The Northern Cardinal is a bright and beloved backyard visitor which belongs to a family of New World songbirds that includes grosbeaks and buntings. Although many birds belong to this cardinal family, none is more iconic than the classic Northern Cardinal with its crimson plumage and crested silhouette. The Northern Cardinal is so beloved, in fact, that it has come to represent the hobby of birdwatching and the appreciation of birds themselves.
The state bird of not one, not two, but seven U.S. states, the cardinal is the most popular state bird in the United States. Furthermore, this vibrant little bird is also a very common choice for sports team mascots. (1)
If you, like so many other people, are drawn to the colorful, cheerful, and charming cardinal, then read on to learn about the mythology and symbolism connected with this fan-favorite bird!
Table of contents
- Cardinal symbolism & meaning
- Cardinal Native American Symbolism
- Cardinal Christianity Symbolism
- Cardinal Celtic Symbolism
- Cardinals in Dreams
- Cardinal Encounters and Omens
- Cardinals’ Mythology and Folklore
- Cardinal Spirit Animal
- Cardinal Totem Animal
- Cardinal Power Animal
- Cardinal Tattoo Meaning
Cardinal Symbolism and Meaning
Cardinals symbolize many different things to many different people. The energetic and resonant song of the cardinal, its eye-catching appearance, its seemingly unflappable attitude, and many more traits connect this bird with a number of virtues and ideas.
Both due the cardinal’s red color and due to the male cardinal’s amorous love song, the cardinal is often used a symbol of passionate romance.
Cardinals, due in part to their color and in part to their comfort level in cold winter weather, are one of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas and the winter holiday season. Cardinal ornaments are quite common Christmas tree decorations and their are many little folk traditions connecting the cardinal with the Christmas holiday. The bright pop of color that the cardinal provides against the white winter landscape is a source of good cheer and a reminder that spring will come again and color will always return to the land.
Cardinal Native American Symbolism
Native American traditions revere the cardinal or “redbird.” Many traditions connect this bird with sunlight, wisdom, and good fortune. Some Native American traditions suggest that the redbird has the power to influence or predict the weather. According to some legends, the redbird can sense when rain will come and will sing a song predicting the rain. For this reason, some tribes believe that encountering a cardinal is a sure sign that rain is coming. (2)
Amongst the Cherokee, the cardinal is thought to be a messenger who delivers both good and bad news. The song of the cardinal is thought to foretell of the arrival of a visitor. Cardinal feathers are superstitiously connected with bloody noses on account of their color. Although most cardinal symbolism is positive, there are those among the Cherokee who believe that cardinals carry the souls of the dead into the afterlife. Under this belief system, a visit from a cardinal can be very bad news as it can signify that someone nearby is likely too die soon. (3)
The following myth describes how some Native American people’s believe that the cardinal received its bright red color:
“A Raccoon passing a Wolf one day made several insulting remarks, until at last the Wolf became angry and turned and chased him. The Raccoon ran his best and managed to reach a tree by the river side before the Wolf came up. He climbed the tree and stretched out on a limb overhanging the water. When the Wolf arrived he saw the reflection in the water, and thinking it was the Raccoon he jumped at it and was nearly drowned before he could scramble out again, all wet and dripping. He lay down on the bank to dry and fell asleep, and while he was sleeping the Raccoon came down the tree and plastered his eyes with dung. When the Wolf awoke he found he could not open his eyes, and began to whine. Along came a little brown bird through the bushes and heard the Wolf crying and asked what was the matter. The Wolf told his story and said, “If you will get my eyes open, I will show you where to find some nice red paint to paint yourself.” “All right,” said the brown bird; so he pecked at the Wolf’s eyes until he got off all the plaster. Then the Wolf took him to a rock that had streaks of bright red paint running through it, and the little bird painted himself with it, and has ever since been a Redbird.” (4)
Cardinal Christianity Symbolism
The cardinal is not a biblically significant bird, however this cheerful little songbird does have some noteworthy connections to Christianity. For starters, the cardinal’s name is actually derived from the Catholic clergy position. Traditional Catholic cardinals are high-ranking clergymen who are known to wear bright red robes, and often red hats too. The Northern Cardinal’s red plumage and feathered crest is reminiscent of this religious uniform and is the original source of this bird’s name. (5)
Common superstitions also hold that cardinals are sent by loved ones who have passed on to convey hope and joy to the bereaved. Sayings like “cardinals appear when angels are near,” are frequently quoted where this lovely bird is concerned. While none of these additional meanings are based on Biblical evidence, it is still common to associate cardinals with angels, heaven, and hope. Perhaps this is also due to the cardinal’s tendency to brighten winter landscapes with its vibrant coloration.
Cardinal Celtic Symbolism
Cardinals are confined to the Americas, and so are not found in regions where Celtic cultures could’ve incorporated them into myths or symbols. Birds, however, are often connected with the Celtic Otherworld, as is the color red. So cardinals could be interpreted as otherworldly or supernatural in Celtic mythology. (6)
Cardinals in Dreams
Dreaming of a cardinal can be a very moving experience. Often, when these birds appear in dreams, the dreamer reports feeling a surge in hope or an uplift in mood. The cardinal’s vibrancy and song encourages optimism and appears in dreams to remind us that everything will be okay.
Some people believe that a cardinal in a dream can represent a deceased loved one, or even a loved one who too far away to see. The cardinal in such dreams might represent one’s desire to connect with their loved one. It may even suggest that the dreamer is in their loved one’s thoughts at that moment.
Cardinals are often connected with romance because of their lovely singing, red coloration, and courtship rituals wherein the males deliver food to the females. Cardinal pairs are not universally monogamous, but pairs tend to stay together for the long haul. It is estimated that only twenty percent of Northern Cardinal pairs split up after the breeding season. (7) So, dreaming of a cardinal might symbolize romantic love and devotion. A cardinal dream might mean that romantic connection is in your future.
Cardinal Encounters and Omens
Encountering a cardinal is often interpreted as a sign of protection or an indicator that angels are watching over you. Consider a cardinal’s visit as an omen of positive things to come. Some cultures do see cardinals as guides who bring souls into the afterlife. In those settings, a cardinal is sometimes thought of as an omen of death. Most traditions, however, see cardinals as messengers of hope and light.
Many traditions suggest that cardinal encounters may signify that a visitor will soon come into your life. In this vein, a cardinal encounter may also be a good luck charm for travelers.
Cardinals’ Mythology and Folklore
In various mythology and folklore, the symbolism of the cardinal can be connected with another famously vibrant red bird: the phoenix. The phoenix itself has a wealth of tales and variations; for example, the Egyptian phoenix myth follows the life, death and rebirth of the mythical Bennu bird. (8)
The Greek legend of the phoenix states that only one exists throughout the world and that each one lives for thousands of years. Only when its time is up does the phoenix finally die, and from its ashes, a new bird is born. The phoenix is closely connected with the sun and is known for its vibrant colors.
Apart from the Greeks, the Cherokee also associated the red cardinal with the sun and considered it to be a good omen. One Cherokee myth even describes the first red bird as the sun’s daughter. They also believed the cardinal bird symbolism to be parallel with weather predictions. You can find a wealth of red bird meanings, mythologies, and folklore in the book Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition.
Cardinal Spirit Animal
If your spirit animal is the cardinal then you are most likely a cheerful, vibrant person who is naturally optimistic and brings joy into the lives of your peers. The cardinal spirit animal is outgoing, confident, expressive, kind, and bright.
People with the cardinal spirit animal are natural home-makers and take great joy in building comfortable, welcoming, and safe spaces for themselves and their families. The cardinal is a kind and giving spirit which is always happy to accommodate the needs of others.
People with the cardinal spirit animal are festive and love an opportunity to get excited and celebrate. From holidays to birthdays to everyday rituals, the cardinal is happies when living life to the absolute fullest and pouring their whole heart into every occasion. Pessimistic people might find the cardinal’s positivity to be “too much,” but very few can resist the infectious cheer that the cardinal spirit animal brings.
Cardinal Totem Animal
The cardinal totem animal represents endurance, energy, and rejuvenation. Unlike many other birds, cardinals don’t typically migrate in the winter seasons; they stand tall and proud during difficult times and come out stronger than before. People with the cardinal totem animal may find these birds to be helpful during times of seasonal depression or sadness. Their bright colors remind us of all the good things to come and how light always shines through, even in dark places.
People with the cardinal as their totem animal are creative and unafraid to share their whole selves with the world. Loud, proud, and full of energy, the cardinal totem animal wears its heart on its sleeve.
Having a cardinal animal totem also means that you love your home and have a strong sense of honor. No matter how difficult a setback you face, you will get back up again. You are innovating and determined, so whatever “it” is, you will stick to it until the very end. Your love for your home also makes you very territorial.
Cardinal Power Animal
There are many reasons why people might call upon the crimson cardinal as a power animal.
The cardinal is considered by many to be a good luck charm. The cardinal power animal can be especially helpful during periods of transition and uncertainty. Traveling alone? Beginning a new job? Taking an uncharacteristic risk? The cardinal power animal has your back!
The cardinal power animal is also helpful when it comes to communication. Relationships, both romantic and platonic, are all about communication. The cardinal power animal helps with listening and expressing oneself in ways that are pleasant and effective.
Cardinal Tattoo Meaning
The cardinal tattoo represents many things, all of which are unique depending on the person with the tattoo, the style of the tattoo, and its placement. However, the most common meanings for cardinal tattoos are hope, love, passion, renewal, family, grace, and nobility.
Although the most common style of a cardinal tattoo is natural, we also see variations of it in abstract and watercolor style. People opt for the abstract variant because of the vibrant color. These tattoos are less common, but they’re nevertheless impactful.
A cardinal tattoo might represent the Christmas holiday or the winter season, because Northern Cardinals are firmly associated with both of these.
Finally, a cardinal tattoo might represent a deceased loved one and the cherished memories one shares with them.
The cardinal is a magnificent creature. With its abundant cheer, beautiful voice, romantic flair, and flashy coloration, it is no wonder that so many people have come to associate the cardinal with so many different meanings. As the unofficial “Christmas bird,” the cardinal represents the togetherness, warmth, hope, and love that the holiday season brings with it.
After studying all of the cardinal’s exceptional traits, it becomes easier and easier to understand why so many people associate these birds with angels. As the saying goes: “Cardinals appear when angels are near!”