Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
Attracting the Northern Cardinal
The northern cardinal is one of the most beautiful and vibrant birds you can attract to your garden feeder. They range from the east coast of the United States to the central United States, and south into eastern and southern Mexico.
Even people who don’t know much about birds recognize the northern cardinal. It is the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Your major league baseball team is named after it if you live in St. Louis, and your NFL team if you live in Arizona. A bright-red cardinal in winter has been the subject of many a Christmas card.
If you live in their range it doesn’t take much to bring these birds to your feeder. As seed eaters they will likely investigate whatever you put out. However, if you want them to stick around you need to include the types of food, feeders, vegetation and other things that are best of them.
In this article you’ll learn how to attract cardinals to your garden or backyard feeder. I have found that turning my property into a miniature bird sanctuary ensures cardinals and many other beautiful songbirds will visit often.
Male and Female Cardinal Identification
The bright red and black plumage we typically associate with the northern cardinal is actually only accurate for the male. The female has a subdued brownish coloring, with red accents.
If you spot one there is a good chance the other is nearby. Cardinals often mate for life, and pairs spend a lot of their time together year-round.
Northern Cardinal Checklist
Here is a quick summary of what you need to think about if you want to attract the northern cardinal to your yard. The rest of this article will cover each topic in more detail.
Stock plenty of black-oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds as these favorites of cardinals. You may also offer peanuts, cracked corn, berries, and other fruit. You will also see cardinals hunting for insect, which you will no doubt appreciate if you have a garden.
It is always smart to include a water source for birds on your property. A simple birdbath will do, or you can be more adventurous with a fountain or mister. Remember that cardinals will stay around your property year-round, so consider using a heated birdbath in the winter months.
Short trees and shrubs are a favorite of cardinals. They are predominantly ground forages and will appreciate the cover of low vegetation.
Cardinals built nests at relatively low heights, from three to ten feet off the ground. They may nest in a dense hedge or the fork of a tree branch.
It takes the right birdfeeder to encourage cardinals to come off of the ground. Choose a large, sturdy feeder with large perches where a medium-sized songbird like the cardinal can feel secure. Make sure it has ports that are big enough to handle the sunflower and safflower seeds that cardinal love.
Feeding Cardinals in Winter
Cardinals will stick around you feeder year-round, so keep it stocked! High-energy seeds like black-oil sunflower seeds are especially important when the snow starts to fall.
What Do Cardinals Eat?
Cardinals are predominantly seed-eaters, which is one of the reasons they are so easy to attract. Putting up a bird feeder with the right seed mix is the easiest way to bring them to your yard.
They will eat fruit and berries in the wild. Planting berry-producing bushes like blueberry, blackberry or grapes increases your chances of attracting them.
Cardinals will also eat insects. They’ll hunt down caterpillars, grasshoppers, aphids, spiders, worms, snails, slugs and other little garden inhabitants.
It’s important to realize that many songbirds will eat insects on your property once they start coming around. This is one of the benefits of attracting birds to your garden, especially for people who need a little help controlling pests.
Best Seeds and Food for Cardinals
There are many types of birdseed, and some birds prefer one kind over others. You’ll see mixed bags, but they can be quite varied in the types of seeds they contain. There are a few things you should look for when you’re hoping to attract cardinals.
Black-oil sunflower seed is a favorite of many birds, and cardinals love it. You can find a seed mix that is predominantly black-oil sunflower seeds, or you can make your own blend.
I will typically purchase a large bag of sunflower seeds and then a smaller bag of other types of seed. I mix them together in my seed storage container and, if I’m careful, I usually end up spending less overall.
Some other seeds you may consider for your blend include:
- Striped sunflower seed: These are larger sunflower seeds, with thicker hulls that are harder to crack open. Many birds can’t eat them, but with their strong beaks cardinals have no trouble.
- Sunflower kernels: These are the actual seeds from inside the hull.
- Safflower seed: In addition to sunflower seeds, cardinals love to eat safflower seeds. These small, tough seeds are too difficult for many other birds to open.
- Cracked corn: If you choose to offer corn be sure it is meant for feeding birds. Agricultural corn kernels may be treated with substances that birds shouldn’t consume.
- Fruit: You may try adding some dried fruit intended for bird consumption to your seed mix.
- Suet cakes: Suet cakes are blocks of fat that contain seed or other food items. Yes, it is pretty nasty, and should only be fed when the temperatures are cold enough to prevent the fat from going rancid. Cardinals will feed on suet on occasion, though if you expect them to eat it you need to make it accessible. Many suet cages require the birds to perch on or hang from them, and cardinals just can’t do that very well. (More on that later.)
How to Choose a Bird Feeder for Cardinals
Cardinals are ground foragers, and will happily scrounge fallen seeds from under your feeder. This is a behavior I try to discourage, though it's tough. A bright-red bird hopping around in the green grass sticks out like a sore thumb and has to be awfully appealing to predators. I do my best to keep birds off the ground, and it's important to keep an eye out for unwanted bird feeder visitors.
The problem is cardinals are kind of clumsy, un-athletic birds. Species such as blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and red-winged blackbirds are larger, but have an easier time perching on medium-sized bird feeders and tube feeders. Cardinals can’t manage feeders with small perches.
A hopper or platform feeder would solve the issue, but my neighborhood squirrels tend rip through easily accessible seed in record time. The solution I came up with is to use a very large feeder, with very large perches cardinals can manage. It also has small access holes that slow down the squirrels.
The feeder I use is called the Stokes Select Giant Combo Feeder. It's a very large and sturdy feeder that holds eight pounds of seed. I don't expect any critter smaller than a black bear would damage it. More importantly, the cardinals can land on it.
Whatever feeder you choose, the point is to be sure it is large enough for cardinals to land on and perch. Otherwise, they will end up on the ground, under your feeder.
Water Sources for Your Garden
Adding a water source to your yard or garden means you’re not just feeding the birds, but also offering another thing that's essential to their survival. This means they’ll feel more secure on your property, come around more often, and stick around once they find you.
You don’t have to do anything fancy; cardinals will come to a simple birdbath. Just be sure to replace the water with fresh water each day, and clean once per week with a mild water/bleach solution to prevent the spread of disease. This also stops your birdbath from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Other water features you might consider include misters, fountains, or small, decorative waterfalls. There are solar-powered versions of many water features, so you can keep things simple.
When birds find food and water there is a good chance they may choose to nest on or near your property. The next step is to include the appropriate vegetation.
Shelter and Vegetation
The ideal cardinal habitat is at the edge of a forest with lots of low, dense trees, bushes and thickets. If you live in the country like I do there is a good chance your yard is at the edge of a forest or woodland, so you are halfway there.
In addition to planting berry bushes as mentioned above, you may consider adding low-growing shrubs and plants to your yard. One thing I’ve done is take a look at what is already naturally growing at the edges of my yard.
I try to encourage plants and bushes that are good for birds, even if they are things most people would hack down. There are wild blackberry bushes for cardinals and other fruit eaters, thorn bushes, wild thistle for the goldfinches and lots of low scrub bushes for cover.
I also have some apple and pear trees that provide a canopy over the bird feeders. This is important, as it shelters birds from aerial predators.
My yard is ringed by decade-old blue spruce trees, which the cardinals seem to love. As ground feeders, they are able to scamper under them as well as perch on them. They’ve also nested in a large pine tree in a nearby field.
If you don’t live in the country, or can’t encourage this kind of habitat on your property, consider planting attractive, indigenous small trees and shrubbery.
Note: Fruits and berries that are good for birds may not be good for people or other animals. Be sure to do your research before adding any fruit-bearing tree to your yard.
How to Attract Cardinals in Winter
The northern cardinal does not typically migrate, meaning you get to see this beautiful bird year-round.
But winters can be hard in the northernmost parts of their range. Natural foods are hard to come by. While birds can get by on their own if they have to, a little help from us goes a long way.
One way to get birds to stick around your yard through every season is to make sure you keep feeding them in winter. The foods mentioned above (especially sunflower seeds) can give birds the energy they need to survive the brutal cold.
Water is still important, even in the winter months. If your birdbath freezes in the winter you can use a birdbath heater to make sure water is still accessible.
Bushes and trees that produce berries in the fall will give fruit-eating birds like cardinals a little extra push going into the lean months. In addition, the cover they provide offers protection from the cold and snow.
Bright Red Birds in Your Garden
I consider cardinals one of the key species in my area, as far as backyard birding goes. Chickadees are fearless, nuthatches are quick, and blue jays are mean enough to face anything. But some birds need the right environment to make them feel safe and comfortable, or they simply won’t come around.
That means not only the right food and feeder but water, vegetation and everything else that makes up a safe bird sanctuary. Making some easy changes such as these to your property is a great way to get started in bird watching.
When the cardinals come around, I figure I’m doing something right. I want my backyard to be a place where birds are safe and have everything they need to thrive.
Good luck attracting the northern cardinal to your own garden or yard.
References and Further Reading
- Northern Cardinal, Audubon Guide to Birds of North America
- Northern Cardinal, Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on August 03, 2018:
Thanks, Peg! Enjoy your cardinals!
Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on August 02, 2018:
I live in the country and am blessed with multitudes of birds that visit year round. The cardinals seem to grow in numbers each year with many couples and youngsters. You've shared a lot of valuable tips here that help to attract them.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on August 01, 2018:
@moonlake - Thanks! The male will sometimes bring food to the female as well. They are interestingly social birds.
@Janis - Thanks for the kind words. Interesting about the spirits. Something to think about next time I see them!
Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on July 31, 2018:
Beautiful and informative article, Eric. I had know idea you can actually attract them. Your pictures are lovely. I love cardinals and see them a lot in my yard and surrounding neighborhood in NE Washington DC. They are plentiful in this area of the country. I also see them as spiritual birds and wrote a hub about how they carry spirits. Thank you for this very well done article.
moonlake from America on July 30, 2018:
I had a male cardinal on my feeder yesterday feeding a baby cardinal that was as big as him.
Enjoyed your article.