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What is the State Bird of Illinois? (And Why?)

Illinois is the 25th largest state by area and the 6th most populous state in the United States. There is a host of different habitats suitable for birds and wildlife, with many lakes and lowland hilly areas. The state animal for Illinois is the White-tailed Deer, but what is the state bird?

The state of Illinois chose the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) as the state bird in 1929. The medium-sized songbird, known for its vibrant crimson red feathers, chose the state of Illinois as one of its home states. Northern Cardinals prefer a happy medium between forested lands and open areas, so The Prairie State became a natural choice for these birds.

Northern Cardinal in a cedar tree

Northern Cardinal in a cedar tree

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Why is the Northern Cardinal the state bird for Illinois?

The schoolchildren of Illinois voted on a state bird in 1928 at the behest of the Macomb branch of the National Federation of Professional Women's Clubs. It took the legislature until the following year to officially name the cardinal the state bird. While seven states chose this bird, Illinois became the first. Other candidates included the oriole, bluebird, meadowlark, and bobwhite.

When did the Northern Cardinal become the state bird for Illinois?

Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818, but didn’t name a state bird until 1929. The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation on June 4, 1929, declaring it the state bird. The state shares the Northern Cardinal as a state bird with Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

A male Northern Cardinal taking a bath

A male Northern Cardinal taking a bath

What does the state bird of Illinois look like?

The males of the Northern Cardinal grow vibrant crimson red feathers, while the females’ feathers take on a reddish-brown or gold hue. The males of this species of bird grow to a little larger than females, but not much. Otherwise, the two genders of the bird resemble each other physically. The female bird’s chest and upper area appear yellow and streaked with grey, but their stomach areas appear white or light grey. Typically, these birds have a black bill featuring a brown shade at the base.

From head to tail, the Northern Cardinal of Illinois measures 7.9 to 9.3 inches in length with a wingspan ranging from 9.8 to 12.2 inches. These little birds don’t weigh much – only 1.19 ounces to 2.29 ounces.

To learn more about female cardinals, check out this guide.

Male and female Northern Cardinals perched in a tree

Male and female Northern Cardinals perched in a tree

How do these birds behave?

These birds typically thrive in shrubbery in the wild. In Illinois, their habitat differs slightly. They live at the edge of wooded areas, swamps, streamside thickets, and vegetation around homes in suburban areas.

While the size of these birds varies according to the state in which they reside, their life span, mating habits, and feeding tendencies remain similar. The cardinals live about 13 to 15 years. During that time, these birds mate and build a nest with their partner. The two birds communicate through song. Much of the cardinals’ singing that humans enjoy is a couple keeping in touch while apart.

When a cardinal couple has children, the incubation period takes about 11 to 13 days for their eggs. While incubating the eggs, the mother bird cannot leave the nest, so the father bird goes hunting for food, which he brings home. At this point, he’s essentially grocery shopping for two, but once the babies hatch, he brings home enough food for the entire family. Since the baby birds can’t immediately leave the nest, the mother bird stays with them to provide care. The father bird continues the hunting but increases the amount of food he brings back to the nest.

When you hear the telltale sounds of “purty-purty-purty” or “cheer-cheer-cheer,” you’re listening to a mother and father cardinal keeping in touch while separated as he hunts for their family. Baby birds require lots of care and protection since they don’t hatch with full feathers, therefore they cannot fly yet. If a predator approaches the nest, the mother must protect herself and all of the babies, too. Understandably, the couple likes to keep in touch during such a dangerous time. Since the male bird hunts, you rarely see the females in the yard. When you spot a red cardinal flying back and forth to the nest with food, he and his female partner probably had quite a few babies.

Close up of a female Northern Cardinal

Close up of a female Northern Cardinal

Do Northern Cardinals form communities?

These cardinals live in a manner similar to mockingbirds, in the sense that they form a tightly knit marriage and family which they fiercely protect. The cardinal will fight to the death to protect its home. If it senses a predator, regardless of its size, it will fight for its territory, which typically includes its family. You should never approach a cardinal’s nest nor allow your children or pets to do so. The birds will attack you. They also battle for their breeding territory. If other male cardinals enter an already occupied breeding territory, they will fight their own species.

Sometimes, they see their own reflection in a window or mirrored glass, and they will attack it. These birds recognize others of their own species and can identify animals and humans. Far from being “bird-brained,” a phrase meaning stupid, they are very small despite having tiny brains. However, they don’t know that the glass shows their reflection. Thinking that it is another cardinal, the bird seemingly attacks the glass, actually fighting itself.

Cardinal feeding on seeds from a backyard bird feeder

Cardinal feeding on seeds from a backyard bird feeder

What do Northern Cardinals eat?

Northern Cardinals love to eat, and they have the greatest diet diversity of any bird. You might expect Illinois cardinals to eat the same diet as the Indiana cardinals, but they don’t. The Illinois birds of this species are granivores. They focus on eating seeds. Illinois residents will still eat insects, but they much rather dine on weed seeds, fruits, and grains. They enjoy fruits, especially berries and raisins.

You can help them out by stocking a bird feeder hung high up in your yard with fruits, grains, greens, and seeds. If you want to thrill the cardinals in your yard, you can also offer other favorites including safflower seeds, peanut pieces, cracked corn, and fresh berries.

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