Home | Bird Species Profiles | Keeping the Northern (Virginian) Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, In Outdoor Aviaries – Part 1

Keeping the Northern (Virginian) Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, In Outdoor Aviaries – Part 1

Northern Cardinal

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.

Today I will give an overview of its care in captivity, so that you might get a different perspective on this common local species. 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. My first experience with captive cardinals came about in this manner, and the lessons I learned proved invaluable. 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.

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.

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.

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.

To view the second half of this article, click here.


  1. avatar

    Can a person in Las Vegas gave an outdoor aviary with northern cardinals being well cared for?

  2. avatar

    Hello Steve,

    Cardinals and other native birds may not be kept in any state. The only option would be to become licensed as a state wildlife rehabilitator, in which case you could keep injured birds and abandoned youngsters.
    Various South American Cardinals sometimes appear in the trade here in the USA; these may be legally kept. Please see the following articles and let me know if you need more info, best, Frank:

  3. avatar

    Hello frank. While visiting both Arkansas, and Northern California, I have noticed very similar types of landscapes. My question is: given the similarities, why would it not be possible to introduce the northern cardinal to the Northern California area, specifically the auburn area, which definitely reminds me of the little rock terrain, and landscape?

  4. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    In addition to my least post, again, I live in Las Vegas, and I know for a fact that northern cardinals live in the Phoenix, Arizona area, and I’m curious as to how they might have gotten there as they had to either have crossed vast desert areas, or have been brought there by humans. Any explanation?


  5. avatar

    Hello Steve,

    Unfortunately, introductions never work out well, whether the animal becomes established or not; literally millions of potential interactions with the environment and other species, many examples here and world wide;

    Re your other post…N Cardinals have been expanding their range westward and north into Canada, and may indeed wind up n CA on their own. They follow human habitation, befitting from farms, gardens, parks and such…as forests are cleared or suburbs expand out from cities, they are able to settle in. New arrivals are usually displaced youngsters driven from the parents range…most perish, but those that find suitable habitat sometimes establish new populations. Best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Hi Steve,

    Please see my comment to your earlier post re this question,

    best, frank

  7. avatar

    Thanks Frank,

    Your answer was what I expected. Best to let nature make its own course. I absolutely love to observe the cardinal, and once while visiting Tennessee, was watching a very brightly colored male going to, and from a nest in a huge holly bush. I was impressed by how he never flew right to the nest, but instead would fly to the bottom of the bush, and hop up into the branches all the way up to the nest. I assume to throw off any predators. I looked into the bush once while he was gone, and saw five little cardinals waiting for his return. I gave a close impression of a cardinal call, and all their heads popped up with mouths agape. Beautiful! Took a few pictures, and then left them alone. That was such a great memory for me. Thanks for your blog Frank, it’s great to read your articles, and learn from you. I think certain people like you are really blessed by God. Thanks for all you do!


  8. avatar

    Much appreciated, Steve,

    Enjoy, Frank

  9. avatar


    I read in your above article on keeping northern cardinals, that they are on the decline in California. You were speaking of northern cardinals? If so, do you think they got there by going southward through Mexico, and then coming northward? Also, where in California would one go to see one? I recently spoke with a person that opened a bird feeder/birdhouse store here in Vegas, and he told me that seven female cardinals were spotted in our wetland area on the east side of town that leads into lake mead. Also, there is a plant nursery here that is owned by a person that keeps cages in the nursery with many different types of very well cared for parrots for people to enjoy as they shop for plants. He also has several African tortoises in a large pen. I never knew they were so large! Well, once I was looking in the bird aviaries, and noticed a female northern cardinal hopping around from branch to branch. I asked the person going around with the fruit, and nut cart at feeding time if that was a northern cardinal . He said it was, and sadly, the male had gotten killed by injuring himself. Later, I went back again, and the female had gotten loose, and was gone. Have a nice day Frank, and I always enjoy your articles. I just finished reading about Muck turtles, and anacondas.


  10. avatar

    Hello Steve,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    They barely get into California; it’s at the western edge of their habitat in USA…you can see the likely routes they might use in this range map..

    The tortoises would be the African Spurred, Geochelone sulcata; common in the pet trade and quickly get too large for most owners; they are the largest mainland tortoise species, can top 120 lbs.

    Enjoy, Frank

  11. avatar

    Just dropping by to wish you a very happy new year frank. I enjoy your articles, and knowledge very much. Especially any stories, and information on northern cardinals. My all time favorite!!!

  12. avatar

    Thanks for the kind words, Steve…a happy , healthy new Year to you and yours, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top