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.
Related: 15 Cardinal Bird Facts You Didn’t Know (2022)
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.
Related: 12 Tips on How to Attract Cardinals to Your Yard (2022)
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.
Related: 5 Best Cardinal Bird Feeders (+How to Attract Them)
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.
Also read: Robin vs. Cardinal: Songs, Habitat & Identification
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!”
Also read: Bluebird Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)
9 thoughts on “Cardinal Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)”
This morning, I went to open the window and I, had to take a double glance. There were 3 Red Cardinals on the ground and spread approximately 3-4’ apart. They stayed a bit moving around coming closer to the house. 1 eventually made its way, the other two continued to stay, and then again another one made its way. The last of the three, it was a big one, and made its over to large tree trunk and sat there for a approximately 30 seconds. I, was not only in disbelief, but Happy and Amazed. I know this means something significant .. I’m just not sure what it is. As I, am also, part Native American.
Hi, I found a female cardinal (red) feather on my doorstep a few days ago. I’m a 68 year old woman who lost her only child last year. Can you tell me what it means to find a cardinal feather? Thank you for your help. I find your website amazing!
I’m terribly sorry to hear about your loss. There are some who say that cardinals are angels on earth. For many, a cardinal feather would be interpreted as a sign of faith and good cheer. I would think of it as a reminder that there is beauty all around you. I hope this helps you!
— Hailey Brophy
Writer @ World Birds
If you have a moment, what does it mean if a cardinal gets into your house?
This happened to me on a old and rainy Monday morning before leaving for work, I heard flapping in the dining room. A bright red cardinal was trapped in the window blinds. I’m living with my boyfriend and his parents. His mom grabbed me a clean towel so I could catch and release the bird. My first attempt at catching it was unsuccessful, as he just flew underneath the blinds when I lifted them. He flew the other side of the room, where there was another set of blinds. He got stuck once more. This time, however, I was able to lift the blinds and catch him safely with the towel. I held it close and walked to the back door, where my boyfriend’s mom opened the door and screen door for me. I put my hand(the one supporting his body) down onto the stair railing and lifted the other side from his body. He flew off into the neighbor’s yard and landed on a tree branch. I ended up being late for work by a few minutes to help the little guy.
I’m just curious if this combination of things means anything, and if so, whether they’re good or bad things.
I’ve always loved cardinals, and I spot them around me in nature at least three times a year. This was the first time one had been trapped and needed my help. Luckily I was able to help him, and I hope I didn’t hurt him on accident in the process of catching him.
Honestly a great read I am 32yrs old and encountered my first cardinal up close and personal last week flying pass my car in my parking lot. This morning when I pulled up 3 cardinals were playing in my yard. After watching them peacefully play for abt 2 minutes 1 flew pass my window, the 2nd flew on a branch and started flexing its bright red wings and lastly the 3rd flew on my passenger side mirror and sat there for a few seconds flapping it’s wings befor it flew away.
Well as U could imagine my entire body went numb and I swear a feeling of spiritual something took over for abt 5 minutes. I had to do my research on this bird and what message should I be receiving. Glad I came across ur read. Warms my heart and solidified some of how I felt today
I work for UPS. I told my driver that a few weeks ago hat my favorite bird was a cardinal. So I’ve been going through a time.!!!!!! Keeping it positive or at least trying my best. My granny passed a year ago on the 5th of December. So today while running to a door to deliver a package a bird crossed right in front of me into the tree on my left. I had to see what it was …… IT WAS A CARDINAL 😍🥰. Just a few steps away from me. I knew then everything will be fine!. Better than I could ever expect.
Thank you for this it. I will be back with updates😉
Hello. You have done an awesome job here-Putting together a quite complete, accurate, and thereby enlightening, selection of Animal Medicines!
I would like to ask you if there is an index of your entire collection? I, having come across one, found others…but only by clicking on the other articles that I found listed at the end of the write-up. I read, and enjoyed many, in that manner..I’d love to peruse all that you’ve compiled!
Thanks, and nice work, again
God bless you
I have cardinal in my yard all the time .But this morning there was a yellow cardinal feeding at my porch he was beautiful How rare is a yellow cardinal?
Yellow Cardinals are pretty rare and a sign that you are not defeated