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

The state of West Virginia is the 41st largest by area and 40th most populous in the United States. Most notable for mountains and rolling hills, West Virginia attracts an abundance of wildlife. The state animal for West Virginia is the Black Bear, but what is the state bird?

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the state bird for West Virginia. When you notice a flutter of cardinal red buzzing by your head or high above you while visiting the state of West Virginia, settling on a telephone wire or fence post, you’ve spotted the state’s official bird. The songbird of stunning crimson hue calls the lush forests of West Virginia its native habitat.

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

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

Why is the Northern Cardinal the state bird for West Virginia?

In 1949, schoolchildren, sporting groups, and birding groups voted on the state bird. They resoundingly chose the Northern cardinal, a finch commonly known as the redbird. A native species of West Virginia, settlers from Europe found the friendly bird reminded them of the robes of cardinals of the Catholic Church. The association stuck and when scientists named the bird, the Catholic connotation made it into the bird’s scientific name.

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

The state of West Virginia named the Northern Cardinal its state bird on March 7, 1949. The state shares the Northern Cardinal as a state bird with Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.

Male Northern Cardinal in flight

Male Northern Cardinal in flight

What does the state bird of West Virginia look like?

If you spot the cardinal bird in West Virginia and think it doesn’t quite look like what you’re accustomed to because its colors look different, you’re correct. The females of the Northern Cardinal grow bronze and gold feathers in this state, a distinctive hue for the state that its residents dubbed buffy brown.

The males of the species sprout the same vivid cerise feathers you see in other states. The birds of West Virginia have developed this different hue to protect themselves. The camouflage of the female’s coloring matches the materials from which she and her mate make their nest.

Female cardinals grow a little smaller in size than the males, but in other physical traits, they bear resemblance to one another. Both have black bills. At the base of both gender’s bill, you’ll spot a brown shade. The female cardinals do grow accent feathers that the males do not – yellow streaked with grey feathers at the chest and upper area with a light grey or white stomach.

Consider these birds medium-sized. They typically weigh between 1.5 ounces to 1.7 ounces and grow to eight or nine inches in length. The Northern Cardinal has a typical wingspan of 10 to 12 inches.

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

Male (left) and female (right) Cardinal feeding on seeds

Male (left) and female (right) Cardinal feeding on seeds

How do these birds behave?

You could say these birds are homebodies. They’re non-migratory and like to live close to their parents. In fact, they don’t move more than one mile from their birthplace.

They’ve had to adapt their preferred nesting areas to live in populated areas. In the wild, they typically build their nest in shrubbery. When living in suburban areas, they alter their habitat, instead making their nest one to five feet off of the ground. Not only do they build their nest higher, they also locate in different areas, ignoring shrubs and instead, choosing swamps, the edge of the woods, streamside thickets, and vegetation around homes, especially gardens. The birds help the gardener weed since they munch various weed seeds.

Perched Northern Cardinal calling

Perched Northern Cardinal calling

Northern Cardinals typically live between 13 to 15 years. Most of their lifespan they spend mating, rearing young, and hunting. They mate once, building a nest with their spouse.

These birds don’t sing to entertain. Instead, their birdsong consists of communications between husband and wife. Since they both contribute to the home, they spend much of their day separated. Their singing is each updating the other as to their location and warning each other of impending danger from predators. While he hunts and she builds the nest, incubates eggs, and cares for the children, they sing “purty-purty-purty” or “cheer-cheer-cheer” back and forth.

The cardinal egg incubation period takes approximately 11 to 13 days for their eggs. The females must incubate the eggs and cannot leave the nest during that time. The male handles all of the hunting and brings his mate every meal.

Once born, the chicks need protection and round the clock care because they do not hatch with full feathers. That means they can’t fly. The mother remains in the nest to care for them while the father hunts for food for the whole family.

They can have large broods, so when you spot that bright crimson bird flying back and forth from your yard to a tree, he’s probably delivering food he found or killed to his sizable family. It takes nine to 11 days for the chicks to develop full wings so they can leave the nest with their parents to feed.

Female Northern Cardinal during the winter

Female Northern Cardinal during the winter

Do Northern Cardinals form communities?

Like mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals fiercely protect their nest and family. The cardinal will take on any predator of any size to defend its territory. Humans should avoid cardinal nests for this reason.

The bird will attack pets, children, and adults just as they would another bird or a snake. A male cardinal will attack members of its own species if they enter its occupied breeding territory.

Cardinal eating berries from a tree

Cardinal eating berries from a tree

What do Northern Cardinals eat?

Northern Cardinals balance their love of food with their hesitancy to voyage into open spaces. Instead, they will forage in tree lines, shrubs, and dense foliage. Another difference between West Virginia Northern cardinals and those in other states is what they eat.

The West Virginia birds of this species are non-picky omnivores. Seeds top their list of favorite foods, so if you want to draw them to your yard, erect a seed-filled bird feeder. Hang it at a height of approximately five feet off of the ground. Stocking it chock full of sunflower seeds, and these finches will flock to your yard.

For a full guide on the diet of Northern Cardinals, check out this article.

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