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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:

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