Cardinal Virtues

Our backyard is home to at least one family of cardinals. Every day they grace our presence with their rare beauty, inquisitive nature and bold personality.

Northern Cardinal (Female)
Northern Cardinal (Female)

I’ve often heard people speak about the Four Cardinal Virtues. The word ‘cardinal’ in this instance has nothing to do with the bird of the same name. Used in this manner the word indicates something of foremost or principal importance. The Four Cardinal Virtues are simply a set of moral virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. While mulling this over today I began to wonder how these virtues might actually describe the feathered type of cardinal.

Female Cardinal
Female Cardinal

Prudence. One definition of prudence is “care, caution and good judgment”.  Cardinals are extremely conscious of approaching danger. As such, they give a very distinctive call to alert their mates. This indicates that they care for their mates, they are cautious of impending predators and they have the good judgment to make that danger known.

Justice. The definition of justice is often indicated to be “the moral principle determining just conduct”. Did you know that cardinals mate for life? How many people actually do that! The male bird lends a hand in building the nest. He chases other male cardinals away from his territory. It would seem that cardinals have principals of just conduct that might rival those of humans!

Northern Cardinal (Male)
Northern Cardinal (Male)

Fortitude. The virtue of fortitude can be described as “strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger or temptation courageously”. Northern cardinals don’t migrate. They live in their habitat on a year-round basis, through sub-freezing temperatures, snow, sleet and whatever else winter might bring. Here in north Texas, though its only mid-November, we’re experiencing our first blast of winter for 2014. The temperatures dropped to around 20° the last several mornings. And guess who the first birds were to greet the day? The cardinals. Now that’s called fortitude!

Temperance. Synonyms for this word include constraint, self-control and discretion. Though cardinals make themselves at home in our backyard, nesting among the tall bushes and eating from the feeders we provide, they tend to be very shy. A mere movement at the window will send them chasing back into the underbrush, where they sit and stare, eyes bright and heads cocked inquisitively, until the perceived danger passes. They are certainly exercising discretion and constraint!

Keep an eye out for the cardinals in your backyard. Watch them for a while. You’ll see a living example of the Four Virtues.


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