Appalachia Folklore

Cardinals Sent as Messengers

Cardinal sitting in the tree

From the website State Symbols USA:

“North Carolina designated the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) as official state bird in 1943. One of America’s favorite backyard birds, cardinals are distinctive in appearance and song – known for their “cheer cheer cheer,” “whit-chew whit-chew” and “purty purty purty” whistles.

Male cardinals are a brilliant scarlet red, females a buff brown with reddish wings; both have a jet-black mask, pronounced crest, and heavy bill. The cardinal sings nearly year-round, and the male aggressively defends his 4-acre territory (male cardinals have been seen attacking small red objects mistaken as other males).

Northern cardinals breed 2-3 times each season. The female builds the nest and tends the hatchlings for about 10 days while the male brings food. The male then takes over the care of this first brood while the female moves on to a new nest and lays a second clutch of eggs.

The cardinal is the state bird of 7 states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.”


I had no idea the cardinal was the state bird of seven states! It’s obvious there’s a lot of love for the bird.

Male cardinals stand out in the environment because of their color. When I see one I always think of how cheery they look. Probably doesn’t hurt that red is one of my favorite colors.

A good while back Blind Pig reader Betty “Jo” Eason Benedict left a comment about a cardinal being a messenger sent from beyond. It was on a post I wrote about Pap leaving me a sign hanging in a tree at Granny’s. You can see the post here.

Betty “Jo” wondered if cardinals being a sign of a messenger was a common piece of folklore in Appalachia. I had never heard of it, so I wasn’t much help. But as usual another Blind Pig reader came to the rescue.

B. Ruth: “Yes, “When Cardinals appear, angels are near!” Heard this little saying for years. When my son was in comfort care/palliative care his last days in the hospital. He had many Cardinals frequent the windows about his head. The nurses told us they would see them but never on the shrub by the windows or so many. My son told me, “Mom, I will come visit you after I’m gone to heaven…maybe I’ll be like a Cardinal. After it was all over and a few weeks had passed, a Cardinal chirped his attention getting sound so loud that it shook me to my toes…right at the feeder on the kitchen window sill…I went over, tears falling, and just asked if it was him…the cardinal cocked his head and looked me right in the eye chirped another couple of times before he flew to the tree limb…still looking at me…I had seen many Cardinals at my feeders, but never experienced anything like this in my life…He visits constantly…brings more with him and I still think positively that it was him or his guardian angel letting me know he was home and doing fine…”


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  • Reply
    November 9, 2019 at 10:53 am

    My friend had been caring for her very elderly and ill mother-in-law, and one day was consumed with exhaustion and frustration. Happening to look out the window, she saw several cardinals, and said to the older lady, “See there, they’re calling for you, mother!” She didn’t know whether to feel astonishment or guilt when the lady passed just a few days later, but it made her a believer in tiny red angels.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    Tipper, the lady i took care of last year, well at her house was a beautiful red cardinal. The only thing i didn’t like about it was it would peck at my mirrors amd windshield and poop on them. So i started putting Walmart bags on my mirrors so i didn’t have to deal with that. It worked. So anyway, she died in March and the beautiful Cardinal never came back. So yes i think it does have to do with Messenger. Thanks Tipper and God Bless!

  • Reply
    November 8, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    I always heard when you see a cardinal Spring is near. We have them pretty much year round. In the Spring we will see flocks of them in the yard.

  • Reply
    Hank Skewis
    November 8, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    Grew up in the East but have lived on the West for almost 50 years. I do miss cardinals.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2019 at 11:54 am

    I have a card propped on my dresser with a beautiful picture of a red cardinal perched n a snowy branch of a pine tree. I recall a song I learned in Sunday School… “If God so loves the little birds, I know He loves me too.”

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    November 8, 2019 at 11:26 am

    I have heard for years about the Cardinal being a messenger from heaven. I’ve had a couple frequenting a large Weeping Cherry tree in our front yard this summer, maybe they’re just waiting for me.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2019 at 10:48 am

    My Mother was always infatuated by birds, and being from Appalachia she believed birds could be representative of bringing death or cheer. She always said Hummingbirds hung around her window after my Dad passed (He loved Hummingbirds). Also, she totally believed a bird coming into the house was a bad omen. I have these old beliefs ingrained, and it is hard to think otherwise. I did deliberately bring a baby bird into the house once to help it until it could fly. A lady knocked on the door, and my little rescue bird caught an opportunity and flew over her head and out the door. He looked lonely perched on a wire line, and I could do little else for him as he was free. I love seeing a Cardinal or Bluebird. If it was not for the mess I would have feeders everywhere, because I came from a family who just generally loved birds.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    November 8, 2019 at 10:00 am

    I always heard that when the Cardinals called “wet, wet, here” it meant it was going to rain.

    • Reply
      Bill Burnett
      November 8, 2019 at 10:33 pm

      Ed I’ve heard basically the same thing except I heard they were calling Wet, Wet, Sure which forecast rain.

  • Reply
    harry adams
    November 8, 2019 at 9:29 am

    Last year the Cardinals attacked our tomatoes when they got ripe. Now I understand it was a territorial dispute with the red tomato.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2019 at 9:17 am

    I used to have a pillow case with an embroidered Cardinal and the message “When Cardinals appear, angels are near.” It amazes me how the male and female take equal duties in raising their young. Several years ago, I was afraid to use my clotheline for several days for fear of being attacked by a cardinal. He waited for me and came at me like a bullet, missing my head by inches. A nest must have been close by.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    November 8, 2019 at 9:12 am

    and B. Ruth,
    I read the story of Pap hanging things in trees. All I can say is “I miss Pap”. Everytime I play songs of Pap and Paul, it brings tears to my eyes. And I didn’t know B. Ruth’s and Roy’s son, and I still don’t know what to say, just that I’m sorry for your loss. Maybe there’s comfort in Cardinals. I remember Beverly talking about so many different kinds of birds at her house.

    There’s a lot of Birds up in the holler around the bird feeder. My favorite kind of bird is the Blue Jay. I pulled for them from Toranto when they Won the World Series a couple of times. Now this year is the Montreal Expos, they moved and are now the Washington Nationals. There’s something about those Canadian teams that I like. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    November 8, 2019 at 8:44 am

    We have a cardinal couple living in the tangle behind out house. I wondered if seeing them meant anything…I assumed it did. Now, I know.

    I wonder who it is?

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    November 8, 2019 at 8:34 am

    Mama loved birds. She said she felt she received a heavenly message to “feed my flock” and she always did. She had a running feud with the neighborhood squirrels over the bird seeds. I do often feel there is something special about the Cardinals and some of them do look me pretty much in the eye.

    I wonder about the territory of the male Cardinal. I have had a large number of both males & females here this year but I’ve never seen a fight. I believe I’ve seen some young ones, too. First time ever. I don’t have feeders–I just throw stuff out for the animals on my sidewalk and sometimes on a big flat rock we’ve moved to two different homes now. I guess I need to get a bird feeder and some seeds–crackers & stale peanuts probably aren’t good for them. I welcome all the critters to come & eat–just wish they would leave my garden alone. Well, I do welcome the skunks but hope they will eat & go away peacefully.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    November 8, 2019 at 8:19 am

    As Ron Banks posted, the cardinal in Appalachia used to be commonly called a ‘red bird’ until school kinda rubbed that out. On the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky there is a Red Bird Ranger District. And south of there, on the Cumberland River, there is a locality also called ‘red bird’. And I am pretty sure if one checked there are plenty of examples of Red Bird as a place name throughout Appalachia. There are two other red birds that are summer residents; the summer tanager and the scarlet tanager but we always know ‘red bird’ means the cardinal.

    Every time we see a red bird in the winter it is like a Christmas card, especially if they are perched in a pine, hemlock, holly or other evergreen and even moreso if there is some snow.

    When I hear a red bird I almost always repeat their whistle back at them. It is a wonder, I guess, that they don’t attack me.

    • Reply
      aw griff
      November 8, 2019 at 10:35 am

      Ron. You mentioned scarlet tanager and that’s what my Dad called a bee martin. He said they would eat your bees. I’ve never seen this but have seen them close by his bee gums. Such a beautiful bird and some are more brilliant red than the cardinal.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    November 8, 2019 at 7:46 am

    I always heard having Cardinals was good luck. The other stories will make me look at them differently.

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    November 8, 2019 at 7:44 am

    I had a pair of Cardinals nesting here this year. A few years back, a pair was here and the male would perch on the rear view mirror of the passenger door of my car….and preen and peck at himself.

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    November 8, 2019 at 7:39 am

    Such a beautiful story. My dad loved birds especially cardinals. I have heard the story of cardinals before and I always feel comforted when I see one ever since my dad passed.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 8, 2019 at 7:34 am

    B Ruth’s story brought tears to me! It’s wonderful that she still gets to visit her son.

  • Reply
    Susan warner
    November 8, 2019 at 7:27 am

    Tipper- yes I remember the red bird being a messenger and there is a bluegrass song out now about this. It’s by buddy Melton ( of balsam range) and Milan miller called” who are you redbird” . Check it out – such a sweet song!

  • Reply
    sheryl paul
    November 8, 2019 at 7:01 am

    What a lovely thought. Cardinals are always a joy to see.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    November 8, 2019 at 6:46 am

    Hey Tipper, I haven’t posted in a while but still read each day. I never see a Cardinal without thinking of my mother. She loved her red birds and believed they were messengers. If one was at your window three days in row then there was bad news to follow.
    I guess they are messengers in some way because they always make me think of her.

  • Reply
    November 8, 2019 at 5:34 am

    Nice story, I’ve never heard that before, I’ll never see another Cardinal and not think of this.

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