Cardinal Meaning & Symbolism: The Ultimate Guide To

Cardinal meaning and symbolism vary depending on the culture, religion, mythology, and beliefs. In this comprehensive guide. discover the red cardinal meaning to his female counterpart, the origins of the popular memorial quote “when cardinals appear angels are near” , the lesser-known Native American beliefs about the beautiful red bird, and so much more.

Have you wondered about cardinal birds’ meaning? In recent years, cardinals have extended their range in the United States as far west as Texas and even Arizona, so you may have a greater chance of seeing this beautiful red bird year-round. 

We’ve found various legends, beliefs, and symbolic meanings related to cardinals. Read on to discover more about the origins and facets of cardinal symbolism.

Origins of Cardinal Symbolism

Cardinal bird symbolism originated in locations where you can find the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)–in southeastern Canada, the eastern United States, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.

Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

Native Americans

dream catcher representing cardinal meaning to native indians

Native Americans were the first to have beliefs about cardinal symbolism. Many Native American traditions include the significance of red birds.

Cardinals as the Sun’s Daughter

In Cherokee belief, the cardinal is the sun’s daughter. 

Cherokee legend says that the Earth once went dark when the sun’s daughter was killed. The Cherokee went to retrieve her from the land of the spirits. They found her in a box, and she kept crying about having no air. When they opened the box, a cardinal flew out, began singing, and the sun smiled upon them with light.

Thus, if Cherokees see a cardinal flying toward the sun, they feel they will have good luck.

Romantic Relationships

According to Choctaw legend, a cardinal came across a sad, lonely lady with everything except a mate. The cardinal tricked a lonely man into following it to the lady’s home. It subsequently flew away, watching the couple fall in love.

What does it mean when cardinals cross your path?

Choctaws say that if a cardinal passes you or gets your attention, you can expect a new romantic relationship in the future. If you are already in a relationship, your relationship will be renewed and strengthened. 

Change in Weather or Direction

The Cherokee and Cheyenne feel that seeing a cardinal predicts that the weather will soon change. For both the Mayans and the Akimel O’odham, cardinals signal impending rain.

Tribes like the Ojibwe see the cardinal as a watchful spirit that heralds change when it crosses your path. 

Lucky Number 12

People often wonder if cardinals bring good luck.

Many cultures and spiritual groups believe cardinals bring good luck. Native Americans believe cardinals are good luck because they have so many connections with the lucky number 12. For instance, cardinals often give birth to a total of 12 fledglings each year, incubate the eggs for 12 days, and can be seen for 12 months of the year. They also believe you’ll have good luck within the next 12 hours or 12 days after seeing a cardinal.

What does it mean when cardinals fly in front of you?

Many Native Americans believe seeing cardinals means you’ll have good luck within the next 12 hours or 12 days.

Catholicism

Jesus on the cross representing cardinal meaning to catholics

When Europeans encountered red birds in the New World, they named them after the red-clad advisors to the Pope in the Catholic Church–the cardinals.  

The Catholic cardinals’ red robes are symbolic of the blood of Christ, which the cardinal bird came to represent to Christians and Catholics arriving in the New World.

Christianity

Soon, New World Christians began conscripting cardinal meaning into Christian symbolism and sentiments.

Eternal Life

What does it mean when a cardinal appears?

The cardinal’s red color is a reminder of the blood of Christ. Revelation 1:5 says that “Jesus Christ [is] the firstborn from the dead…[,] loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” 

Thus, for some Christians, the spiritual meaning of cardinals relates to the eternal life available through the spilling of Christ’s blood. 

The Holy Spirit

The red cardinal meaning is represented by the fire element associated with the Holy Spirit. While a white dove usually symbolizes the Holy Spirit, a red cardinal can represent the energy and life found with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. 

New Beginnings

What does it mean when God sends cardinals? For Christians, a cardinal can represent hope and new beginnings. Seeing a cardinal–especially as a spot of color in the winter–may be a comforting reminder to have faith in new beginnings ahead.

Spiritual Messengers From Beyond the Grave

Do cardinals symbolize death?

While cardinals are often associated with the dead, they do not usually suggest impending death.

What is the cardinal meaning if you’re visited by one?

Some Christians see it as a moment to reconnect with the dead. Indeed, many people have reported seeing a cardinal frequently after the passing of a loved one.

If you’re visited by a red cardinal after the death of a loved one, it’s a sign of encouragement from beyond the grave to keep going.

People often wonder about the meaning of the “cardinals appear when angels are near” poem by Victoria McGovern.

The poem is about cardinals as spiritual messengers, or angels, that deliver warm sentiments in remembrance of a loved one who has passed. Some funeral homes promote this cardinal memorial quote, which has made the idea more prevalent.

May you come to find comfort in and remember–
Cardinals appear when angels are near.
So go now, sit outside and drink your tea.
Keep a look out for the little red bird –
It is there your loved ones will be.

Victoria McGovern

Old World Mythology

Since the northern cardinal is a New World bird, it doesn’t feature in the ancient mythologies of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. However, some cardinal symbolism is similar to that of another red bird–the phoenix. The legendary phoenix dies in flames and experiences rebirth from the ashes. 

Both Egyptian and Greek beliefs associate the phoenix with the sun, similar to Cherokees associating cardinals with the sun. 

The phoenix came to symbolize rebirth, eternal life after death, and the resurrection of Jesus in early Christian traditions. Similarly, the red cardinal meaning relates to eternal life, new beginnings, and reincarnated spirits for Christians. 

Cardinal Meanings & Encounters

What does it mean when a cardinal appears in your life?

The meanings are all intertwined with cultural and religious symbolism and cardinal characteristics. Meanings related to cardinal encounters may depend on cardinal color, encounter frequency, number, and where you see the cardinal.

Different Colored Cardinals

Differently-colored cardinals can have a range of meanings.

Red Males

What does it mean when a cardinal crosses your path?

Modern cardinal symbolism is often a callback to cardinal symbolism in native American, religious, and mythological traditions:

  • Native Americans: luck (often within 12 hours or 12 days), future romance, weather change, rain, life change
  • Catholicism and Christianity: eternal life, the blood of Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith in new beginnings ahead, encouragement from the dead to keep going
  • Old world mythology: life changes and reincarnated spirits

However, modern cardinal symbolism also comes from the bird’s characteristics. Cardinals mate for life and have devoted, harmonious relationships with each other in which the males share parenting responsibilities. They are also aggressive defenders of their territory during the breeding season. 

What does it mean to see a red cardinal?

Some cardinal characteristics that have made their way into modern cardinal symbolism include:

  • Red color: vitality, faith, blood, power, hope in winter
  • Connections to the number 12: the cycles within the day and year, renewal, future change
  • Parenting and mating relationships: care, duty, dedication, love, monogamy, stability, future romance, and devotion 
  • Personality: courage, strength, assertiveness, self-confidence, compassion, optimism, and self-preservation

Brown and Red Females

Female cardinal with a backdrop of snow
Female cardinal. Photo by Cheryl Anne.

Female cardinals are mainly brown and not as brilliantly colored as their male counterparts. However, they do have splashes of red on their crest, wings, and chest. They’re also just as devoted to parenting and defending the nest as their male counterparts.

What does it mean when you see a female cardinal?

Because females have some red coloring and similar personalities to males, all the symbolism related to seeing a male cardinal carries over to seeing a female cardinal.

Yellow Cardinals

Yellow cardinals lack the enzyme that converts yellow pigments in foods they eat into red feathers. This condition results in yellow appearing everywhere it would normally be red.

Sightings of yellow cardinals are extremely rare. Auburn University biology professor Geoffrey Hill studies feather pigmentation and says that only two to three yellow cardinals feed in backyards in the US and Canada in any given year, so sighting them is rarer than one in a million.

Seeing a yellow cardinal brings together the ideas of hope, joy, and happiness for anyone lucky enough to spot one. For those who view cardinals as messengers from beyond the grave, seeing a yellow cardinal can feel like a message of hope, joy, and happiness from a departed loved one.

Would You Like More Cardinals to Visit Your Yard?

You can start by making sure your yard is inviting and friendly for cardinals. Download my FREE guide & checklist How to Create a Cardinal-Friendly Yard and you’ll have families of cardinals coming to visit year-round.

Frequent Appearances

What does it mean when you see a cardinal all the time?

If you keep seeing cardinals, it can symbolize a number of things for you. 

What does it mean when a cardinal visits you?

If you’re a Christian, seeing cardinals often can be a continual reminder of your faith. 

What does it mean when you see a cardinal in your yard?

If you’re suffering loss, seeing a cardinal can help you feel like your loved one is visiting often to watch over you. It can be both comforting and help push you toward your goals after your loss.

What does it mean when you see a red bird every day?

Seeing a bright red cardinal every day, especially in a bleak winter landscape, reminds you of the hope for spring and to persevere for the future to come.

Multiple Birds

Seeing two cardinals or a cardinal and a bluejay together can have special significance. 

Two Red Cardinals

While cardinals are social and may join flocks of birds, they pair off during the mating season. Male cardinals can be aggressive toward each other when they defend their territory, especially during the breeding season. 

What does it mean when you see two red cardinals? Because of the competition between males, seeing two male cardinals together can symbolize competition in love. For some people, seeing two male cardinals together is a reminder to up their game to be more competitive in the dating arena.

Male and Female Together

Male and female cardinals. Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

What does it mean when you see a male and female cardinal together?

When you see a male and female cardinal together, they are usually a mated pair. Since cardinals mate for life, it’s a good omen of true and everlasting love.

Cardinal and Bluejay Together

While they’re not generally friendly with each other, cardinals and blue jays often inhabit the same territories.

Blue jays are symbolic of faithfulness because they mate for life and fearlessness because of the way they defend their offspring.

So, what does it mean when you see a cardinal and blue jay together?

It can symbolize a strong relationship since both the cardinal and blue jay mate for life and are strong defenders of their young. 

If a cardinal symbolizes comfort from the spiritual world for you, seeing a bluejay alongside a cardinal can encourage you to be as fearless and tenacious as a bluejay as you go forward.

Cardinals and Windows

What does it mean when you see a red cardinal outside your window? Is a red bird good luck? Because of the personal nature of seeing a cardinal at your window, this often relates back to the idea of a cardinal as an angelic messenger for many people.  

However, some cardinal superstitions related to windows can be very negative.

A Cardinal Outside Your Window 

What does it mean when a cardinal comes to your window?

If you connect cardinals with messages from beyond the grave, seeing a cardinal come directly to your window can be extra special and feel like your loved one is truly watching you.

What does it mean when a cardinal taps on your window?

If you see cardinals as angels, you may feel like your loved one is specifically trying to get your attention.

Of course, male cardinals often tap on windows to attack their reflections, thinking that it’s a rival male intruding on their territory.

Cardinals Hitting Your Window

What does it mean when a cardinal hits your window?

Many people still connect a bird flying into the window with the cardinal-as-a-guardian-angel idea, making it a good omen.

However, it’s a common superstition that death is approaching your house if a bird of any kind flies into your window. This superstition includes cardinals.

Keep in mind that superstitions of doom like this often originated when the world was more of a mystery than it is now. People often connected unusual animal behavior to something bad happening, like a bird flying into their window before someone died.

Several hundred million birds die hitting windows each year because the glass reflects the sky and trees, they become confused on stormy nights, or they’re exhausted. 

Cardinals in Your House

What does it mean when a cardinal flies into your house?

Similar to having a bird hit your window, having a bird in your house is an ancient omen that portends impending death for some people. At one time, interior decorators wouldn’t suggest bird wallpaper because this idea was so widespread. 

Even Lucille Ball connected birds with death after one flew through a window and got trapped inside the day her father died.

What does it mean when a red bird flies into your house?

While you can choose to believe that cardinals flying in your house means impending death, cardinals tend to fly into houses seeking a place to nest or looking for warmth and shelter during bad weather. 

Dead Cardinal

What does it mean when you see a dead red cardinal?

There’s no need to take it as a bad omen. The consensus on the meaning of a dead bird relates to new beginnings. Thus, seeing a dead cardinal symbolizes changes that will bring about a new beginning from an ending. 

Cardinals in Dreams

What does it mean when you see a cardinal in your dreams?

Seeing a bird in your dreams has been a symbol of freedom, wisdom, and higher knowledge since ancient times.  What does it mean when you have a dream about a cardinal? Seeing a cardinal in your dreams also has special connotations related to the cardinal’s special characteristics and cultural symbolisms:

  • Red coloring: boldness, passion, life, energy, love, passion, devotion
  • Inner guidance and hope: the fire of life that burns within us even in the darkness of winter, perseverance, positivity, encouragement to regain personal strength, encouragement to rekindle personal passions 
  • Love and devotion: good family relationships, virtue, love, responsibility, balance, future romantic encounters, renewal of passion
  • Good luck: luck within 12 hours or 12 days
  • Religion: a reminder to be a faithful Christian, everlasting life, Christ’s blood

Cardinal Feather Meaning

cardinal meaning red feathers

Cardinal bird feather meaning relates to the symbolism of red feathers. 

In Native American traditions, red feathers are symbols of strength and vitality, representing good luck and good health. 

Psychic traditions see red feathers as symbols of the spiritual world.

Keep in mind that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to collect feathers–including cardinal feathers–without a permit. 

Seasonal Cardinal Symbolism

There are a few seasonal symbolisms related to cardinals.

Winter

Cardinal on branch when snowing
Male cardinal fluffing feathers to stay warm. Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

A bright red cardinal contrasting against a brown and white winter landscape can be striking. 

What does it mean when you see a cardinal in the winter?

Cardinals are a symbol of beauty and warmth during winter. Seeing their brilliant red can help bring cheer and hope to a dreary, grey winter day. In the middle of a snowstorm or ice storm, seeing a cardinal can remind us of hope for new life in the spring to come. 

Christmas

The cardinal is one of the most common birds in Christmas ornaments, figurines, and on Christmas cards in the New World. 

Why are cardinals associated with Christmas?

Cardinals are associated with Christmas because of their spectacular red color, which is a traditional Christmas color.  

Cardinals at Christmas also tie back to the Christain tradition of cardinals as a symbol of the blood of Christ, whose birth Christians celebrate at Christmas.

Personal Cardinal Symbolism

If you like what cardinals symbolize, you can connect them to yourself even more by choosing them as your Patronus animal or getting a cardinal tattoo. 

Cardinals as a Patronus Animal

When choosing a Patronus animal, you can choose one that either symbolizes how you see yourself or what you want to see in yourself in the future. (Patronus means “guardian”, “patron”, or “protector”. )

Consider choosing a cardinal as your Patronus if you have or want the following characteristics:

  • You remain true to yourself.
  • You’re confident.
  • You don’t blend into the crowd.
  • You have great initiative.
  • You are focused and determined to make things happen in your life.
  • You’re self-promoting.
  • You enjoy leadership roles.
  • You’re a skilled strategist.
  • You like new things and challenges.
  • You are often the first person to try something new.
  • You’re not afraid to tackle problems.
  • You have a strong family life.

Cardinal Tattoo Symbolism

If you decide to get a cardinal tattoo, it can symbolize a variety of things, including:

  • Your Christian faith
  • A loved one watching you from heaven
  • Pride in your strong family
  • Love
  • Strength
  • Courage
  • Luck
  • Renewed hope
  • New journeys and new beginnings
  • Self-confidence

Final Thoughts on Cardinal Symbolism

Cardinals have held meaning for those who saw them since long before Europeans colonized the New World. For most people, cardinal bird meaning is about change to come and hope for the future. Additionally, cardinals can symbolize strong romantic relationships. They can also be comfort and strength to persevere from beyond the grave or a symbol of one’s faith.

Cardinals are more prevalent in some areas than others. If you want a better chance of seeing cardinals, fill your yard with shrubs and evergreens and provide them with some of their favorite foods–sunflowers, cracked corn, mealworms, and peanuts.

Next Steps

The next time you see a cardinal consider what “cardinal meaning” or symbolism is behind it. What’s it trying to tell you? Check in with your intuition, beliefs, and circumstances to decide if it means anything at all and if action is warranted.  

If you decide you want more cardinal encounters, check out my article 7 Proven Ways to Attract Cardinals.

Have fun with it and happy birding! 

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers. Read more about Tammy