The northern cardinal is one of three birds in the genus Cardinalis and is included in the family Cardinalidae, which is made up of passerine birds found in North and South America.
The northern cardinal was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th-century work Systema Naturae. It was initially included in the genus Loxia, which now contains only crossbills. In 1838, it was placed in the genus Cardinalis and given the scientific name Cardinalis virginianus, which means "Virginia cardinal". In 1918, the scientific name was changed to Richmondena cardinalis to honor Charles Wallace Richmond, an American ornithologist. In 1983, the scientific name was changed again to Cardinalis cardinalis and the common name was changed to "northern cardinal", to avoid confusion with the seven other species also termed cardinals.
The common name, as well as the scientific name, of the northern cardinal refers to the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps. The term "northern" in the common name refers to its range, as it is the northernmost cardinal species.
There are 19 subspecies:
- C. c. cardinalis (Linnaeus, 1758)
- C. c. affinis Nelson, 1899
- C. c. canicaudus Chapman, 1891
- C. c. carneus (Lesson, 1842)
- C. c. clintoni (Banks, 1963)
- C. c. coccineus Ridgway, 1873
- C. c. flammiger J.L. Peters, 1913
- C. c. floridanus Ridgway, 1896
- C. c. igneus S.F. Baird, 1860
- C. c. littoralis Nelson, 1897
- C. c. magnirostris Bangs, 1903
- C. c. mariae Nelson, 1898
- C. c. phillipsi Parkes, 1997
- C. c. saturatus Ridgway, 1885
- C. c. seftoni (Huey, 1940)
- C. c. sinaloensis Nelson, 1899
- C. c. superbus Ridgway, 1885
- C. c. townsendi (van Rossem, 1932)
- C. c. yucatanicus Ridgway, 1887