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Northern Cardinal Symbolism: Deciphering the Myths and Meanings of This Vibrant Bird

The Northern cardinal is native only to the Americas and is hard to miss with its bright red plumage and distinctive head crest (in the case of males).

There are many birds from this American songbird family, such as grosbeaks and buntings, but the bright and energetic Northern cardinal is hard to miss when it frequents parks and backyards.

This emblematic bird is the state bird of no fewer than seven US states - Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia - and features prominently in sports team imagery. This is a guide to Northern cardinal symbolism.

What do Cardinals symbolize?

In modern Western spiritualism, Northern cardinals evoke endurance, luck, manifestation, devotion, love, loyalty, vitality, harmony, energy, and rejuvenation.

Male Northern cardinals are bright and energetic, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they’ve become associated with vitality and energy. Northern cardinals exclusively live in the Americas, and much of their symbology is dictated by Native American mythology and folklore.

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Cardinals tend to symbolise things associated with bright and positive energy

Cardinals tend to symbolise things associated with bright and positive energy

Native American folklore and mythology

In Native American folklore - where Northern cardinals are often called Redbirds - they’re seen as messengers that carry both good and bad news.

For example, in Cherokee mythology, a Northern cardinal singing near the home indicates there will soon be visitors, but if one visits the home itself, this might indicate death - as the bird carries the souls of the dead. Other Cherokee legends say the Northern cardinal is the daughter of the sun, and they believe the bird can predict the weather. Some tribes believe that encountering cardinals is a sign that rains are coming.

The Ojibwe people admired the cardinal as an alert and highly observant bird, and the Pueblo tribes viewed the cardinal as a guardian.

The Akimel O'odham (Pima) people of southern Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua associate cardinals with thunder and lightning and believe they can predict rain. Some say that seeing a cardinal indicates that one will receive luck in 12 days.

Close up of a perched female Northern Cardinal

Close up of a perched female Northern Cardinal

There is a Cherokee story that describes how the redbird got its color. In a nutshell, a raccoon plasters a wolf’s eyes shut with song. A brown cardinal helps the wolf undo his eyes in return for some red paint.

Paint in Native American culture is the dye contained in rock formations and is dug out for warpaint, ceremonial and ornamental use. Red paint has sacred value in Native American culture and represents strength, combat, courage, resilience, and wellbeing.

Along came a little brown bird through the bushes and heard the Wolf crying and asked what was the matter. The Wolf told his story and said, “If you will get my eyes open, I will show you where to find some nice red paint to paint yourself.” “All right,” said the brown bird; so he pecked at the Wolf’s eyes until he got off all the plaster. Then the Wolf took him to a rock that had streaks of bright red paint running through it, and the little bird painted himself with it, and has ever since been a Redbird” - How the Redbird Got His Color.

Close up of a male Northern Cardinal perched on a branch

Close up of a male Northern Cardinal perched on a branch

Cardinals in Christinaity

Northern cardinals are American birds and don’t appear in the Bible, but they were named after the Catholic church's cardinals, who are clergymen, and ecclesiastical officials.

The etymology of the Northern cardinal’s name originated sometime in the 1670s when the bird was named. Red cardinals are named for their fine red color that resembles cardinals in their red robes.

Cardinals have become associated with Christmas decor in the US, just like the robin is associated with Christmas decor in Europe. This red bird is certainly evocative of warmth in the cold winter and looks great on a Christmas tree!

A northern cardinal perched in a tree on a spring day

A northern cardinal perched in a tree on a spring day

If you find a Cardinal feather meaning?

Red cardinal feathers symbolize strength, courage, passion, energy, and vigor. Their bold red tone (in the case of male plumage) is both beautiful and powerful.

They also symbolize the pursuit of one’s goals or happiness, vitality, and determination to move forward with one’s life.

If a Cardinal appears in your dream?

To see a cardinal in a dream is a powerful omen with mostly positive connotations.

This energetic, vigorous and determined bird symbolizes strength and courage to move forward in difficult times, or to traverse a challenging period of life. They also symbolize passion and love, perhaps indicating desire in a relationship.

These vibrant birds are reassuring too, and show that there is color, beauty, and brightness even in dark moments.

Male Northern Cardinal eating seeds from a feeder

Male Northern Cardinal eating seeds from a feeder

When Cardinals cross your path?

For the most part, crossing paths with a Northern cardinal is a great spectacle of nature. These beautiful birds are much-loved and have become synonymous with popular bird imagery.

From a spiritual perspective, Northern cardinals are reassuring that color and beauty exist all around us - they symbolize strength and courage in the face of adversity and the will to move forward despite challenges and shortcomings.

They also symbolize passion and love and are a symbol that better days are coming.

Northern Cardinal taking off from a tree

Northern Cardinal taking off from a tree

White Cardinal meaning

White cardinals produce melanin pigments like normal cardinals, but these aren’t deposited in the feathers. Thus, leucistic Northern cardinals have white or white patched plumage and not red or brown.

In some cases, they are practically all white. However, this is uncommon, affecting around 1 in 1800 cardinals.

To see a white Northern cardinal is rare - a moment to be savored! White cardinals hold much of the same spiritual meaning as normally pigmented cardinals but are rarer - to see one is a blessing.

What does a pair of Cardinals symbolize?

Northern cardinals are seasonally monogamous and form strong pair bonds for the breeding season. If you see a red male cardinal with a predominantly brown female, then they’re likely a mated pair.

Pairs of mated cardinals symbolize love, passion, and devotion. While pairs of cardinals rarely stay together for the next breeding season, they cooperate throughout the breeding season and often raise two broods a year.

Males and females share many duties and are fiercely protective of each other and their brood.

Pairs of mated cardinals symbolize love, passion, and devotion

Pairs of mated cardinals symbolize love, passion, and devotion

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