Can Cardinal Birds Be Pets?

cardinal in a cage

A consistent sight throughout the winter and summer months across North America, cardinal birds with their fierce, red plumage and distinct bird song make for a great companion on the occasional hike or Sunday lunch in the back yard. However, can these friendly birds be constant companions as pets?

Cardinal birds may not be kept as pets in the United States of America. Although cardinal birds used to be kept as pets and their feathers harvested in the early 20th century, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibits the capture and possession of cardinal birds.

There are excellent reasons why cardinal birds may not be bought, sold, or kept as pets in cages for personal home use; these reasons will be discussed below.

However, it is legal to “habituate” cardinal birds, provided the correct steps are taken.   

Why is It illegal To Have Cardinal Birds As Pets?

cardinal habitats

During the early 20th century, the bright plumage of cardinal birds was used to ordain hats and other fashion items. This led to thousands of cardinal birds being captured and killed for their feathers, causing severe harm to the population.

Although the change in fashion has led to cardinal birds no longer being killed or captured for their feathers, the continued desire to have them as pets is considered inhumane.

It is inhumane to keep cardinal birds as pets because they are sociable birds who are often seen in pairs while also known to congregate in flocks.

Furthermore, unlike birds bred for domestication, cardinal birds are best suited to wide-open spaces meaning indoor captivity can negatively affect a cardinal bird’s happiness and well-being.

How to Care For Wild Cardinal Birds?

While it is illegal to have cardinal birds as caged pets, it is legal and often encouraged to “habituate” cardinal birds native to an area (habituation is the process where wild birds are given an environment where they are safe and comfortable).

Although habituation will not tame cardinal birds to the extent that they will become pets, it does encourage a level of security whereby they can peacefully coexist with human beings.

To successfully habituate cardinal birds, one must ensure:

  1. They are native to an area for purposes of attraction,
  2. They are given a safe and comfortable environment to live in, and
  3. They are rightly given the correct food. 

Can You Attract Wild Cardinal Birds?

Before attracting cardinal birds to your yard, you must be native to their geographical location. They cannot be captured and exported from a native State into a non-native State for habituation purposes.

Cardinal birds have been seen to travel very short distances from their original place of birth. Do they Migrate?

Fortunately, cardinal birds can be found in abundance across the majority of the United States of America, namely:

  1. The entire Northeast,
  2. The entire Southeast,
  3. Large parts of the Midwest,
  4. Large parts of the Southwest, and
  5. In select sections of the Rocky Mountains.

Consequently, outside of the Northwest United States, there is a high likelihood that cardinal birds can be attracted to a person’s yard with the correct habituation methods.    

How To Make A Safe Environment For Cardinal Birds?

Given their small size at only seven to nine inches, lack of defensive mechanisms, and brightly colored plumage, cardinal birds are susceptible to predators such as cats.

For this reason, cardinal birds should be given access to thick shrubbery and foliage, similar to what they would favor in wild habitats.

This ensures that not only are the cardinal birds comfortable in a similar environment for purposes of habitation and nest building, but it also adds a level of protection from predators that exposed spaces do not typically offer.

For this reason, it is recommended that landscapers wishing to attract cardinal birds and to ensure their safety when doing so opt for a multitude of thick trees, bushes, and similar covered plants.

The placement of these plants, bird feeders, and any birdbaths need to be carefully considered. Not only to ensure there is no easy access for predators to disrupt cardinal birds but to ensure they are not near reflective surfaces such as windows or glass.

This is because cardinal birds, similar to other birds, have been seen to damage both their bodies and beaks on reflective surfaces and transparent surfaces. If this cannot be avoided, stick on objects can assist in alerting cardinal birds to the presence of glass.

Finally, any pesticides or chemicals in one’s yard should be used sparingly, as many chemicals found within them can prove dangerous to cardinal birds.

Cardinals and Their Diet

Cardinals diet consists of a variety of seeds from bird feeders in the presence of other birds (provided these feeders are in elevated and secure positions).

While it is a good idea to stock cardinal feeders with a variety of seeds, such as sunflower and safflower seeds, it is also advisable to have plants that bear seeds for purposes of natural browsing.

Seed-bearing plants such as Purple Majesty millet, purple coneflower, nasturtium, safflower, sunflower, and sweat pea are all firm favorites for their medium-sized seeds.

Cardinals also enjoy berries. Popular berries for cardinal birds are dogwood, sumac, hackberry, bayberry, and serviceberry.

Finally, like all birds, cardinal birds enjoy birdbaths for purposes of hydration and bathing.

It is recommended that birdbaths are low to the ground in a shady and secure area; not doing so will mean that cardinal birds will have to seek other water sources.

What Is It Like To Habituate Cardinal Birds?

Having cardinal birds in their yard is a blessing for most people due to their vibrant colors and bird song.

However, it is of importance to note that their birdsong can be pretty vocal and, at times, noisy. This is an important consideration should one wish to attract and habituate cardinal birds.

Cardinal birds also molt, meaning they shed their plumage, giving them a matted appearance at certain times of the year.

While at times unappealing, this should not be seen as a cause for concern and is not an indication of poor habituation.


While there exists strict legislation to ensure cardinal birds are not kept as pets and mistreated. There exist clear methods by which a household can habituate wild cardinal birds. 

By following these simple habituation guidelines, your household can create a safe and comfortable space to allow cardinal birds to coexist alongside you!

Cardinals meaning and Symbolisms are also well known around the world and they are one of the most loved birds in almost every religion and culture.

Donald Bergeson

I have always been fascinated by the skill, strength, and beauty of birds.They help in maintaining a balance of ecological environment. At Best Bird Guide, I share all of my experiences and discoveries that I have got so far and inspire more devoted fans.

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