may get stuck in a rut or routine and need to infuse some vitality and passion into my day.