Cardinals are a backyard favorite. The male’s bright red is a welcome splash of color in any backyard, and I love walking around my neighborhood and seeing the cardinals flitting around.
Luckily for us, they readily use birdfeeders, and you can improve your chances that cardinals will breed by providing an appropriate nesting place. Urban areas sometimes lack the dense vines, shrubs, or small trees that cardinals prefer to nest in, so adding a partially-enclosed box could entice a pair to choose to nest in your yard.
That means you must understand what a cardinal is looking for and what makes a successful nest. As a biologist with decades of studying animal behavior, I know how important our actions are to help, not hurt, our feathered friends. Remember, North America has lost about 3 billion birds due to human activities since 1970.
Bottom Line Up Front
Traditional enclosed birdhouses are for cavity nesters. Cardinals are not cavity nesters, which means enclosed boxes won’t work for them; don’t be tricked by people advertising that they do. Cardinals prefer dense foliage for nesting, so any structure you provide must mimic that. The best option is a roofed three-sided box open at the front placed amongst natural foliage.
I chose the Songbird Garden Roost as my top pick. The dark blue poly lumber roof will last forever, the cedar structure is naturally weather resistant, and the design and size is perfect for cardinals.
Remember, birdhouses are first and foremost for the birds, not for us! Your goal is to provide habitat, not make art.
My first criterion was whether cardinals would even use the birdhouse; this eliminated all enclosed boxes. While sorting through the types of open boxes, I ranked them based on whether they had or could be modified to have the requirements for safe, successful nesting. This means I did not recommend any boxes that were brightly colored, painted on the inside, or did not provide specifications about the materials used. For the remaining boxes, I selected them based on the following criteria:
- durability of material used for construction;
- overhang of roof relative to the base;
- entrance area size;
- drainage holes.
This is my top choice. It combines the best materials with an almost perfect design, and it looks nice too. The roof and front ledge are made from recycled poly lumber, and the main frame is made from cedar. Cedar is a naturally weather-resistant wood, which means you don’t have to stain or paint it for outdoor use. The poly lumber is from recycled materials, which is a nice bonus for the environmentally-conscious.
This website’s main page offers several variations on this design as well: the main box also comes in a poly lumber version instead of cedar, and you have the choice of blue, green, or red for the poly lumber roof/ledge. I suggest avoiding the red, as bright colors don’t help nesting birds that are trying to be camouflaged.
The roof is flush with the base, and it doesn’t have drainage holes, which I would have liked to see. If you choose the version made entirely out of poly lumber, then you don’t need drainage holes, because poly lumber isn’t porous so the water will run off and not be absorbed into the base. This material is also more resistant to bacteria and mold than wood. It should last forever as well due to its weather resistant nature.
I think this model would be an excellent choice for any backyard. There are two pre-drilled holes to mount it, and it comes with screws for mounting as well. It is the most expensive box, but it should last a lifetime.
Size: 8″D x 9.5″W x 9.25″H; weight: 3 lbs.
- good dimensions and layout
- durable (made from recycled poly lumber)
- good quality material (cedar and poly lumber)
- expensive, especially the all poly lumber version
- the roof is flush with the base
This box showcases a beautifully simple design. It looks like the roof is flush with the base, and so as always, drainage holes won’t go amiss and are recommended to add. The mounting board extends below the box, not above, but that provides an equally solid structure to use to attach this box to a post or fence.
The edges are sanded and contoured, which creates a softer and more finished look compared to most other boxes that had rougher edges. That may make this box more suited to those who have a slightly classier backyard.
It doesn’t have a front ledge, which wasn’t a deal breaker, as everything else about the design is great, and I viewed a front ledge as nice to have, not a necessity.
Though price wasn’t specifically a factor in my choices, this one also happens to be the cheapest one I found, which is a bonus.
Size: 9″ W x 8″ D x 10″ H; mounting board: 9″ x 13″
- made from cedar
- roof flush with the base
- no drainage holes
- no front ledge
This is a nice, simple, clean design. It’s made from pine, not cedar, so it may not last as long as some of the other choices. The sides are beveled but the top and bottom are not, giving you a cross between a rustic and polished look.
It has pre-drilled attachment holes so you just need two screws to attach it to a fence or a post. There is no front ledge and the roof is flush with the base, so get your drill out for those drainage holes.
This is also the largest box I selected, which is better than being too enclosed – remember, cardinals are not cavity nesters. It does mean you’ll need a little bit larger area to fit the box, so this should work if you have a larger bush or vine that can engulf the box, and if possible, get some branches or leaves into the box to provide better securement for the nest.
Size: 10.75″ W, 9.25″ D, 13.5″ H
- attractive design
- roof doesn’t extend past base
- no drainage holes
- made from white pine
- large, may require extra material inside to secure nest
This one has a more rustic look, almost handmade, as there is no beveling on the edges. The shape is rather angular but it should be hidden in foliage when mounted anyway. The slope of the roof is a little steep, which is only a problem because, in combination with the front ledge, the entrance is heading towards the small side.
It also has one of the highest back walls of any structure I looked at, and with the mounting board, you’re looking at probably 15 inches of height required to mount this box; just keep that in mind.
Overall, it is made from quality materials (cedar) and has a nice front ledge.
Size: 9.5″ D x 7″ W x 12.5″ H
- good quality wood (made from cedar)
- front ledge
- roof is shorter than base
- no drainage holes
Though the website description seems to misunderstand the concept of bird nests – nests are made to keep babies inside and don’t need a ‘raised safety ledge’ to prevent babies from falling out – due to the nature of cardinal nests being wedged instead of attached to a substrate, a front ledge may help keep the nest inside.
All boxes should have drainage holes. This is especially true with this design, as the base extends beyond the roof, pretty much guaranteeing that rain will get inside the box. This is not a deal breaker but does require drainage holes are added as an extra precaution.
It also looks like the company’s logo is prominently nailed to the front of the birdhouse. I’m not a fan of companies advertising that way, but take that information any way you wish.
Size: 7.5″ D x 9.5″ W x 11.5″ H
- good dimensions
- front ledge
- incorrect suggestions on the best placement
- no drainage holes
- the roof is too short
- made from pine, so will require waterproofing
A simple, classic design made from cedar. I always like the look of plain cedar, and I find the compact look of the platform appealing.
There are two main issues: the base extends past the roof and there are no drainage holes; and the short back plus steep sloop of the roof makes a relatively small area for an entrance. The first issue can be helped with a drill to create holes and thoughtful placement in a protected area; the second you can’t do anything about, and it’s unclear what the minimal entrance requirements are for cardinals.
It also looks like you’ll have to drill attachment holes, as there are no obvious ones already pre-drilled. But, it is about half the price of most of the other options, so not a bad investment to try your luck.
Size: 7.25″ W x 6.75″ D x 8″ H
- made from cedar
- low price
- roof doesn’t overhang base
- no pre-drilled attachment holes
- no drainage holes
- small entrance area
A cardinal may find this a little too enclosed, but it certainly meets all the requirements for a good design, and already has drainage holes which was a rare find.
The bottom is entirely enclosed so there’s no chance of the nest becoming dislodged. The front entrance is perhaps on the small side, due to a very sloped roof, a front ledge, and the side walls being flush to the front (though they do have semi-circles removed).
I personally don’t like the look of the beveled pieces as those smooth edges really contrast with the very rough wood used for the main frame. It also has the company logo attached to the front of the roof, which I find very distracting and not useful to hide nesting birds.
It is made from pine so won’t last as long as models made from cedar, unless it is protected (see Advice below).
Size: 9.25″ W x 8.5″ D x 9.5″ H
- has drainage holes
- front ledge
- made from pine
- small entrance
I chose this one because of its unique design. I’ll admit I’m unsure whether a cardinal will use a structure like this, but I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.
The roof is flush with the base but there are no drainage holes.
Unfortunately, the website didn’t provide any measurements for this shelter. Because of its shape, I’m assuming it’s wider and taller than most other nesting structures, and so will require a spot with more space. It also needs three screws for secure attachment.
- made from cedar
- no measurements given
- no drainage holes
Do It Yourself
This is also great opportunity to make your own birdhouse as a fun individual or family project. You’ll need a few tools – a table saw to cut the wood (or buy cut pieces at a hardware store), a screwdriver, and a power drill. If you don’t have your own tools, ask a neighbor or find a local tool-lending library!
Key features of your design:
- a roof that overhands the base to prevent rain from entering
- at least 15 cm interior diameter
- small front ledge
- made from cedar or cypress untreated wood
- four drainage holes
As long as your birdhouse has those basic requirements, you’re good to go! It doesn’t leave much room for creativity or personalization, but that’s just the nature of this project.
You can use or modify existing plans – the one available here and here for robins will work well for cardinals. You don’t have to make indented sides; for ease of construction, you could easily make walls with straight sides.
I would not recommend plans like the ones available here without modifying the roof to make it longer so it goes beyond the base. It also says to make it from a fence board. Do not do this! Fences use pressure-treated wood, which has chemicals embedded in it that are harmful to birds.
The size requirement comes from data showing cardinal nests are quite variable in size but can be upwards of 15cm in diameter; hence your box should be at least 15cm square on the inside to accommodate large nests.
The ledge requirement is because cardinal nests are not attached to branches; instead, they are wedged in place. The ledge isn’t to prevent baby birds from falling out – that’s what the nest is for – but it can help keep the nest secure if your cardinals build one on the smaller side.
Finally, before you build, consider how you will attach it. A large mounting board as the back piece lets you screw it into a flat surface, but if you’re using a metal pole, you’ll need to attach the house through the base.
- Use untreated pine, cedar, or cypress.
- Pine may benefit from painting to help with weatherproofing.
- Paints can be toxic to birds, both adults and their babies. Your safest bet is to use an acrylic or latex paint labeled “non-toxic.”
- Acrylic paints are odorless and tend to be more durable than latex paint. Latex is cheaper, paints on wood the easiest, and produces the least fumes.
- Note that anything with lead or creosote is toxic.
- Never paint the inside of the box or any parts the bird could chew.
- While you can also use natural stains, such as raw linseed oil, it doesn’t have good waterproofing capabilities.
- Never use teak oil; it contains compounds that may be toxic and remains toxic if it is ingested even after curing.
There’s no ideal place to put a nestbox like this. If you put it on a pole in the open, a collar or stovepipe baffle will prevent snakes and mammals from accessing the box, but it will be highly visible to avian predators. If you use a tree or fence post and mount it within a bush, it’ll be susceptible to mammalian predators. Mounting it in the open on the side of a house means all predators can see it and doesn’t conform to a cardinal’s instinct to seek out lots of cover. Remember that it’s not just the box and nest that predators cue into, but the presence of the adults going to and from the nest.
Cardinals are not known for nesting in porches but can nest close to a house in a bush. So your best bet is to attach it to a pole placed deep in a bush or on a fence post covered by foliage.
Don’t add color to your birdhouse. Leave the wood a natural color or help it blend in by painting it dull green, grey, brown, or tan. Don’t use dark colors or black, as those absorb heat and may make the box get too hot.
Cardinals aren’t the only bird that may use an open box like this. You may get robins or blue jays nesting inside instead. If you do, simply enjoy whichever species uses your structure – remember, it is illegal to destroy or move the nest or eggs of a native species.
Keep in mind some of these details about cardinal’s nesting habits:
- Nesting starts as early as March
- The pair selects the site, but the female builds the nest
- Most nests are 1-2m off the ground
- Cardinals may take upwards of three weeks to build a nest, so have patience
- Incubation takes 11-13 days
- Fledging occurs in 7-13 days
- If the nest fails, the pair will likely re-nest somewhere else
- Nests are not reused, so you can safely remove an empty nest (after the young have fledged)
- Some individuals may nest into October, so leave your box up until the fall
Unless your yard is very sterile, cardinals should be able to find enough nesting material. They will use twigs, strips of bark, plant stems, leaves, and pine needles to construct their nests.
Answer: Yes! You can report nests to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch site and be a part of community science tracking the nesting success of any species of bird.
Answer: You don’t have to, but cardinals are easily attracted to bird feeders, especially in the winter. You can leave the feeder out in the summer; just ensure the seeds stay dry. Cardinals will readily take black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, millet, and unshelled peanuts from birdfeeders. Cardinals also feed on berries and seeds. For a more sustainable option, consider planting dogwood, hackberry, sedge, grapes, mulberry, or blackberry. They also eat insects, so a yard with diverse habitats and no pesticides will naturally provide them with invertebrate food.
Answer: Nope. Red signals a mate (for females) or a a rival (for males), not a safe nesting area. In nature, cardinals have evolved to nest in green foliage – and if you look at the female, you’ll see why. In cardinals, only the female incubates the eggs!
The Songbird Garden Roost is the perfect cardinal birdhouse. Due to its cedar and poly lumber construction, it’ll last forever and provide protection for generations of cardinals (or other birds!). Really your biggest challenge will be to find the best, most hidden place to mount the box. The biggest cause of nest failure for cardinals is predation. Thus your main job is to get an unobtrusive birdhouse and then select a concealed location for it. Snakes, birds, and small mammals will all take eggs or nestlings.
Halkin, S. L., D. P. Shustack, M. S. DeVries, J. M. Jawor, and S. U. Linville (2021). Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.norcar.02
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