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16 Fast Facts If You Want a Pet Cardinal

by Louise W. Rice
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Cardinals — also known as the Virginia Nightingales or simply red birds — are famous for their cheery melodies and scarlet plumage that doesn’t fade even outside of the breeding season. But can you get a pet cardinal? More to the point, should you?

Obviously, most birds don’t thrive in cages. While you certainly could keep a cardinal captive, it wouldn’t take much to attract them to your yard. With only a few tweaks, you can make your backyard a paradise for cardinal birds. Better still, doing so would let them have their freedom while allowing you to enjoy their presence!

But before you start installing bird feeders, it might help to know a few basic facts about the natural habitat and behavioral patterns of these fascinating songbirds.

16 Fascinating Facts You Should Know If You Want a Pet Cardinal

1. Cardinals Are Native to North America

If you live in the Eastern half of the United States, you’re probably familiar with cardinals. They may even be the official bird of your state! In addition to being the state bird of as many as seven states (the most of any bird species), cardinals are also frequently used as mascots for sports teams and schools.

The main reason these birds are so famous has to do with their population numbers and the sheer area they cover. While they originally stuck to the Southeast US, they have since expanded their range toward Canada. Because of urbanization in those areas, cardinals can find plenty of food even in the dead of winter. Generally, cardinals take full advantage of bird feeders, which is why you have a pretty good shot of befriending one!

Nowadays, these birds can be found between Southern Canada and Northern Mexico, all along the Eastern shores and across the Central US. They’ve even wound up in some areas of Southern California. And, due to some human intervention, they have been introduced to Hawaii and Bermuda as well.

2. All Red Cardinals Are Male

Most cardinals have a similar shape. The male and female of the species both have the recognizable orange beak, black mask, and distinctive crest. Both tend to be about 8 or 9 inches long with a 10–12-inch wingspan. Additionally, they’re relatively light, weighing as little as 1.5 ounces.

Still, telling the males apart from the females is incredibly easy. While the females have muted tan and pinkish brown plumage, males are covered in those fabulous red feathers from head to talon. That distinguishing characteristic is exactly why the European settlers of Northern America called these birds the cardinals. They bear quite the striking resemblance to the robes of Roman Catholic cardinals, don’t they?

The female of the species dulls in comparison, but that’s only because the function of the male’s plumage is to attract mates. Juvenile cardinals also take after their mothers until they’re mature enough. However, unlike adult females, young cardinals have a grayish beak.

All this to say that, if you’re looking to attract a pet cardinal, you’re probably thinking about the red males. But you should know that’s not the only hue these magnificent birds can come in.

3. Yellow Cardinals Also Exist

Even though cardinals get their name from the strikingly red shade of their plumage, some adult males don’t have that recognizable coloring. In very rare cases, red cardinals might produce bumblebee yellow offspring! Other than the color of their plumage, these specimens have all the same characteristics as their red counterparts — the black mask, the orange beaks, the shape, and size. So how can they be yellow?

Well, researchers have confirmed that it has something to do with a genetic variation known as xanthochromism. This mutation has caused yellow pigmentation in several animal species, though scientists don’t know how or why it happens. Some speculate that it has something to do with the animal’s diet.

Birds mostly eat yellowish foods, but they can transform the pigments they ingest to make their plumage take on orange or reddish hues. But when it comes to yellow cardinals, that process of transforming yellow food pigments into red plumage is disrupted. As a result, they simply can’t produce red pigment, leaving them with bright yellow feathers.

If you ever spot one of these special guys in your backyard, your local birdwatchers’ society will certainly want to hear about it!

4. They Are Omnivorous Floor Birds

Even though adult cardinals mostly eat seeds, they are generally considered omnivorous, not solely granivorous. As hatchlings, they pretty much only eat bugs. Their parents usually supply them with a steady stream of katydids, leafhoppers, beetles, crickets, cicadas, flies, centipedes, even spiders.

Still, adult cardinals usually make do with the plant materials they find on the ground. After all, their short, cone-shaped beaks are the perfect tools for cracking seed hulls and nuts! In addition to those, cardinals can also survive on grains, barries, and corn.

So if you want to attract a pet cardinal, you could lure one in with sunflower seeds, apples, and cracked corn. Keeping in mind that these birds aren’t the most precise fliers, you’ll want to make sure the bird feeders are wide enough for them to land on.

5. They’re a Bit Shy — They Visit Feeders in Low-Traffic Times

Of course, even if you make the bird feeders just right, you should know that you may not see cardinals all that often. They’re pretty shy, so they won’t be out in the open during the day. Typically, they’ll visit the feeders first thing in the morning, and then again in the evening, after the other birds have left.

6. They’re Accomplished Flirts

Even though they don’t start looking for mates until they’re about a year old, cardinals have all sorts of fascinating courtship practices. The males put on displays and make different mating calls. Even their bright plumage is thought to be an advantage when it comes to scoring dates.

Interestingly, food has a huge role in these rituals as well. Males will often feed female cardinals seeds using a method known as “beak to beak.” That’s why you might have seen photos of cardinals “kissing.”

7. Cardinals Mate for Life

Cardinals are one of the rare animal species that practice monogamy — most of the time. Pairs usually stay together for several breeding seasons and even through the winter months. However, sometimes, that’s not the case. Believe it or not, these scarlet songbirds sometimes cheat on their partners!

Some females copulate with males that are not their primary partners — generally older individuals. According to DNA analysis, 9–35% of nestlings are the result of “extra-pair paternity.”

In addition to having extra-marital affairs, some cardinals also split up from their partners permanently. Approximately 20% of pairs split up and change partners every breeding season. So while cardinals are generally monogamous and “faithful” — sometimes things just don’t work out!

8. The Females Build the Nests

When cardinals pair off during the mating season, females are usually the ones who build the nests. They usually set up shop in dense thickets, up to fifteen feet from the ground. However, they generally prefer to keep closer to the ground — which is something you should know if you want a pet cardinal.

It takes them about 10 days to build their cup-shaped nests, which are usually 2 or 3 inches deep, and 4 inches across. Males help out by fetching the building materials, which mostly consist of twigs, grapevine, pine needles, grass, leaves, bark strips, and other plant fibers.

A cardinal pair will only use a nest once. Even while the hatchlings are still in the nest, females will sometimes move away to start building a new one! In warmer climates, cardinal pairs can raise as many as three broods in one breeding season. However, they usually stick to just one in March and another around June.

9. Both Partners Feed Their Nestlings

Cardinals are famously excellent parents — both partners participate in rearing the offspring. The females lay anywhere between one and five blueish green eggs with brown specks. They incubate them for 11–13 days.

The chicks arrive almost completely featherless. It can take them anywhere between four and thirteen days to get their first sets of rust-colored feathers. During that time, they will leave the nest, though they won’t master flying until day twenty. At that point, they will have developed their full brown plumage, but until then, they’ll have to settle for walking, hopping, and fluttering where they need to go.

Even though nestlings leave home when they’re about a week old, they’ll keep returning for food for up to two months after. Both parents will dutifully feed them insects until the chicks are ready to fetch their food.

10. They’re Quite Vocal

In most bird species, males are the only ones who vocalize. That’s not the case with cardinals!

Both males and females are capable of making whistling chirping sounds. Males usually do so from treetops while females prefer to sing in seclusion.

They have sixteen distinct calls, including “cheer-cheer,” “sweet-sweet,” or “purdy-purdy.” You already know that cardinals sing during courtship. However, they also sing to warn other birds about predators, defend their territory, or let their mate know that they’re coming home with food.

If you attract a pet cardinal, you’ll probably end up hearing these cheerful sounds year-round. They often sing first thing in the morning, so you’ll have a natural alarm clock!

11. Cardinals Are Hilariously Territorial

As you know, female cardinals sometimes get frisky with males who are not their primary partners. So is it any wonder males are so territorial and protective?

Cardinals are extremely aggressive when they need to fend off intruders and protect their territory, mates, and nests. Like most other animals, they are particularly hostile during breeding seasons.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to see cardinals fighting with their reflections. Even females have been caught arguing with side mirrors or windows for hours without realizing that they’re mistaking themselves for another bird.

12. They Molt at Least Once a Year

Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning to find your pet cardinal completely bald. The cardinals’ molting season starts in the late summer or early fall — after the June mating season has passed. At that point, they often lose almost all the feathers on their head, which looks absolutely horrifying! But don’t worry: the plumage will return in full force only a few weeks later.

13. Their Crest Signals Their Mood

One thing you’ll definitely want to know about your pet cardinal is that its crest reveals its mood. When it’s lowered, it means they’re feeling pretty relaxed. However, if it’s raised and pointed, it’s a sign that the bird in question is agitated or aggressive.

14. Cardinals Don’t Migrate

Cardinals are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 as well as a similar law in Canada. However, they don’t fly away in the winter! In fact, most of them never move farther than a mile away from where they hatched. So you may get to see their fiery plumage against a white snowy background.

15. They Form Flocks in the Winter

Even though cardinals spend most of the year hanging out with their primary partner, they usually form larger groups during the wintertime. Outside of the mating seasons, their territorial tendencies go down, and they’re able to band together — likely for the sake of acquiring food.

If you want a pet cardinal, consider making your yard more welcoming by setting up bird feeders and heated birdbaths. The bath should be at least two or three inches deep for the cardinals to enjoy it. You should replace the water several times per week unless you want the cardinals to find another source of water nearby.

16. They Can Live for Up to 28 Years In Captivity

Now that I’ve shed some light on the yearly cycles and behaviors of cardinal birds, let’s talk about how long they live. In the wild, they usually only get about three years. After all, they have many natural predators, including hawks, owls, snakes, squirrels, and domestic and feral cats and dogs.

However, researchers have documented older cardinals in the wild. The oldest one on record was a fifteen-year-old female found in Pennsylvania. More specifically, she was fifteen years and nine months old.

The oldest captive cardinal lived to the ripe old age of 28.5 years. So you can be sure your pet cardinal will be with you for a long time — as long as you keep predators away from the yard!

To Conclude

There’s nothing better than seeing a cardinal in the wild — or even in your backyard. But if you really appreciate them in all their glory, you’ll let them stay outside. Still, there are ways to have a meaningful relationship with the birds in your backyard. For one, you’ll want to keep any other pets, especially dogs and cats, indoors.

After reading these fascinating facts, you know everything these birds need to feel welcome. So set up some sturdy and wide birdfeeders, about 5 or 6 feet off the ground. On top of that, you should make sure there are shrubs they can build their nests in and at least one birdbath. Soon enough, you’ll have a pet cardinal of your very own to greet each morning with!