The Northern Cardinal is the West Virginia state bird and West Virginians are very proud of their status. The Cardinal is a colorful, medium-sized songbird that has a wide range in North America. It can be found as far north as Alaska and Canada to the west, west Texas and Mexico to the south, and New York to the east.
Although cardinals are common throughout West Virginia, before 1934 they were only an occasional visitor here during winter periods when storms blew them off course. There had been no record of nesting cardinals in the Mountain State before 1930.
Then things changed dramatically for this stunningly beautiful species with claims of several successful nests west of the Allegheny Front.
Eureka! When Northern Cardinal Was First Discovered
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This amazing change was brought about by west Virginians Dr. William H. Evans and Mrs. Frances C. Evans, owners of the historic Cheat Lake Inn at Morgantown, West Virginia (Cheat Lake is a large reservoir on Cheat River).
The earliest known nesting occurred in 1930 when west Virginia’s first cardinal nest was found near Romney, West Virginia in the Monongahela National Forest, Randolph County.
Then it wasn’t until 1931 that another nest was found in Marion County, West Virginia near Fairmont along Sideling Creek. In 1932 two more nests were reported in Tucker County near Stover and Parsons with two young fledglings recorded from each of these locations. Unfortunately, they died before leaving their nests but both parents survived to defend their territories.
In 1934, West Virginia bird watchers claimed the first West Virginia nesting of Northern Cardinals in Tucker County near Stover when one nest produced two full-grown fledglings.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) was not aware of these nesting attempts, but this changed in 1936 when a west Virginia Wildlife Conservation official wrote: “A pair of cardinals nested on Parsons Mountain and raised two young.”
There were even more confirmed sightings made by West Virginians that same year in Tucker and Marion counties where several pairs successfully nested.
Then west Virginia’s first officially recognized breeding records occurred in 1937 (Marion County-two successful nests) and 1938 (Randolph County-one successful nest).
When Northern Cardinal Became West Virginia State Bird
It is believed that West Virginia’s first nesting of the Northern cardinal west of the Allegheny Front occurred in 1939 near Glenville, West Virginia.
It was during this time that west Virginians Dr. William H. Evans and Mrs. Frances C. Evans started a campaign to bring this colorful songbird into West Virginia through breeding them at Cheat Lake Inn where they were guests frequently from 1922 until they moved permanently to West Palm Beach, Florida in 1947.
Mrs. Evans taught herself much about the birds by reading technical books which she got from her husband who owned a medical practice with offices in Morgantown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as well as Baltimore, Maryland (This family home is maintained by the Historical Society of Old Westbury).
She then arranged for a West Virginia State College to help her with nest boxes that were provided by west Virginia cabinetmakers. She even built one of them herself! Mrs. Evans also supplied the Cardinal nests (in existing thorny shrubs) with fresh twigs and grasses as well as various seeds, suet or when available, sunflower seeds.
The Evans’ had been feeding cardinals in Pennsylvania and Ohio for several years before they moved west Virginia permanently, so it wasn’t surprising that west Virginians took notice of their outstanding efforts to collect eggs from their friends back east and later hatch them out west at Cheat Lake Inn.
By reading much about cardinals they discovered that west Virginia’s first successful nesting west of Allegheny Front was in Marion County (1939), west Virginia’s first nesting west of Allegheny Front near Bluefield occurred in 1940 and West Virginia’s first rural cardinal nest west of the Allegheny Front was located on Parsons Mountain, west Virginia between 1938-1940. It is believed that west Virginians Mr. and Mrs. Evans were instrumental in these amazing developments!
Northern Cardinal is West Virginia’s State Bird – The Legacy of Dr. William H. & Dr. Frances C. Evans
The most important discovery attributed to Drs. William H. and Frances C. Evans was to find the way for thousands of West Virginian bird lovers to live with this lovely species while maintaining its west Virginia status as a state symbol. The evidence comes from their personal letters dated July 1939 when they stated:
“We will be able to preserve this beautiful songster by releasing only well-tamed captive-bred birds.”
West Virginia’s State Bird had been saved by west Virginians Dr. and Mrs. Evans!
Northern Cardinal – A Little Bit on the Species
The northern cardinal west of the Allegheny Front is West Virginia’s most widely distributed species with seven major west Virginian habitats (Appalachian Plateau, Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge Mountains, Allegheny Highlands, Interior Low Plateaus, Kanawha River Valley/Coalfields, and Greenbrier River).
The cardinals that nest in each region are slightly different from the others; for example, there is a west Virginia bird known as the western cardinal (scientific name: cardinalis caudacutus) which nests west of the Allegheny Front but east of Monongahela River.
West Virginia’s “Cardinal Songbird” west of the Allegheny Front is the northern cardinal (scientific name: cardinalis cardinalis), which was named west Virginia’s state bird in 1928. West Virginians Drs. William H. and Frances C. Evans discovered that this species had taken a permanent west of the Allegheny Front nesting niche during their many years of observations at Cheat Lake Inn, Weston, West Virginia while serving as its proprietors from 1919-1947!
The Northern Cardinal is West Virginia’s state bird for good reason; it has hundreds of natural habitats in almost every west Virginian county!
The Northern Cardinal was chosen as West Virginia’s state bird because it is such an easily recognized species and because it makes west Virginia’s forests, woodlands and backyards come alive with the amazing music of West Virginia’s most beautiful songster!
West Virginia is home to two other birds which have statutorily been given special status, that being the wild turkey (scientific name: Meleagris gallopavo) named west Virginia’s state game animal in 1941 and the ruffed grouse (scientific name: Bonasa umbellus) named West Virginia’s state bird in 1993.