In all of North America, only one avian species serves as both the beloved mascot of seven states as well as the totem to two professional sports teams (and an infinity of amateur ones!) Ironically, this feathered figurehead is neither a bird of prey nor particular distinguished athletically. Rather, this icon is extremely adaptable and eye-catching. Say hello to the charismatic Cardinal.

When it comes to cardinals and sports, the first and foremost organization to come to mind has to be baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, and not just because they’re Corey’s favorite team. The St. Louis Cardinals is one of the winningest (this is a real word in the sports world) franchises in all of baseball in terms of World Series crowns, second only to the storied New York Yankees. Clearly, their name change way back in 1900 earned the respect of the baseball gods. What was their name before they assumed the mantle of the Redbirds? The Perfectos.

The Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, on the other hand, are not nearly as successful. True, they are the oldest continuous professional American football club in the United States, running hard since 1898. However, in their migrations from Chicago to St. Louis to Glendale, AZ, they’ve only won a couple of championships. In fact, they hold the NFL record for the longest championship drought and have never even made a Super Bowl appearance. Not that making it to the show might make any difference: only one football team named for a bird has ever won the NFL championship!

Most people’s knowledge of cardinals begins and ends with the real redbird. The Northern Cardinal is literally the cardinal of cardinals. The male bird’s scarlet plumage and pert crest was reminiscent enough of a Roman Catholic cardinal’s colored robes to earn it, its family, and its genus the name they all share. Cardinalis cardinalis is an extremely prevalent bird throughout much of its range. Its common name, however, is a bit of a misnomer, unless “Northern” refers to the landmass north of the equator; this species extends from some southern Canadian provinces through the entirety of the eastern United States into Mexico and down to Guatemala and Belize.

However, there are much more to cardinals than just the beloved mascot of seven states and various sports teams. The family Cardinalidae encompasses a plethora of New World passerines. This diverse group of strong-billed seed-eaters, 42 species strong, includes the North American buntings (Indigo, Painted, Lazuli, Varied, and others), the cardinal-grosbeaks (including Rose-breasted, Black-headed, and Crimson-collared), saltators, and the delightful Dickcissel. The most recent additions to Cardinalidae are the PirangaHabia, and Chlorothraupis tanagers.

Within this family, one finds more familiar footing with the genus Cardinalis. Within this genus, one finds not only the Northern Cardinal but its close relative, the discommodiously designated Pyrrhuloxia. Cardinalis sinuatus, whose common name is roughly translated as “flame-colored crossbill” can be found throughout the American Southwest and Mexico. The third member of this genus, the Vermilion Cardinal, closely resembles its Northern cousin. However, Cardinalis phoeniceus is a South American species.

Note that while many other species, such as the Red-crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronata) of Hawaiian fame, bear the name and even likeness of species in the genus Cardinalis, they are not true cardinals.

Don’t be alarmed if you see a bald cardinal… there is a reason.

(This post was first published in August 2008 but has been republished because cardinals are always cool!)

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.