Baby Northern cardinals in their nest.
At least four Northern cardinals nesting in a Camellia bush off Bull Street in Charleston, South Carolina

In the summer of 1832, John James Audubon and Lucy Audubon and their sons Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse are together for the only family trip of the entire lives. The trip begins in Philadelphia. From Philadelphia, the Audubons travel north through Moorestown, New Jersey (to visit John James’s close friend Edward Harris), New York City, and Boston. They keep heading north along the Atlantic coast to Eastport, Maine, and then Dennysville. Once they reach Dennysville, John James Audubon starts noticing fewer Cardinal grosbeaks. The bird is known today as the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The Northern cardinal remains very common in the eastern United States. The bird is so popular that it has been elected the state bird for seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and West Virginia. The bird’s ability to maintain its strength in numbers could be attributed to the bird’s voice. “Its song is at first loud and clear, resembling the finest sounds produced by the flageolet, and gradually descends into more marked and continued cadences, until it dies away in the air around.” Producing such music has allowed the Northern cardinal to compete well against today’s roaring lawn mowers, weed eaters, leaf blowers, cars, trucks and other gas-powered machines.

The Northern cardinal’s song and calls and energy are in part powered by the berries that it consumes. Bush or Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is regarded as one of the most invasive plant species in the mideastern United States. The plant’s main ally is the Northern cardinal. The bird consumes Bush honeysuckle berries and then acts as a sort of seed spreader with its excrement.

Image of the berries of Bush honeysuckle.
The berries of Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) that Northern cardinals and other birds relish.

John James Audubon placed the Northern cardinal with Joseph Mason’s drawing of a Wild almond (Prunus caroliniana). The current common name for the plant is the Carolina cherry-laurel. Like Bush honeysuckle, the Northern cardinal thrives on eating the berries of the Carolina cherry-laurel. Northern cardinals are able to process the hydrocyanic acid that the berry’s seed contains, whereas the chemical is potentially lethal to a person. Surely, there is little more a creature must accomplish not only to be the state bird of numerous states and the mascot of countless sports teams but also stand among the very few in a genus (Cardinalis) that is the same as its species (cardinalis).

The Northern cardinal as drawn by John James Audubon in Birds of America.
The male and female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and the Carolina cherry-laurel as they appear in John James Audubon’s Birds of America.