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Do Cardinals Make Great Pets? What You Need to Know!

Nicole Cosgrove

Cardinals, also known as Virginia Nightingales or the Northern Cardinals, are popular birds known for their red color and cheery melodies. As one of the most recognizable birds in North America, it’s the state bird of seven states in the US—Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

Once prized a pet bird due to its stunning colors, it’s now illegal to own, harm, or kill one of these birds in the United States. Northern cardinals are now protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also banned selling cardinals as caged birds. In addition, they are also legally protected in Canada under the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds.

If you are a bird lover looking for a suitable pet to keep, cardinals may not be the best choice if the laws in your country forbid it.

While you can’t keep a cardinal captive in a cage, there are several ways to attract them to your yard and have them as an outdoors pet. This article will explore how to do that and what you’ll need to appeal to these fascinating birds.divider-birds

Name Origin

Image Credit: Wellington, Pixabay

Cardinals are native to North America. Apart from being a state bird in several states, these birds are frequently used as mascots for sports teams and schools.

Its vibrant red color and range influenced the name Northern Cardinal. This bird got stuck with the Northern term because it’s the northernmost cardinal species. It’s one of the 19 subspecies of the Northern Cardinals, which are distinguishable by their colors.

Religion also had a part in the naming of these birds. The origin of the name dates back to when European settlers occupied the US.

The cardinal’s red plumage had similarities to the red vestments of the Catholic cardinals. In addition, the crest also bore similarities with the headgear worn by the distinguishable Catholic officials.


Image Credit: Piqsels

Globally, the cardinal population is estimated at 120 million, with most of them living in the eastern part of the United States. They are also found in large numbers in areas such as Mexico and Southern Canada. Because of human intervention, these birds have been introduced to Hawaii and Bermuda as well.

Because of urbanization in those areas, cardinals stay in their areas of birth since they can find food even during winter. Cardinals take advantage of bird feeders; therefore, you are more likely to attract one to your yard by installing such feeders.

Their natural habitat is in the shrublands, woodlands, gardens, and wetlands.

How to Attract Northern Cardinals to Your Yard

Since it’s illegal to keep and own cardinals as pets in most countries, you have to find creative ways to attract these vibrant red birds to your yard. Cardinals are easy to attract if you have a safe and ideal habitat where they can access plenty of food, water, and shelter. You’ll need to install a bird feeder, a birdbath, and areas for nesting and cover.

Here are some tips on how you can do this.


cardinals on bird feederer_Piqsels
Image Credit: Piqsels

Cardinals will be the first to visit the feeder in the morning and last to leave in the evening. Therefore, when choosing a feeder, ensure the birds will have a sturdy place to perch.

Since they are large creatures, small feeders and tube feeders will not be ideal. They are heavier than most birds; therefore, they go for places with a secure footing.

When installing your feeder, place it about 5-6 feet above the ground and near trees or shrubs. You can also leave food below the feeder because cardinals are also ground feeders.

To keep the birds coming, ensure you re-fill the feeders in time and avoid them staying empty for too long; otherwise, these creatures will look elsewhere for food. Also, hang your bird feeders in a convenient place where it’s easy for you to reach and re-fill.

Diet and Nutrition

Striped sunflower seeds_Csaba Nagy, Pixabay
Image Credit: Csaba Nagy, Pixabay

Cardinals are omnivorous creatures. The typical diet consists mainly of seeds, grains, and fruit. Adults mostly eat seeds while the nestlings are fed bugs and insects. Generally, these birds are not picky eaters; therefore, you can serve them various foods from this group.

To attract them to your yard, you can offer sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, or peanuts. If you stock your feeder with these foods all year round, you’ll have cardinals around for much longer.

You can also diversify the treats and include mealworms, apple slices, fresh berries, and grapefruit. Cardinals love snacking on fruits.

As a supplement, you can plant some berry-producing trees which would attract cardinals to perch and feed on the fruits.

Bird Nests

cardinals nest_Michaela Wenzler_Pixabay
Image Credit: Michaela Wenzler, Pixabay

Cardinals are shy and private; therefore, they will look for areas with dense growth to establish their nests. If you want to attract these birds to your home with their vibrant colors and sweet singing, you’ll have to make your yard conducive to live in.

During the winter seasons, these birds will tend to stay in one area. This is the perfect time to provide shelter for these creatures and attract them to your yard.

Provide Nesting Material

female cardinal_GeorgeB2_Pixabay
Image Credit: GeorgeB2, Pixabay

Cardinals do not use birdhouses for nesting. The female bird builds the nest; therefore, you can provide the necessary material to keep them close.

You can place some pieces of yarn, dog fur, yarn, or other lightweight materials. You can place these materials in an empty suet feeder.

Plant Evergreen Trees

To attract cardinals to your yard, consider planting trees with heavy shades and thick greenery. The birds will come to these protected areas for nesting.

Provide Clean Water

cardinals on bird bath_GeorgeB2_Pixabay
Image Credit: GeorgeB2, Pixabay

Birdbaths are essential for both bathing and drinking. These creatures love water; therefore, having a birdbath in your yard is a sure way to keep them coming.

Because of their size, it’s better to have a birdbath with a depth of 2 to 3 inches. To make them more comfortable, you can also add a small stick or two to your birdbath for stepping on.

You also need to replace the water a few times every week. If they can’t get water in your home, the cardinals will leave to source some from a local pond, stream, or river.


5 Facts You Need to Know About Cardinals

These stunning birds have unique characteristics. Let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Red Cardinals are Male

cardinal on tree_Piqsels
Image Credit: Piqsels

Both males and females have a recognizable orange beak, black mask, and distinctive crest. However, there’s a distinct difference with the colors.

While the males have red feathers from the head to the talon, the females have a tan and pinkish brown coloration. Therefore, if a cardinal is strictly red, it’s probably a male.

2. Some Cardinals are Yellow

cardinals_Tuprae Doe_Pixabay
Image Credit: Tuprae Doe, Pixabay

On rare occasions, red cardinals might produce yellow offspring. This yellow plumage is caused by a genetic variation known as xanthochromism. Apart from that difference, these creatures have the same characteristics as their red counterparts.

3. Females Build the Nests

cardinals_Steve Wilkins_Pixabay
Image Credit: Steve Wilkins, Pixabay

Female cardinals usually build the nests. They set them in dense areas, up to fifteen feet from the ground. It takes them about ten days to build a nest. During this process, males help by supplying building materials that include twigs, leaves, and other plant fibers.

4. They are Very Vocal

cardinal perching_GeorgeB2_Pixabay
Image Credit: GeorgeB2, Pixabay

Cardinals are loved for their sweet chirpings. Both the female and male birds are pretty vocal.

Males make whistling chirping sounds from treetops, while females prefer to sing in seclusion. Cardinals sing during courtship to defend their territory, warn other birds about predators, or let their partner know they are bringing food.

5. Cardinals Don’t Migrate

cardinals_Miles Moody_Pixabay
Image Credit: Miles Moody, Pixabay

Unlike other songbirds, cardinals don’t migrate, even during winter. The most they can do is fly a mile away from their home. Since their diet consists of seeds and nuts, they can access food all through the year.divider-birds


Cardinals make great backyard birds. As wild species, they are protected by the state laws in the US and Canada from caging.

Therefore, if you are considering keeping one as a pet, you can only find ways to attract them to your backyard by providing some basic needs. You can attract them by providing sturdy feeders, food, and a place to nest.

These stunning birds love their privacy and go to places with thick greenery and shade to build their nests. Once these birds get a steady supply of food, water, and shelter in your yard, they’ll keep coming back, and you’ll have an outdoor pet.

Featured Image Credit: GeorgeB2, Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.