Home | Bird Species Profiles | Keeping the Northern (Virginian) Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, In Outdoor Aviaries – Part 2

Keeping the Northern (Virginian) Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, In Outdoor Aviaries – Part 2

Northern Cardinal

To view part one of this article, click here
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 offered.

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.


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:


  1. avatar

    can cardinals breed in captivity?

    Also, I see at times cardinals visiting my backyard. How can I make a nest for them to breed locally and keep them revisiting my house? Or perhaps what type of food can I use to keep them coming back? They are so beautiful that it will be nice seeing them always visiting my house.

  2. avatar

    Hello Sergio, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    Cardinals certainly are among the most beautiful of all birds, glad to see you appreciate them. They have been bred in captivity in Europe; I had a pair at the Bronx Zoo that nested several times as well. Unfortunately, it is not legal to keep northern cardinals in the USA but the South American species, such as the red-capped cardinal, are legal to own and are captive bred here in small numbers.

    Free living cardinals will not usually accept a nest box, preferring to build their own in densely leafed trees; thorn bearing species and evergreens are favored. You can, however, keep them nearby by feeding them, especially as the weather cools and food becomes less available. They do not migrate, and are very territorial, so you will most likely see the same pair for quite some time…occasionally some of the young stay nearby for a few months as well.

    Cardinals favor safflower seeds and sunflower seeds, but accept a wide variety of foods. Freeze dried mealworms can be used as a special treat. They actually become quite bold and, with patience, can be induced to feed from the hand. A neighbor of mine has been hand-feeding a pair for several years now. To learn more about this interesting hobby, please see my article Hand Feeding Wild Birds…if you can locate a copy, the book I mention there is very useful.`

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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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.
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