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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.
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