Can Cardinal Birds Be Pets? A Discussion on Cardinal Birds


Cardinal birds are a common sight in North America during the winter and summer. Their fiery red plumage and unique singing make them fantastic companions for your occasional trekking or Sunday meal in the backyard. Cardinals are stunning to watch, and in the past, they were also popular as pets. But now that times have changed, there are new laws in place to protect these beautiful birds.

Due to their stunning colors, these birds were once regarded as pets. However, it is now illegal to own, hurt, or kill one of these birds in the United States of America. Northern cardinals are currently protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also prohibits the selling of caged cardinals. Furthermore, under the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds, they are legally protected in Canada. Violations can result in fines of up to $15,000 and up to 6 months in jail. Therefore, cardinals might not be the ideal choice if your country’s laws prohibit keeping them as pets.

The Reason Why It’s Illegal To Keep Cardinals As Pets

Cardinals, sometimes known as Virginia Nightingales or Northern Cardinals, are well-known for their bright red plumage and cheerful singing. It is the state bird of seven US states, namely Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia. As one of the most identifiable birds in North America, it is also one of the most easily recognized.

The Reason Why It’s Illegal To Keep Cardinals As Pets

Early in the 20th century, hats and other fashion accessories were created using the bright cardinal bird plumage. This resulted in the capture and slaughter of thousands of cardinal birds for their feathers, endangering the population of this species.  Although the urge to keep cardinal birds as pets is no longer fashionable, it is deemed inhumane to keep them in captivity.

Due to their social nature and propensity for flocking together, cardinals are not appropriate pets because they frequently travel in pairs and are known to gather in groups. Additionally, unlike birds raised for domestication, cardinal birds thrive in open areas, so keeping one in an inside enclosure can be detrimental to its happiness and well-being.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA)

As a result of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), Northern Cardinals cannot be kept as pets in North America (USA, Canada, and Mexico), Japan, or Russia.  Additionally, trading or selling cardinals as pets is prohibited, which means that anyone who takes part in it could face legal repercussions. The MBTA strictly prohibits the capturing, killing, selling, or transportation of any listed birds without valid federal authorization. It is there to safeguard both native species and the habitats to which they belong.

The MBTA was initially enacted in Canada in 1916, and the United States later signed it in 1918. Mexico accepted the treaty in 1936, and Japan followed in 1972. Russia finally adopted the law in 1976.

1,026 distinct species, including 74 endangered species, are protected by the MBTA. The Snowy Egret, the Sandhill Crane, and the Wood Duck are a few of the birds that the MBTA has helped to save from extinction. Poaching and hunting were the major dangers to native birds in the United States when the MBTA was initially put into effect. Bird populations were suffering as a result of the increasing demand for feathers as a fashion statement.

A listed bird may not be sold, traded, purchased, possessed, or transported without a permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a result, almost no native birds, including the Northern Cardinal, are available for pet ownership. This includes all forms of pet trafficking. Private ownership of native birds is only permitted for a selected group of individuals and organizations. Owning or selling a native bird in violation of the MBTA is punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 or imprisonment of up to six months.

Exceptions To The MBTA

The countries bound by the MBTA may provide permits allowing for exceptions if it does not interfere with long-term conservation plans. The MBTA allows for common exceptions including falconry, educational purpose, scientific research, and depredation (if birds pose a threat to humans).

Exceptions To The MBTA About Cardinals

In each of these circumstances, the seeking party must prove that keeping these native birds would result in a considerable benefit to either the birds or humans. Due to very little public value involved, exceptions to enable private pet ownership are uncommon.

However, northern cardinals are a very common aviary bird throughout Europe. You can’t kill or hurt them, but you can own and keep them as pets. Cardinals should be found in the wild, though, as they are native birds.

Read: Are Cardinals Aggressive?

Things You Should Know About Cardinals

As we’ve already discussed, you can only pet a cardinal if the law in your country allows you to. However, before keeping northern cardinals as pets, you should be aware of a few facts about them. You should also remember that a cardinal’s chances of survival are higher in the wild than in captivity. So, let’s have look at some of the unique characteristics of these stunning birds:

  1. Male Cardinals Are Red: Their orange beaks, black masks, and unique crests are distinguishing features of both males and females. Their colors, on the other hand, are noticeably different. The males have strictly red feathers from the head to the talon and the females have a tan and pinkish-brown coloring.
  2. Female Cardinals Build The Nests: The nests are typically built by female cardinals. They build them in dense locations, up to 15 feet off the ground. They need about ten days to make a nest. Males contribute to this process by providing building supplies like twigs, leaves, etc.
  3. Some Cardinals Can Be Yellow: Red cardinals may sometimes give birth to yellow chicks. Xanthochromism, a type of genetic variation, is what causes its yellow plumage. These creatures share the same traits as their red counterparts.
  4. Cardinals Aren’t Migratory Birds: They don’t migrate like other songbirds do, not even in the winter. Cardinals can only fly a mile away from their home. They have access to food all year round because their diet is primarily made up of seeds and nuts.
  5. They Can Be Very Vocal: Cardinals are well-known for their lovely chirping. The male and female birds can both sing rather well. While females prefer to sing in private, males whistle and chirp from treetops. In the course of courtship, cardinals may sing to protect their territory, alert other birds to potential predators, or inform their partner that they’re bringing food.
Things You Should Know About Cardinals

Besides the above-mentioned characteristics, there are a few more facts about cardinals which we’ll describe in the following manner:

  • Cardinals are found in North America
  • They’re omnivorous birds
  • They’re territorial but also shy
  • Both male and female cardinals feed their babies
  • They go through molting at least once every year
  • The crest on their heads signals their mood

That’s All, Folks!

Cardinals are an excellent addition to your backyard. But they are prohibited from being caged by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in North America (USA, Canada, and Mexico), Japan, and Russia since they are wild species. They cannot be transported or captured without federal authorization.

So, if you are thinking about keeping one as a pet, the only way to get them to come to your backyard is by providing them with some of their needs. By offering them food, a place to nest, and sturdy feeders, you may attract them to your yard.

These magnificent birds seek areas with dense greenery and shade to build their nests because they value their privacy. These birds will continue to return to your yard once they have access to a consistent supply of food, water, and shelter. They’ll be a great addition to your backyard and you can have this excellent bird as an outdoor pet.

Tawsif Arafat

Tawsif is the author of Birds Indeed, a blog celebrating the beauty and diversity of birds. With a Master’s degree in Law, Tawsif brings a unique perspective to the world of ornithology. Join Tawsif on their journey of discovery as they share their knowledge and love of birds with the world.

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