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What is the State Bird of North Carolina? (And Why?)

North Carolina is the 18th largest and 9th most populous state in the United States. The state animal is the grey squirrel, but what is the state bird for North Carolina?

The state of North Carolina chose the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) as the state bird in 1943. The medium-sized songbird known for its vibrant crimson red feathers propagates in the state of North Carolina’s woodlands, swamps, urban residential areas, and city parks.

Northern Cardinal perched on a branch

Northern Cardinal perched on a branch

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Why is the Northern Cardinal the state bird for North Carolina?

According to North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 145, Section 145-2, the state recognizes the value of the bird to humans since it eats weed seeds and munches garden insects. For its beneficial services in keeping farms and gardens free of harmful plants and animals, the state named it the state bird.

When did the Northern Cardinal become the state bird for North Carolina?

North Carolina didn’t name a state bird until 1943, waiting quite some time to designate state symbols. It shares the Northern Cardinal as a state bird with Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

While the legislation making it officially occurred in 1943, the state has had a long love for the songbird that keeps its vibrant color all year long. According to, the state legislature heeded the advice of The North Carolina Bird Club, which conducted a survey to determine public opinion. The public cast more than 23,000 votes, nominating birds to consider. Out of the twenty-six different candidates, the cardinal received 5,000. That topped all the others, including the dove, which came in second, with 3,395 votes.

Northern Cardinal in flight

Northern Cardinal in flight

What does the North Carolina state bird look like?

The males of the Northern Cardinal grow vibrant crimson red feathers, while the females’ feathers take on a reddish-brown hue. These birds grow to about the same size for both genders. The two genders of the bird resemble each other physically otherwise, too. Both genders have a black bill that's easily recognizable.

From head to tail, the Northern Cardinal measures eight to nine inches in length with a wingspan ranging from 10 to 12 inches. These little birds don’t weigh much – only 1.4 ounces to 1.7 ounces.

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

How do these Northern Cardinals behave?

These birds thrive in shrubbery in the wild. Never a pet, they 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. When they have children, the incubation period takes about 11 to 13 days. While incubating, the mother bird stays in the nest and the father bird goes hunting for food, which he brings home. Yes, cardinals get take out for their spouses. Once the babies hatch, the mother bird stays with them to provide care, and the father bird continues the hunting, but increases the amount of food he brings back to the nest. This is so the children can also eat.

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 for him to hunt for their family. Baby birds require lots of care and protection, since they don’t hatch with full feathers, and 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. Humans benefit from their seemingly constantly cheery nature.

This also explains why you rarely see females in your yard. Instead, people see the brightly colored male out “grocery shopping.” If you see the same cardinal fly back and forth to the nest with food, he and his wife probably had quite a few babies.

A female Northern Cardinal

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 his 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.

What do Northern Cardinals eat?

Northern Cardinals love to eat. Like many other bird species, they’re carnivores. They love insects and eat a bevy of them. This ingratiates them to farmers because the insects can’t attack their crops. Similar to mockingbirds, they love weed seeds. This also makes them a favorite of farmers and gardeners since it helps them weed their garden. Since these birds don’t migrate, they get to eat exactly their favorites unless a drought kicks in and eradicates them. Their favorite seeds are sunflower seeds, so if you want to help them out on snowy days in NC, you can place a bird feeder high up in your yard filled with naturally grown sunflower seeds.

Northern Cardinal eating seeds from a backyard feeder

Northern Cardinal eating seeds from a backyard feeder

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