Origin: eastern and central North America and south to Belize
Average Size: 5 -7 inches
Lifespan: Up to 20 years
Overview The northern cardinal is surely one of North America’s best loved birds – so much so that it is the state bird of 7 states here in the USA. As it is illegal to keep this species in the USA, it may surprise you to learn that it is a quite popular aviary bird in Europe. As a captive, the northern cardinal has much to recommend it – brilliant plumage, a fine song, hardiness (captive longevity exceeds 20 years) and an active and inquisitive nature.
If you are interested in keeping cardinals and other native birds, you may wish to become licensed by your home state as a wildlife rehabilitator. This license will allow you to care for injured birds and, in some cases, to maintain those that turn out to be un-releasable. You can also easily observe cardinals in the wild, as they readily use bird feeders and can even be induced to feed from the hand.
Locations and Habitats The northern cardinal (sometimes called the “Virginian nightingale” in Europe) ranges throughout eastern and central North America and south to Belize It favors suburban and park-like habitats and so responds well to human presence. In fact, the species is increasing both its range and population size in many areas (but declining, it seems, in California). In contrast to many other birds, female cardinals sing loudly from the nest, and with a song that is more complex than that of the male. It is believed that this is a form of communication with the male, but why such has evolved is not yet known.
Description The brilliant red plumage of the male, the intensity of which rivals that of any tropical bird, first attracted aviculturists to this species. During the breeding season, even the gray edges of the feathers disappear, enhancing the over-all brightness of the red color. Sadly, few take time to look closely at the females, which are generally described in books as “dull brown” or “tan”. But look carefully the next time you see one – most females, which vary greatly in pattern from one to another, are splashed with red, tan and green – resulting in a subtle beauty rivaling, in its own way, that of the male.
Housing Requirements My experience with northern cardinals at home and in zoos has convinced me that they are best suited to outdoor enclosures. In addition to being quite active birds, those kept indoors invariably decline in color and condition. The carotenoids that lend this species its red color can only be acquired from dietary sources, and I expect that insects captured in outdoor aviaries may assist in this regard.
Northern cardinals are best housed in pairs with only one pair to a cage, as males are extremely territorial (wild birds will beat themselves senseless attacking their image in shiny hubcaps or windows). They usually become the dominant birds in the aviary, and so are best housed with large, robust species, or alone. Studies of wild cardinals indicates that their diet varies throughout the year to include differing amounts of seeds, buds, fruits, insects, spiders and other invertebrates. In captivity, they fare well on high quality softbill diet (some diets have added carotenoids to help maintain color), a mix of seeds including millet, canary, hemp, buckwheat and some sunflower, berries and other fruits and insects. The insects sold for use as reptile food, including waxworms, mealworms, crickets, earthworms and silkworms are all readily taken by cardinals – their reaction to such foods will leave no doubt as its value to them. Light-based insect traps are a fine way of adding variety to the diet. You can also attract insects to the aviary by planting a wide variety of shrubs and flowering plants and by enclosing ripe fruit in mesh bags (out of reach of the birds). Budding twigs and sprouting grain should also be offer
Reproduction Cardinals prefer to nest in thorny bushes or dense shrubs, but will use open fronted nest boxes as well. Both sexes construct the nest, a process which takes about 4 days, of grasses, moss, twigs and root fibers. The eggs, numbering 4-5, vary in color from white through shades of gray, yellow and blue, and are blotched in red, gray, orange or violet. Two clutches may be raised each season.
Only the hen sits on the eggs, and she is fed by the male during the 14 day incubation period. The hatchlings spend 15 days in the nest, and are fed by both parents for an additional 12 days after fledging (leaving the nest). It is important to add extra insects to the diet of breeding cardinals. Old timers such as I also utilize hard-boiled egg and a bit of meat and cheese, but a “breeding formula” softbill diet will simplify matters for you.
Additional Resources Information on becoming a wildlife rehabilitator is available from your state Department of Environmental Conservation (name of agency varies a bit from state to state).
An interesting article concerning the effects of diet on cardinal plumage is posted at: