State Bird of Illinois – A Melodious Tale of Calls and Songs!

With diverse landscapes, the mighty Mississippi, and bustling Chicago streets, the state of Illinois, in all its magnificence, has a lot to offer to its locals and visitors. 

The Northern Cardinal, the state bird of Illinois, embodies this diversity and beauty. It represents the people’s vibrant colors and the state’s rich history. 

In this article, we will embark on a journey to discover the essence of the Northern Cardinal, its significance as the symbol representing the State of Illinois, and explore its habitat, behaviors, and other aspects.

When Did the Northern Cardinal Become the State Bird of Illinois?

A male Northern Cardinal perched on a tree branch

The Northern Cardinal was officially designated the state bird of Illinois in 1929. There were a lot of factors that came into play.

Some of the more prominent ones included: Its melodious songs, vibrant plumage that made it stand out, and of course, its year-round presence.

Since then, this bright and vibrant bird has been the symbol of the state of Illinois. It adorned the state’s emblems and official documents.

Why Is the Northern Cardinal the State Bird of Illinois?

A striking appearance, ubiquity, and melodic tune have earned it the title of the state of Illinois. But there is more to it than meets the eye. 

The Northern Cardinal can be found all year round across Illinois, even during the winter season. You can see the bird throughout residential areas, parks, and woodlands.

A male northern cardinal is perched on a branch between leaves

They stand out with their bright colors amidst the snowy white background. It’s a scene appreciated and loved by nature enthusiasts and photographers throughout the state.

Beyond the bright color lies a bird with a melodious tune and symphony. Often, it stops Pedestrians in their tracks during mornings and evenings.

The cardinal’s song, as they call it in Illinois, is distinctive thanks to its whistling notes and pleasant phrases. They carry a sense of familiarity and warmth.

A pair of Northern Cardinal perched on a branch in winter season

This bird is also a symbol of resilience and adaptability. The state of Illinois is diverse, with forests, urban areas, and riverbanks. Living freely in all these different habitats and thriving in their natural environments, the Northern Cardinal is highly adaptable.

A Deeper Look Into the State Bird of Illinois: Appearance, Behavior, Habitat & Diet

The Northern Cardinal is often called the ‘Avian Ambassador’ of Illinois. With its visuals and characteristics, there is no doubt why!

We have taken a brief look at the bird so far. Now let us dive deep into its individual characteristics.

1. Appearance and Anatomy of the Northern Cardinal

When it comes to appearance, the color of this avian species is what catches the attention of onlookers at first glance. 

The male cardinal has bright crimson plumage that extends from the crest to the tail, creating a stark contrast with its black throat and facial mask. Its cone-shaped and short bill turns a bright orange-red tone.

Northern Cardinal male and female pair is perched on a thin branch

The female cardinal has a less vibrant plumage and showcases a toned-down earthier color, mixed with shades of warm brown and little red hints on the wings, tail, and crest.

On top of their heads, there’s a crest. It moves according to their moods or alertness. This is often termed as their crowns, adding the element of elegance to the cardinal and its name.

The cardinal is also a medium-sized bird. The male measures between 8 to 9 inches in length. The female ranges from 7 to 8 inches with a slightly smaller body.

A female Northern Cardinal perched on a tree branch
A female Northern Cardinal

When it comes to its wings, however, both the male and female tend to have around 10 to 12 inches of wing length, allowing them to navigate freely.

2. The Behavioral Traits of This Bird

The Northern Cardinal is “Territorial” by nature. The male cardinal is known to defend its territory, especially during the breeding season, when it will engage in loud displays to assert dominance.

This is usually paired with fluffing their feathers. They do it to visually appear larger and more intimidating.

This species is monogamous in nature. These birds form pairs lasting multiple breeding seasons. During these times, they will perform courtship rituals and mutual preening to help strengthen their bonds.

A female Northern Cardinal collecting nesting material

When it comes to nesting, female cardinals are up to the task. They use leaves, twigs, and grass.

Unlike other avians, they do not opt for branches. Instead, these birds prefer dense vegetation as their nesting spots. This includes thickets or shrubs that provide comfort and concealment.

The Northern Cardinals are also well known as all-year residents. They do not migrate. This is also one of the reasons why the beautiful contrast of their stark red bodies against the white snow is such a wonderful sight.

3. Habitat of Northern Cardinal

The cardinal is a very adaptable bird, this we know. They can be found in different habitats, co-existing throughout the year. One of their preferred habitats is forest edges or woodlands.

A Northern Cardinal taking a bath in the pool

Especially those with lots of dense vegetation. This provides them with ample nesting opportunities where they can peacefully raise their offspring amidst the sheltering shrubs.

But that does not mean you will not find them in open grasslands! Because such areas provide lots of foraging opportunities, the bird will usually be seen in these areas hunting for food or singing their melodious tunes.

Wet northern cardinal after rain perched on concrete slab

The bird also lives in gardens, parks, riparian zones such as wetlands, rivers, streams, urban landscapes, and other transitional zones. This simply shows how well the bird has adapted to its surroundings. It survives just about anywhere!

4. Diet Of the Northern Cardinal

As an adaptable bird, the Northern Cardinal also has a diverse diet that allows it to survive in different habitats and find food throughout the year.

The bird likes consuming different seeds (especially sunflowers and kernels). They also love berries and fruits. Parents prefer to feed on mulberries, cherries, and wild grapes to their offspring. 

Northern cardinal feeding on sunflower seeds in winter

If fruits or seeds are unavailable, they also consume insects, giving them a very protein-rich diet. Protein helps them survive during the breeding season. 

Lastly, the Cardinal will also feed on plant matter, such as buds or tender shoots, during the warmer months. This acts as a form of nutrient as well as a water source for the bird. 

Interesting Facts About Illinois’s State Bird: The Northern Cardinal

We’ve been looking into these birds from the usual standpoint. Now, let us look at some that are not usual and ones that you will probably remember!

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

1. Northern Cardinal is the State Bird of Seven States

Unlike most other birds, the Northern Cardinal is the state bird of Illinois and 6 other states in the USA. This includes Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

2. They Are Melancholic Singers 

We know that the Northern Cardinal has a beautiful voice. But did you know that they are year-round singers? While most birds will limit their songs to their breeding seasons, the Northern Cardinal sings all year round.

3. These Birds Are Adapted to Winter

Most birds migrate during winter as their bodies cannot survive the harsh cold in the United States.

But the Northern Cardinal has adapted well to the colder months. Its thick feathers provide the bird with all the insulation they need. They also possess a higher metabolic rate. It allows them to stay warm.

4. Longer Lifespan 

A regular Northern Cardinal can live up to 3 years. But there are some which can live up to 15 years. So far, there has also been one documented case of a Northern Cardinal surviving up to 28 years. 

Different habitats and environments play a part in their longevity. With the right conditions, the bird can live a surprisingly long life for an avian. 

Wrap Up

To conclude, the Northern Cardinal is a captivating avian species well-loved by its home state of Illinois and all visitors, thanks to its beautiful colors.

From its bright plumage to its eccentric silhouette, the Cardinal truly represents the diverse and adaptable state. 

One can easily spot them in Illinois during all four seasons. This makes the bird a favorite for watchers and locals alike, who have been using the bird as a symbol for decades.

Photo of author

Written and Fact-checked by David Neff

Author at BirdBonica

David is an expert birder and bird parent with in-depth knowledge of birds. He has years of experience observing birds in their natural habitats, studying their diets, behavior, and more. (Learn more about David here...)

Cite, Link, or Reference This Page "State Bird of Illinois - A Melodious Tale of Calls and Songs!." Webpage, June 29, 2023, accessed April 5, 2024, (2024). State Bird of Illinois - A Melodious Tale of Calls and Songs!. Retrieved from on April 5, 2024. "State Bird of Illinois - A Melodious Tale of Calls and Songs!." Webpage, June 29, 2023,, accessed April 5, 2024.

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