The Legend of Reappearing Cardinals

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Public domain photo of Northern Cardinal in Kentucky
Public domain photo of Northern Cardinal in Kentucky

The northern cardinal, also known simply as the “redbird”, is one of the most recognizable and beloved birds in all of Appalachia.  Making its home in woodlands, neighborhood gardens, shrublands, and wetlands, the distinctive body is a favorite among amateur bird enthusiasts — especially the males which sport a vibrant red, compared to females’ reddish olive color.

With its range stretching from Canada to Mexico and encompassing roughly the eastern half of the United States, it is no surprise that the northern cardinal is the state bird of seven U.S. states, more than any other species.  Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia all honor the Northern Cardinal as being their state’s official bird.

Long before the creation of the United States, however, the native inhabitants of America were just as great admirers of the Northern Cardinal.  Native peoples admired the birds for their loyalty as pairs may mate for successive years.

Mated pairs sometimes sing together before nesting. During courtship they may also participate in a bonding behavior where the male collects food and brings it to the female, feeding her beak-to-beak. If the mating is successful, this mate-feeding may continue throughout the period of incubation.

Recognizing these traits, ancient Native American tradition revered the cardinals as possessing great power and were known as “medicine animals” and their reappearing at someone’s home or in pathway was believed to signify a spiritual message was being sent. It was believed that if a cardinal crossed the path of a single person, that individual may soon enter a romantic relationship; individuals already in a relationship could expect to experience renewed romance and courtship and if one of the individuals had been unfaithful, the cardinal’s appearing was meant to remind the viewers of the importance of being faithful.

The northern cardinal is mainly granivorous, but also feeds on insects and fruit. The male behaves territorially, marking out his territory with song.

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