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What Is Illinois’ State Bird? How Was It Decided?

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male northern cardinal perched

The Northern Cardinal is a medium-sized songbird. The males are usually recognized by their vibrant red coloring, which stands out boldly against snowy or green backgrounds. These birds are spread across a wide habitat range, but Illinois is one of their home states. Since they like open space, as well as some forested areas, the Prairie State is a comfortable place for them to live.

It’s only fitting, then, that the Northern Cardinal is the state bird of Illinois and has been since 1929. The Cardinal is so popular, it’s also the official bird of six other states: Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. However, Illinois was the first of these states to select the Cardinal as its state bird.

In this article, we look at how the Northern Cardinal became the state bird of Illinois and other facts about this beautiful bird’s life.

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Who Selected the Illinois State Bird?

The National Federation of Professional Women’s Clubs’ Macomb branch thought that it would be a good idea to have Illinois schoolchildren select the state’s bird by voting for their favorite. The idea was brought to and approved by the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1928. A list was compiled of the prominent birds of Illinois, and the voting began.

After receiving 39,226 votes from the children, the Northern Cardinal beat out the Bluebird, Meadowlark, Quail, and Oriole. The General Assembly officially declared the Northern Cardinal the Illinois State Bird on June 4, 1929.

male northern cardinal bird eating
Image Credit: Ami Parikh, Shutterstock

The Northern Cardinal Overview

Northern Cardinals can be found in Illinois year-round. They were once considered rare in Northern Illinois, but since 1900, they have become a common sight. Urbanization of flatlands, more abundant bird feeders, and other natural, accessible food and water sources contributed to their increasing population.


You can easily tell the difference between male and female Cardinals. The males have unmistakable bright-red feathers covering their bodies. They have black masks around their eyes and beaks. The females are reddish-brown or olive in color. Both have yellow beaks.

The male and female cardinals look the same while they are young. When the males molt for the first time and grow adult feathers, they get their signature red coloring. Both sexes are similar in stature, with a body length of 8.3–9.3 inches and a weight of 1.19–2.29 ounces.


The Northern Cardinal prefers to live in woodlands, gardens, shrublands, forests, and wetlands. They are abundant across the Eastern United States and have extended into Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

northern cardinal_Miles Moody_Pixabay
Image By: Miles Moody, Pixabay


Cardinals mate for life. They spend their lives with their chosen partner, building nests, reproducing, and staying in touch with each other through their distinct songs. Their songs are also used to defend and claim territory. Males and females sound the same when they sing. Mother and father cardinals use their songs to communicate with their young while they are out searching for food.

Cardinals form bonds with their mates and young and will protect their family from predators fiercely, even to the death. If humans wander too close to a nest, the birds will swoop down in an effort to protect their young.

To fight for territory, male Cardinals will sometimes fight their own reflections. If they see themselves in a window or mirror, they will attack the glass, not realizing that there isn’t another bird there. If you see this happening around your home, you can try to stop the behavior so the birds don’t injure themselves. Closing blinds and curtains and putting up anti-reflective window decals will help discourage Cardinals from attacking the glass.

a northern cardinal bird on a tree trunk
Image By: TheBirdBird, Pixabay


Cardinals have a diverse diet. You can attract these birds to a feeder on your property by filling it with seeds, which they love. The birds will eat insects if and when they have to, but they prefer seeds, grains, peanuts, safflower seeds, and sunflower seeds. They also enjoy fruit, especially fresh berries.

hummingbird divider Conclusion 

Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818, but didn’t select a state bird until 1928. Schoolchildren in the state voted for the Northern Cardinal, and that has been the state bird ever since.

You can recognize these birds by their distinct looks and songs. The males are bright red and vibrant. The females aren’t as brightly colored, but they resemble the males in body shape and size. If you live in Illinois or the Eastern United States where Cardinals are frequently seen, you can try to attract them to your property by putting out birdfeeders.

Cardinals are beautiful sights, and we hope that you have learned more about this bird that has since become the state bird for six other states!

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Featured Image Credit: JackBulmer, Pixabay

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.