Whether or not you have an interest in bird watching, you have surely noticed the Northern Cardinal. With their bold red feathers, loud, clear song and brash behavior, they are hard to miss! Due to their striking physical and personal attributes, cardinals have come to embody deep spiritual symbolism. To many, cardinals represent strength, vitality, cheer, transformation and renewal. Some even see them as messengers from heaven.
The very name of the bird is symbolic of what it has come to represent for the spiritual among us. The word cardinal is derived from the Latin word cardinali, meaning principal, fundamental and “of the greatest importance”. The cassocks worn by the chief Roman Catholic priests – called Cardinals – are a signature vivid red color. The bird takes its name from these high priests’ garments.
Cardinals are one of few North American birds that do not migrate for the winter. Their striking crimson plumage stands out in stark contrast on even the dreariest days. This twelve month cycle is what has inspired the belief that the birds symbolize the circle of life, death and renewal.
Their ability to withstand harsh weather conditions, and the fact that they do not molt into a dull plumage, but maintain their gorgeous red feathers all year, plays a role in their representation of strength, vitality and endurance.
The sweet-sounding whistles of the cardinal are one of the first sounds you hear as a new summer morning breaks. The very tune of the bird’s song is often interpreted as a repetition of the word, “cheer.” These clear, bright calls have led to the cardinal’s embodiment of elevation, clarity and communication.
The idea that cardinals bring cheer to the world in the midst of barren winters is the reason you often find their images on Christmas cards and ornaments throughout the season.
Very few female North American songbirds actually sing, and the female cardinal is one of them. Their song inspires hope, perseverance and an upward journey through life.
Interestingly, the male cardinal also sets himself apart from other songbirds in terms of his dedication to parenting his young. The mating pair is a true team, with males delivering food and nesting materials and both birds sharing song phrases.
When it comes to defending their territory and family, both male and female cardinals are ferocious! They will take on a hawk, their own reflection in a car mirror, even a human! The fiery crown of red feathers on top of the male’s head stands straight up when he is agitated, warning opponents not to come any closer. No wonder these sassy birds symbolize strength of spirit!
Northern Cardinal male attacking his reflection in a parked car mirror by Lillian Stokes.
Delving into the deeper symbolic meaning of the cardinal in Christianity, the bird is seen as a token of faith, signifying the blood and resurrection of Christ. For this reason, the cardinal has a long history as a symbolic messenger from heaven, even the spiritual embodiment of a deceased loved one.
No matter what your spiritual beliefs may be, we can learn a lot about life, strength, optimism and perseverance from the extraordinary Northern Cardinal.
Featured image via Louis Keiner