Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal is the first bird to sing in Iowa, serenading us on winter mornings in late February. A favorite of many, largely due to the bright red plumage of the males, this bird can be seen in Iowa all year long because they don’t migrate.

More information

See the Northern Cardinal's profile on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Photo credits

Cover photo: By Jack Pearce via Flickr

Collage Photo (above): By Richard Crossley (Richard Crossley) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons



Today, when the snow-laden trees
look like cherry trees in blossom,
and two crows and an eagle
fly over fourteen inches of fresh snow,
I think of you this 27th February, 
on the side of lengthening days,
but still frigid
as when mourners lined
bitter blocks to pay their respects. 

Your season—
ripe days between birth and death marks.
You could’ve easily done away with Sunday Mass and catechism—
your faith was written on your heart.

Claustrophobic, but you took the tiny
cramped cage to the top
of the Saint Louis arch.
Afeared of heights, yet there you stood
on the top rung of the ladder.

Neighborhood nurse, you answered calls in the middle of the night: 
fed the hungry,
cooled the febrile,
and counseled the distressed. 

I occasionally catch sight of you—
bright flash of cardinal red.


“They Call Me ‘Cardinalis cardinalis’
because I’m all cardinalis—heck!
I put the ALL cardinALis. That’s how
cardinally I am. First thing people notice 
about me? That’d have to be my bold red 
colour, which I spell like Brits do because 
I’m bold inside and out, and be honest: don’t 
forests in England seem more stereotypically
foresty, thereby making my flashy zip through it 
more Brothers Grimmish? ‘A red-coloured bird 
ripped by the Shropshire waif like a bullet!' 
Second thing they notice? My nose. My all-
cardinal face is all nose. I don’t mind as my 
mask sits above it. 'Gimme your money, punks!' 
Third? My awesome new wave haircut. Fourth? 
That I’m ADHD as all get-out. So’s my wife—
she’s the mottled dreamsickle one by the 
feeder—so much bigger than me.

From the trail head's parking lot,
we heard the 90s style dance music thump-thump-thumping deep inside the forest. "You can't stop the cardinal, the cardinal, the cardinal..." ad infinitum.
It was 2 in the afternoon. The bass 
was shaking the leaves on the trees. 
We wondered if other birds ever complained.

Once I saw the red flash in the trees I knew that I could survive the Midwest
Though the rains pounded and the blizzards howled and the clouds darkened 
Still outside in the trees was a song that cheered my heart and strengthened my resolve to go on

Pyooo! Peeyoo! Peeyoo!
Geeyip! Geeyip! Geeyip!

Away from home, many a miles,
Cardinal hopes, cardinal smiles,
Amidst the bitter cold, in a world wholly white,
Flies a mighty bird, a magnificent cy-ight!


When winter comes,
I dream in purple.
Purple formed colonies
close on purple chimneys
form the single breath
of a cemetery where all swallows’
purple songs freeze like dried blood
in the cracks of the prairie pond’s ice.

Across a stentorian sky,
I lift the blood from my wings
and feel the cold like a turn
of fabric from the crocus flower,
the daffodil flower,
the iris
with its purple tongues 
like a burning nest.

In the frost,
we wet red widows
stone the paused
and crooked fingers
of a world afraid of dying;
alone in flight
as single drops from 
a thorn.

On the gate’s pontic
I wake to the white room
of gloved hands white
on the pintucked throats
of fields at fallow.

Soon the days will tug
from their tombs
low-slung skies
and the colors to make them.
The wing I tuck
turning purple,
I will not sleep
in the colors I dream.


The day we arrived the birdfeeder swung violently empty. The swamps yawned with ice. The sky frowned grey and hurried upon us. 
The day we arrived the wind whispered small prayers or curses. The grass was lost beneath crust of snow. The geese departed in careful choreography, their voices echoing against the sky.
The day we arrived we rubbed our minds raw with sandpaper, afraid our belief would shine through. We bound our arms and legs in scraps of worry and shame, dreaming of winter melt, and blue skies.
But no matter how careful we were, no matter how bound, in the night, the starlight and the moonlight crept on tiny white feet into our room gathering our whispers. And every morning we would awaken to our own gossamer truths strung along the tops of the hemlock trees, jeweled with dew. We would awaken to a dawn chorus – a shock of red cardinals in the white doubt of snow -singing the truths we could never forget. 

Feathers are red like blood
Sticks as sharp as spears
Beak to peck the eyes of all who watch
So look closely 
For this picture is at a cost of life


Pyooo! Peeyoo! Peeyoo!
Geeyip! Geeyip! Geeyip!

In the pre-dawn light—
early song cheering me back
from my wine-dark dreams—
cardinal trill, sweet somewhere,
day’s rising rouge, life’s bright flash.

Thank you for this picture of the rare flutist cardinal. Very kind. We mainly get pigeons and gulls here. Though we do occasionally get a collared dove, a fancy kind of pigeon, really, and flocks of bright green rogue parakeets!


across the sky faithfully like in school how we learned that we can only predict a day will come because since birth we have known days that come so we can say it will come but it is not certain it will come we can only be certain that the day has come not that it will come which is also like the spring and the cardinal a letter death of course we can say only that we believe that this will happen and then after the happening we can say we always knew

Around here, you're not just an itty 
dinosaur, you're a bit of lore
that the local community rallies 
around. Everyone has these 
crisp images of you blazoned on
baseball hats and sweatpants. Everyone
seems to say, Hey, you! Red birds 
are the absolute bomb!
And who would argue with that?
Bluebirds? But who cares about
bluebirds? Only those in communities where the bluebird is the local totem. 
I'm not talking about them! 
I'm talking about you, Northern Cardinal. You've got this striking vest 
of red and, as far as I know, whatever else you've got, that vest is the best. 
Who's got the best vest? You do! 
Who looks like a red pupil in the white
eye of winter? You do! Who questions
the world with feathers? Who could sit
on my head like a flaming fist? 

It's hard to talk about birds 
at a time like this. Still, I look 
for cardinals in the snowstorm, craving the red on white. Some say cardinals 
are lucky. I want to believe it, 
I see them all the time. Still, I have doubts.

Oh so Red,
How can I forget,
That you're wed.
Sun (Up)set, 
Fell to the ground
You picked it up 
As your Crown.

Do you believe in god I asked, watching
the cardinal perched in the snow.
Yes, you said I believe
in an intelligence greater than we can understand.
I don't I said, not exactly
but I just had the thought that if 
there is a god, it was nice 
of him to make cardinals
red. They're so cheerful 
in winter, so bright against the gray.
You said, I think god made cardinals
for their own purpose, not for us. I think
they have their own reason for being here.
I said, I think you know more about god
than I do.
I said, I'm still glad
that they're so red.

You were colored before Pope Innocent IV Ok'd red hats
Prince of the prairie and everywhere else you can be seen from the greatest
distances in a blizzard or bush
rock star of the bird scene refusing to
go South when the howling winds rush

in the cardinal's crest lie my words
etched on individual barbs
arranged in a plumulaceous microstructure
they are trapped there like the air between barbules in downy feathers

It's the male boid (Brooklyn accent). The mohawk, the mask, so something! It keeps fighting with the squirrel on the deck for seeds. It looks cold! But it's temper is hot (Take out the apostrophe). What are the rules about swearing? As in "bad a$$." I'm all aboot it, but we don't want anything disgusting (Canadian accent). This is...NO! This is begging to end with something about immigration! They don't migrate. They're stuck in America. No passports. Can't get a greencard for at least 4 years. Naw, two. Can they get a red-eye ticket out of this snowless midwestern winter?

My grandmother told me about the red birds, that they are signs of angels. Out the kitchen window I see one perched in the azalea. I smile and feel at peace because I know she is near.