We have quite a lot to be proud of here in Illinois. From the incredible production of corn and soy, to the bustling city of Chicago, the state is incredibly diverse.
One of the most beautiful things for Illinoisans to be proud of is our state bird, the northern cardinal! This bird is the bright red passerine (aka songbird) that you probably see frequently on bird feeders around town.
While the females are a more muted gray/brown color with few red touches, the males have vibrant red plumage that can be spotted from quite far away, which makes them an understandably popular bird to watch again and again!
The cardinal is a granivore, meaning their diet consists mainly of seeds, with sunflower being one of their favorites. They can also be seen snacking on different fruits, insects, or grains that we have available in Illinois. If you take a close look at their beaks, you can see the stubbiness is perfectly designed to help the birds shuck seeds easily and efficiently for their meals.
Something that is very interesting about granivores is how much they help with seed distribution! Seeds can get attached to the bird’s feathers or they may carry them in their feet to new locations which is integral to biodiversity and ecosystem health for our native plants and wildlife.
You may also see cardinals sometimes touching beaks with one another. This display of affection is coming from the males as they feed seeds to the females in a courtship behavior. They are also serial monogamists, so they will choose their one partner and stay with each other throughout the seasons. Cardinals typically lay about 3 eggs per season and will raise two broods or clutches each year.
While these critters are typically territorial and like to stay with their small group, as it gets colder in the winter, they will often put aside their dislike for big groups and congregate to form a flock. Larger groups of birds are significantly more successful in finding food, so they are much more likely to survive the winter months by spending this time together.
One of my personal favorite facts about cardinals is how true to the “songbird” name they stay – they have a large variety of songs they sing! Different from most other songbirds, both the male and female cardinal readily produce beautiful songs. Many say that it sounds like they are saying “birdie, birdie, birdie” or “cheer, cheer, cheer.” The females are quite impressive with their ability to create elaborate sounds and sing up to two dozen different tunes. As with humans, juvenile calls sound a bit higher pitched, but are still beautiful nonetheless.
Cardinals are quite the striking and interesting bird to be representing the state of Illinois! They have even more amazing characteristics than discussed in this article, and I hope that you will keep a keen eye out to see some of these little birds out in your own backyard. If you do snap any photos or record any songs, please share them with us on our Facebook page (@UIWMC) – we would love to see them! Enjoy our native wildlife, and happy bird watching.
Written by: Jamie Booth, class of 2023