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

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

Virginia is the commonwealth state that is home to extraordinary mountain ranges and estuaries. It is the 35th largest state by area and the 12th most populous. So, what is the state bird for Virginia?

The state of Virginia chose the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) as the state bird. The bold-colored medium-sized songbird native to Virginia lives in its woodlands, meadows, and gardens.

The state bird of Virginia, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

The state bird of Virginia, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Why is the Northern Cardinal the state bird for Virginia?

Although it declared independence in 1776, as it was one of the original colonies, the Cavalier State waited nearly two centuries to name its state bird! In 1950, the Virginia General Assembly voted on the state bird, naming the Northern cardinal as its choice.

The bird, a finch, also commonly gets called a redbird. A native species of Virginia, the state’s European settlers noticed how the vibrant colors of the bird match the robes of the cardinals of the Catholic Church. Since colonial days, the state’s residents have enjoyed the cheerful warble of the state bird.

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

The state of Virginia took its time deciding on its state bird. Although it gained statehood on June 25, 1788, it did not choose the Northern Cardinal as its state bird until January 25, 1950.

The state found itself in agreement with six other states that also appreciate what makes this songbird so special. The states of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Kentucky share the Northern Cardinal as the state bird.

Male (right) and female (left) Cardinals perched in a tree

Male (right) and female (left) Cardinals perched in a tree

What does the state bird of Virginia look like?

Look for a black patch at the base of the bird’s bill or beak to identify a male of this species. Adult male Northern Cardinals sport vivid crimson feathers. Adult females of the species grow feathers of a red-brown hue. If you bird watch in multiple states, you’ll notice that the female Northern Cardinal develops slightly different colored feathers that help her match her natural surroundings. The bird typically chooses materials that match her coloring to make its nest.

The two genders grow to similar size with the males of this species just edging them out. They weigh between 1.5 ounces and 1.7 ounces. They otherwise physically resemble each other. The female cardinal has a black bill with a brown base juxtaposed against a gray face with a crest and a light grey or white stomach. Look for them to have a wingspan of 10 to 12 inches and a length of eight to nine inches measuring from head to tail.

Male Northern Cardinal in flight

Male Northern Cardinal in flight

How do these birds behave?

The Northern cardinal, a non-migratory bird, usually establishes its nest within a mile of its birthplace. They settle down in a home’s yard or garden, they typically make their nest in a shrub. When they settle down in the wild, they thrive in shrubbery. In Virginia, many of these birds settle down in suburban wooded areas, swamps, streamside thickets, and vegetation. They don’t build nests too high off the ground – just elevated by one to five feet.

The average lifespan of the Northern cardinal lives ranges from 13 to 15 years. At one year old they reach sexual maturity, and the males establish a breeding territory. The females choose a mate from the young, single Northern cardinals. Their complex courtship involves the romantic practice of mate feeding. The male of the species hunts for dinner, then flies to her to feed her beak-to-beak. From a distance, it may appear that the two lovebirds kiss.

Female Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

They use songs as a communication device. Listen for a song that sounds like "purty-purty-purty” or “cheer-cheer-cheer.” Couples sing back and forth to one another as they run errands as a protection from danger.

The male hunts for food while the female gathers nest materials, builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and tends the young once they’re born. If that sounds a little uneven, the male of the couple must hunt food for an entire family of birds, plus he’s on constant guard duty. The birds sing to signal their location and the female sings to warn the male of approaching predators so he can return to protect their brood and help her fend off the predator.

These birds have two broods per year. The eggs require an incubation period of 11 to 13 days. After nine to 11 days, the baby birds fledge. Their parents still hunt for them for the remainder of their first month of life, but they leave the nest to feed. They leave the nest to fly with a juvenile flock at one month of age.

Close up of a Northern Cardinal eating seeds

Close up of a Northern Cardinal eating seeds

Do Northern Cardinals form communities?

For most of their first year of life, these birds fly as a flock, sowing their wild oats. At one year of age, they find their mate and commit to a monogamous relationship. At this point, the Northern cardinal constructs a nest with its beloved and begins mating. The couple typically has two broods per year, meaning that the male impregnates the female twice each year. Each brood consists of two to five chicks.

The cardinals, like mockingbirds, form a traditional marriage and a large family which they fiercely protect. The Northern cardinal will fight to the death to protect its home regardless of the size of the predator, regardless of its size. Northern cardinals consider humans predators and will attack you or your child if they approach their nest.

Male cardinals fight for their breeding territory and if another male of their own species enters their breeding territory, they will fight their own species. They can recognize their own species, humans, and can identify various animals.

They don’t know mirrored glass when they see it though, so they will attack their own reflection, thinking it is an enemy.

Cardinal eating from a bird feeder

Cardinal eating from a bird feeder

What do Northern Cardinals eat?

Northern Cardinals love food, but dislike open spaces, so they forage in tree lines, shrubs, and Virginia’s dense foliage. While in other states these birds choose a strict diet, in Virginia, they’re omnivores willing to try anything. They equally consume insects and vegetation.

Their favorite meat dishes include beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, and snails. Their favorite vegetation dishes include oats, sunflower seeds, and fruit – mostly berries. They love drinking maple sap which they sip from holes formed by sapsuckers.

In winter, they flock to yards with bird feeders about five feet off of the ground and nosh on sunflower seeds.

For more information on what cardinals eat, check out this guide.

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