The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the most familiar of three species in its genus. These scarlet songbirds are well known on the North American mainland, where they occur from the North East to the Southwest of the United States and south through Mexico to Belize.
It may come as a surprise to many birdwatchers that these birds also occur on the Hawaiian Islands. So how did Northern Cardinals get to Hawaii, and where exactly do they live on the islands?
There are three different Cardinal species found in Hawaii. Northern Cardinals are one of the dozens of bird species introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the twentieth century. They have been established in Hawaii since the 1930s and are common and widespread residents there today.
The three Cardinal species found in Hawaii are:
Northern Cardinals occur on all the main Islands, particularly in disturbed forest habitats and around human habitation.
Hawaii is not the only place where Northern Cardinals have been introduced. You can find these beautiful birds living wild in Bermuda, where they were introduced at the turn of the 19th century.
Some Northern Cardinal populations in Hawaii are thought to have decreased somewhat over the last few decades, although they still live and breed as a healthy, self-sustaining population.
Read this article to learn all about the Northern Cardinals of Hawaii, a familiar American bird that is thriving a long way from home.
There is a misconception that Cardinals look different in Hawaii, when in fact, it's a completely different species. The Red-crested Cardinal is a different species from the familiar Northern Cardinal and actually sits in a completely different family (tanagers).
Red-crested Cardinals are generally found across parts of South America, but a population was introduced into Hawaii, where they are now successfully established.
Also commonly known as the Brazilian Cardinal, these birds, despite their name, are not closely related to the true Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).
People have been moving animals around the world for thousands of years. In some cases, introductions have been accidental, such as in the case of rats and mice. In others cases, we have actively moved animals with us, and the Northern Cardinal in Hawaii is one such example.
Northern Cardinals were introduced to Hawaii in 1929 and are now widespread and common on the islands in many different habitats. Hawaii is home to a large number of introduced bird species. These exotic birds were introduced in the early 20th century by well-meaning bird enthusiasts who wanted to see more exotic bird species on the isolated islands.
The first Northern Cardinal to fly free in Hawaii was apparently an escaped caged bird in 1929. Over the course of the next two years, however, 300-500 birds were brought over from California and released on Kauai, O’ahu, and Hawai’i. The introduction was successful, and the birds established themselves and spread to the remaining islands without further assistance.
Male Northern Cardinal in Pololu Valley on Hawaii Island
Eighteen subspecies of Northern Cardinals are distributed across North America, from Southeastern Canada in the north to Guatemala and Belize in Central America. The birds introduced to Hawaii in the early 20th century were probably from the subspecies Cardinalis cardinalis canicaudus and C. c. cardinalis.
A genetic study in 2018 found that the surviving Hawaiian birds were probably all descended from C. c. cardinalis, however, the subspecies native to the Eastern United States.
Interestingly, the same study found that the Northern Cardinals in Hawaii show a variety of island-specific traits, which may have arisen from genetic bottlenecks from limited populations. An accurate count of the Northern Cardinal population in Hawaii is not available, although these birds occur in high numbers in suitable habitats.
Cardinal perched at the top of a tree in Hawaii
Birdwatchers can spot Northern Cardinals on all of the major Hawaiian islands, including:
Northern Cardinals in Hawaii are most common in disturbed, human-altered habitats. They prefer gardens and open lowland forests with a vegetated understory. You can also find these birds in undisturbed native forests at higher altitudes, but they are not as common in these habitats.
Cardinal eating red berries
Northern Cardinals are often called manu ʻula ʻula in the Hawaiian language and are found all over the islands. Birdwatchers are most likely to see them in drier habitats at lower altitudes, however.
Northern Cardinals are not the only Cardinal species that birdwatchers can spot on the islands. Yellow-billed Cardinals (Paroaria capitata) and Red-crested Cardinals (Paroaria coronata) from South America were also introduced to Hawaii.
Continue reading to learn where you can see Northern Cardinals in Hawaii.
Northern Cardinals are common throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Look out for them in low-lying areas where people live and have disturbed the natural environment.
You can see Hawaiian Northern Cardinals in the following spots:
Northern Cardinal eating seeds on the ground, Maui Island
Northern Cardinals do not migrate to or from Hawaii. They are sedentary, although they dispersed naturally between the islands after being introduced all those decades ago.
This sedentary behavior is not unique among Northern Cardinals, of course. These birds do not migrate on the Continental United States either.
It's a good thing Cardinals do not migrate from Hawaii because the nearest continental landmass is almost 2000 miles away, a very long distance for a songbird to fly!
Cardinals are breeding residents that nest throughout the Hawaiian Islands. They nest and reproduce to maintain a viable population without any need for further introductions.
Hawaiian cardinals nest in the summer. They build their nests in trees and shrubs and lay two to five speckled eggs.
Female Northern Cardinals incubate their eggs for 7 to 11 days, and the chicks spend another week or two in the nest before they are ready to fledge.
Male Cardinal perched on a branch in Hawaii
Northern Cardinals are easy to attract because they regularly visit sources of fresh water and they love bird seed. Putting out a bird feeder or simply spreading small amounts of food on the ground is a great way to attract these birds. If you use a bird feeder, make sure to clean it out regularly because good hygiene is vital when feeding wild birds.
Northern Cardinals have a varied diet. They enjoy the following food types:
A bird bath or water feature is a very effective way to attract many Hawaiian birds. Birds visit water sources regularly to drink and bathe. Hygiene is just as important when providing water, so always keep your birdbath clean.
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