Northern Cardinal – Accepted

1. 04 Aug 1968

HY male

Earp SBE



2–3. 30 Apr 1977

male female

Earp SBE



4. 09 Dec 1981


Earp SBE



5–8. 23 Mar 1983–10 May 1986

≤ 4

Vidal Wash SBE/RIV




Northern Cardinal – Not accepted, natural occurrence questionable (identification established)

13–14 Oct 1962


Imperial Beach SD



29 Jun 1982


Castro Valley ALA















Figure 308. A Northern Cardinal with a reasonable chance of natural occurrence is decidedly unusual almost anywhere in California. Introduced and escaped birds are found with some regularity, usually near human population centers in the south. This male, showing the elongated crest and lacking black above the bill that are characters of Southwestern C. c. superbus, was photographed on 30 November 1999 near Tecopa, Inyo County (Jo Heindel).






Northern Cardinal

NORTHERN CARDINAL Cardinalis cardinalis Ridgway, 1885

Accepted: 8 (80%)

Treated in Appendix H: no

Not accepted: 2

CBRC review: records from 1968 through 19861

Not submitted/reviewed: NA

Large color image: see Figure

The Northern Cardinal’s cardinalis group of subspecies is resident in southeastern Canada and across most of the United States, from the Great Plains eastward and from southwestern Texas west to extreme southeastern California. The cardinalis group also occurs across much of Middle America south to northern Guatemala and central Belize, and vagrants from this group have reached northern Utah, southern Alberta, central Saskatchewan, central Manitoba, southern James Bay, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The record of a female present 7–8 May 2005 in west-central Washington (NAB 59:488, 530) was not accepted by the Washington Bird Records Committee after it became known that a person was releasing Northern Cardinals in the same area (fide S. G. Mlodinow). Hawaii and Bermuda support introduced cardinalis-group populations. Published accounts from California (see below) refer to the following cardinalis-group subspecies: widespread eastern C. c. cardinalis; C. c. floridanus (southeastern Georgia to peninsular Florida); C. c. canicaudus (western Oklahoma south to Guanajuato and Hidalgo); C. c. superbus (southeastern California east to southwestern New Mexico and south to northern Sonora); C. c. seftoni (central Baja California Peninsula); C. c. igneus (southern Baja California Sur); and C. c. affinis (central western Mexico). The southerly carneus group is resident along the Pacific slope of Mexico, from Colima south to Oaxaca.

The first Northern Cardinal considered to represent a naturally occurring individual in California was a male superbus observed on 21 May 1943 “feeding along the road on bread thrown from a passing car” near “Crossroads” [=Vidal Junction] in San Bernardino County (Monson 1949). The Committee reviewed only a handful of Northern Cardinal records during this species’ tenure on the review list, and those from the extreme southeastern part of the state (all superbus) were accepted as representing naturally occurring birds. This subspecies’ range expanded considerably in western Arizona starting in the late nineteenth century (Monson and Phillips 1981), but no cardinals were encountered along the Colorado River during extensive surveys by Joseph Grinnell (1914). Grinnell and Miller (1944) placed the species on their Supplementary List (introduced species and those of uncertain occurrence). Shortly thereafter, on 7 May 1946, colonization of the California side of the river was demonstrated when three males, a female, and a nest were found about five miles north of Earp in San Bernardino County (van Rossem 1946; UCLA 33414). Northern Cardinals have since been found along the lower Colorado River from just below Parker Dam in San Bernardino County to Lost Lake in Riverside County (see Rosenberg et al. 1991), with one farther south near Imperial Dam, Imperial County, 10–23 May 1978 (AB 32:1057). More recently, two or three birds were present during June and July 1998 at Vidal Wash on the San Bernardino/Riverside County line (FN 52:504), and a female was reported on 5 June 2005 in Blythe, Riverside County (NAB 59:656). In addition to these known or potential breeders, occasional records of Northern Cardinals at desert oases may represent legitimate, wild, wandering birds: for example, a singing male present 22–27 May 1999 at Chiriaco Summit, Riverside County (NAB 53:331), and a male present 27 November 1999–12 February 2000 at China Ranch, Inyo County (NAB 54:107, 223). A singing male along the Colorado River in northeastern Baja California on 6 May 2003 was regarded as probably wild (NAB 57:407).

The great majority of the state’s Northern Cardinals are naturalized birds from escaped or introduced stock. Birds of undetermined subspecies are routinely sold in northwestern Baja California (Hamilton 2001), and presumed escapees can be encountered almost anywhere in California, but especially close to populated areas along the southern coast. The earliest recorded introduction to California refers to the 1880 release of six individuals from Missouri near Galt in Sacramento County, yielding a small population (presumably C. c. cardinalis) that persisted for several years (Belding 1890). Two years later in Hayward, Alameda County, Emerson (1882) collected an example of igneus that he regarded as an escapee (see also Grinnell 1909b, Miller 1928). Specimens referable to superbus were obtained on 22 April 1898 in Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County (adult female, CAS 52714) and on 9 April 1926 in San Bernardino, San Bernardino County (MVZ 52902). In 1883, Northern Cardinals were reported near Riverside, Riverside County; in 1905, two males regarded as escapees were reported in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County; and in 1923, an introduced population was first documented in the San Gabriel River bottoms between El Monte and Whittier, Los Angeles County (all Miller 1928; see also Henderson 1925, 1926). A local reverend reportedly brought to this area 24 Northern Cardinals from Arkansas “each year for about five years” prior to 1923 (Long 1993). Miller (1928) regarded the lone specimen that he collected from this population as an example of cardinalis, but acknowledged that the bird’s wing and tail measurements lay outside the known range of this subspecies, prompting him to add a qualifier: “approaching floridana.” It appears likely that the members of this extant population represent a blend of at least two or three subspecies (cf. Grinnell and Miller 1944). Miller (1928) reported one instance of large-scale importation of cardinals into California from northeastern Mexico: 509 birds, most or all canicaudus, during 1926 and 1927. Furthermore, although Miller (1928) thought it “doubtful” that desert-adapted superbus “would adjust itself to the coastal conditions of California,” Michener and Michener (1938) reported that “two males and three females” referable to superbus released into the San Gabriel River bottoms southeast of Montebello (i.e., in the area mentioned previously) during 1925 or 1926 had “increased considerably” by 1937. A spring survey of about half the available habitat in this area, conducted on 23 March 2002, yielded a count of 12 birds (NAB 56:359). Gander (1927) reported a male with faded plumage observed during May 1927 in Balboa Park, San Diego County. As summarized by Unitt (2004), a population of unknown subspecies has been resident in the Tijuana River valley of San Diego County since the mid 1990s, and on 11 December 2000 an evident escapee representing either seftoni or affinis was picked up on eastern Otay Mesa by an agent of the Border Patrol (SDNHM 50492).

1On the review list 1981–1986