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How the Cardinal Got Its Name

Dear Bird Folks,

I hope you don’t mind but I have a rather strange question. One of my favorite birds is the cardinal. I would like to know how it got its name. Does it have anything to do with Catholic cardinals or is there a more birdie explanation?

– Emma, Wheeling, WV


It’s totally fine, Emma,

Don’t ever feel bad about asking me a strange question. That’s what I live for. Without odd questions this column would be as interesting as the section of the newspaper that contains the Weekly Business Calendar. (BTW: The Rotary Club breakfast is at 7:00 AM…again.) But ask a question about birds being Catholic and you’ll have people on the edge of their seats. Just about everyone wants to know the answer to that, especially the birds.

When the early pioneers arrived in North America they were shocked when they first laid their eyes on cardinals. These birds were way flashier than any of those drab birds the settlers saw in England. And what did they call this new, flashy bird? Unfortunately, the settlers didn’t have much in the way of imagination. After the long journey they were too jet lagged and full of scurvy to think of anything clever, so they simply called this new species the “red bird.” While the name lacked originality, it seemed to fit the bird just fine. Well, until they spotted a Scarlet Tanager. Oops! Suddenly red bird didn’t work as well. Then a guy (probably Jebediah somebody) suggested they switch the name to “cardinal” because of the similar bright red outfits worn by officials in the Catholic Church. Everybody loved that name. Not only did it describe the bird’s color, and thus avoid the pending lawsuit with the tanager, but it also further elevated the bird’s stature. It was a win-win. Well, it was a win for a little while anyway.

The name cardinal remained unchallenged for hundreds of years. In fact, if you are a “mature” adult like me and still have all of your old bird books, you’ll notice that the books simply call the cardinal, “cardinal.” Then in 1983, another guy (probably Jebediah somebody Jr.) pointed out that South America also has several species of birds with the common name of “cardinal.” Nuts! We had to change our cardinal’s name again. Several new names were suggested including, “Joe, the Cardinal,” “Mr. C” and “Good ole’ Rusty,” but the name they settled on was “Northern Cardinal.” Of course, this new name didn’t sit well with everyone. Many southern states, where cardinals are extremely popular, weren’t thrilled about calling their favorite bird “northern,” but they ultimately decided it was better than calling it Good ole’ Rusty.

Now that we have explained where the cardinal got its name, it’s time to talk about where the Catholic cardinals name came from. Catholic cardinal comes from the Latin cardo meaning, “hinge.” There was a time when these Church officials had great power and many of society’s norms and laws “hinged” on their decisions. The reason why they dress in red isn’t as clear. Some say it has to do with power. In the old days, red fabric was rare and very expensive. Anyone who could afford red was automatically considered a big shot. Others say that cardinals wear red to remind everyone that they will do anything for the Church, including shedding their own blood. Whoa! Still others argue red is worn strictly for practical reasons. Since many of the cardinals reside in Italy, the red outfits were chosen to hide possible stains from spaghetti sauce and thus cut back on laundry bills. I like that last one, which is why I always wear my red shirt anytime I eat at the Olive Garden.

Until bluebirds and hummingbirds usurped them, Northern Cardinals were the backyard bird watcher’s favorite birds. The cardinal is so popular that seven U.S. states named it as their state bird. And it was nearly honored by an eighth state when Delaware considered making the cardinal their state bird. But for some reason they changed their minds and chose the “blue hen” instead. That’s right. Delaware’s state bird is the blue hen. How did that happen? Clearly, some chicken lover paid off a state official (probably Jebediah Perdue).

Anyone who wants to entice cardinals to their yard should know that this bird’s favorite food is sunflower seed. They’ll eat any type of sunflower, but they seem to really like black oil sunflower. That’s good news for consumers because black oil sunflower is often less expensive than other sunflowers. (So far ExxonMobil hasn’t gotten their hands on this kind of black oil.) Another popular food for cardinals is safflower seed. Safflower is a very hard, white seed and many other birds don’t like dealing with its tough shell, but the cardinal’s huge beak can open it effortlessly. Safflower also has an additional benefit. Many other birds such as jays and grackles – and even squirrels – aren’t particularly fond of safflower and often leave it alone. The key word here is “often” and not “always.” If you try safflower seed and grackles or squirrels decide to eat it, I don’t want to hear from your lawyer.

Now that I’ve answered your question, Emma: Do me a favor, don’t tell my mother I said Catholic cardinals wear red to hide spaghetti sauce stains. She’ll make me go to confession every day for the rest of the year.