Kentucky State Bird

Cardinal sitting on a tree branch
Grace Ranck / EyeEm / Getty Images

The beautiful cardinal with its bold red coloring and striking black mask is the state bird of Kentucky. There are over 300 bird species native to the state, but the cardinal was singled out for the honor of state bird by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1926.

Because of its striking colors and broad range, however, Kentucky isn't the only state that names the cardinal as its official bird. It also holds the honor in Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Appearance and Coloring

The cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is officially known as the northern cardinal. It is also commonly referred to as a redbird, although only the male is colored with the easily-recognizable bold colors for which the bird is known. The female is a much less vivid, though still beautiful, reddish-tan color. Juvenile cardinals also sport a reddish-tan color that, in the males, eventually grows to the full, deep red plumage of an adult. Cardinals were named because their plumage reminded European settlers of the robes of a cardinal, a leader in the Roman Catholic church.

Both the male and female feature the black mask and a pointed crest with orange- or coral-colored bills. According to Melissa Mayntz,

The red coloration of northern cardinals' plumage is a result of carotenoids in their feather structure, and they ingest those carotenoids through their diet. On rare occasions, vibrant yellow northern cardinals may be seen, a plumage variation called xanthochroism.


Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds. The adults measure about eight inches in length from beak to tail. Because cardinals don't migrate, they can be seen and heard year-round. They are found primarily in the southeastern United States, however, thanks to backyard bird feeders, these colorful and easily adaptable creatures have expanded their territory further north and west. Both the male and female sing year round. The female may sing from the nest to let the male know she needs food. They also sing to each other while searching out the best nesting spots.

The mating pair stays together for the entire breeding season and, perhaps, for life. The pair breed two or three times during the season with the female laying 3-4 eggs each time. After the eggs hatch, both the male and female help care for the babies until they leave the nest about two weeks later.

Cardinals are omnivores, eating both plant and animal products, such as seeds, nuts, berries, and insects. The average lifespan of a northern cardinal is about 3 years in the wild.

Other Kentucky Facts

Kentucky, whose name comes from an Iroquois word meaning land of tomorrow, is located in the southern United States. It is bordered by Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.

Frankfort is Kentucky's state capital and nearby Louisville, only about 50 miles to the west, is its largest city. The state's natural resources include timber, coal, and tobacco.

In addition to its state bird, the cardinal, Kentucky's other state symbols include: 

  • Flower: goldenrod
  • Tree: tulip poplar
  • Insect: honeybee
  • Fish: Kentucky spotted bass
  • Fruit: blackberry
  • Mammal: grey squirrel
  • Horse: thoroughbred (This isn't surprising since Kentucky is the home of one of the biggest horse races in the United States, the Kentucky Derby.)
  • Song: My Old Kentucky Home

The state was the 15th to be admitted to the Union, becoming a state on June 1, 1792. It earned the name The Bluegrass State due to the lush grass the grows in the state. When seen growing in large fields, the grass sports blue appearance in the spring.

Kentucky is the home of Fort Knox, where much of the United States' gold reserves are housed, and Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world. Three hundred eighty-five miles of the cave have been mapped and new sections are still being discovered.

Daniel Boone was one of the early explorers of the area which would later become Kentucky. Abraham Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky, is another famous figure associated with the state. Lincoln was president during the American Civil War, during which Kentucky remained an officially neutral state.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hernandez, Beverly. "Kentucky State Bird." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hernandez, Beverly. (2020, August 27). Kentucky State Bird. Retrieved from Hernandez, Beverly. "Kentucky State Bird." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).