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

Kentucky is the 26th most populous and the 37th largest state in the United States. Kentucky has great areas for wildlife and birds in the valleys, forests, coal fields and high ridges spread across the state. The state animal for Kentucky is the Eastern Gray Squirrel, but what is the state bird?

The state of Kentucky chose the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) as the state bird not once, but twice, making it state law both times. The bold-colored medium-sized songbird chose the state of Kentucky as one of the US states that it would make home. The Bluegrass State offers enough mesquite patches and streamside thickets to keep the Northern Cardinals happy.

The state bird of Kentucky, the Northern Cardinal

The state bird of Kentucky, the Northern Cardinal

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Why is the Northern Cardinal the state bird for Kentucky?

Northern Cardinals, commonly known as the redbird, is a native of Kentucky. Settlers to the area coming from Europe noted the similarity in color of the bird to the robes of the cardinals of the Catholic Church. The description worked its way into the bird’s scientific name when the animals and plants of North America were documented.

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

The legislature of Kentucky first voted the Northern Cardinal its state bird on February 26, 1926, then re-codified its choice in 1942. The state shares the Northern Cardinal as a state bird with Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

A female Northern Cardinal in Kentucky

A female Northern Cardinal in Kentucky

What does the state bird of Kentucky look like?

The males of the Northern Cardinal grow vibrant crimson red feathers, while the females’ feathers take on a golden red-brown or gold hue, referred to as buffy brown in Kentucky. Although it may seem odd that cardinals in Kentucky differ in color from other cardinals in the US, this is normal since 18 variations of this species occur in the country. One of these variations of Northern Cardinal (Richmondena Cardinalis cardinalis) makes Kentucky its home.

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, 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 measures 8 to 9 inches in length with a wingspan ranging from 10 to 12 inches. These little birds don’t weigh much – only 1.5 ounces to 1.7 ounces.

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

A male Northern Cardinal perched on a flower

A male Northern Cardinal perched on a flower

How do these birds behave?

These birds do not migrate and typically live within one mile of their birthplace. When living in the wild, they thrive in the shrubbery, but in suburban areas, such as Kentucky, their habitat differs. They make their nests between one to five feet off of the ground on the edge of wooded areas, swamps, streamside thickets, and vegetation around homes. Since these birds like the seeds of various weeds, they frequent the gardens of many homeowners.

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 chicks, 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 male 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 male bird continues the hunting but increases the amount of food he brings back to the nest. After between nine to 11 days, the baby birds can leave the nest to feed with their parents.

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 because the male hunts for food 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 wife probably had quite a few babies.

A Northern Cardinal in winter foraging for seeds

A Northern Cardinal in winter foraging for seeds

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.

Female Cardinal on a bird feeder

Female Cardinal on a 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 Kentucky cardinals to eat the same diet as the Indiana cardinals, but they don’t. The Kentucky birds of this species are omnivores. They focus on eating seeds. Kentucky residents enjoy the meat of insects, as well as dining on weed seeds, berries, fruits, and corn seeds. You can help them out in winter by stocking a bird feeder hung high up in your yard with fruit, corn seeds, and sunflower seeds.

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