The northern cardinal, a member of the finch family, is so well-loved that it has been named the official bird of no fewer than seven U.S. states as well as the mascot for sports teams nationwide. People often see bright red cardinals frequenting backyards and bird feeders, and even casual bird watchers can quickly identify them. They are considered very loyal and kind, as well as having quite the repertoire of vocal stylings.
Cardinals often called “redbirds,” do not migrate and have traditionally been more common in warmer climates such as the southeast U.S. They can also be found in southeastern Canada, across the eastern United States from Maine to Minnesota, south through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, and in a few more tropical locals like Bermuda and Hawaii. Cardinals are very private birds that enjoy secluded areas, dense with growth, and lots of trees and shrubs with a preferred habitat, including woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and wetlands.
Six Proven Ways to Attract More Cardinals to Your Back Yard
- Seeds – Cardinals are not picky eaters and enjoy cracking harder seeds that many other birds are unable to open. Consider plants with medium-sized seeds such as sweet pea or nasturtium as well as more common sunflower. Offer a variety of foods that cater to other visitors too.
- Berries – As nonmigratory birds, they seek a variety of foods as availability changes throughout the year. To attract cardinals, try dogwood, hackberry, northern bayberry, and serviceberry.
- Red Fruits – The vivid crimson color of male cardinals comes from carotenoid pigments, which are found in red fruits. Eating more of these scarlet-hued snacks, especially during molt, helps a male form brighter red feathers. Red-fruited plants to try include hawthorn, raspberry, sumac, and winterberry.
- Cover Plants – Compared to other birds, cardinal nests are low, only 4 to 8 feet off the ground. Cardinals are territorial during breeding and the male stays near the nest. To see cardinals year-round in your yard, host a nesting pair. For their first nests in April or May, cardinals often choose the protection of evergreens. Pairs raise several broods a year and select different sites, so planting a mix of small, dense trees and shrubs is ideal. Some cover trees and plants to try are box elder, eastern red cedar, nannyberry, and roses. Wild grapevine is a good addition, too, because cardinals use its bark for nesting material.
- Caterpillars – Cardinal parents feed their young almost exclusively with insects, which provide the protein that nestlings need to grow muscle. During the summer breeding season, babies are mostly fed soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars. Planting additional beds of butterfly host plants is a good way to help the weary parents. You can make it easier on the birds by adding plenty of caterpillar host plants, such as dill, fennel, parsley, coneflowers, and milkweed, to your container plantings and garden beds.
- Evergreens – Though cardinals forage on open ground, the birds need a place to retreat quickly to safety. In summer, cardinals use the same shrubs that provide nesting sites, but in winter, they escape to evergreens. Plant trees such as arborvitae, juniper, and spruce for cardinals to feel safe and protected.
What Types of Bird Feeders are Best for Cardinals?
Being shy but to a nearly flirtatious degree, cardinals enjoy eating under a protective cover and will often favor a feeder that provides them with greater protection. Ensure feeders are filled early in the morning and late in the evening, as these birds are often the first and last to visit feeders each day. If there is no food available when cardinals arrive, they may leave and not return. Feeder styles to consider are:
1. A simple platform feeder is a favorite choice since cardinals like a wide, stable base.
2. Hopper or House – Hoppers have an enclosed container that holds the bird seed, unlike open platform feeders.
3. Other feeders that do not swing under a cardinal’s average weight of 1.8oz and 7.5”-9.25” in length. Cardinals like to face forward so standard tube feeders are not an optimum choice since the birds cannot twist their bodies to easily reach the feeding ports.
Below are 5 top choices of Mosaic Birds feeders compatible for attracting cardinals.
- Measures 7.75″ L x 9.75″ W x 9.75″ H
- Bowl detaches for easy cleaning
- Ideally used as a bird bath or bird feeder for mealworms, jelly, or birdseed
- Measures 10″ L x 5.125″ W x 11.5″ H
- Detachable perch for quick cleaning
- Fill with mealworms, seeds, peanuts, or suet
- Measures 7″ L x 7″ W x 37″ H
- Adjustable metal stake allows for varying heights
- Ideally used as a bird bath or bird feeder for mealworms, jelly, or birdseed
- Measures 15″ L x 15″ W x 10″ H.
- Bowl with drainage allows seeds to stay fresher longer.
- Packaged in an attractive gift box.
- Measures 6″ L x 6″ W x 6″ H
- Easy mount design for quick attachment to a post or fence
- Perfect for use as a mealworm, suet ball, or jelly feeder
Bird Food and Seeds that Attract Cardinals
Cardinals eat many different foods including insects and select fruits. They are not known to be picky. The shape and structure of a bird’s bill reveals its food preference. The downward curve of the cardinals’ beak, typical of seed-eating birds, allows them to crack open or crush seeds.
Cardinals have larger jaw muscles than many other songbirds, which means they can consume bigger seeds.
Some of their favorite snacks include:
- Black oil sunflower – Black oil sunflower seed is an inexpensive food and provides the most energy per pound of any typical birdseed.
- Striped sunflower – When problem birds take over a feeder, striped sunflower becomes an excellent alternative. Its thick shells are no problem for cardinals but smaller species will usually give up and find a feeding station with easier choices.
- Safflower – Safflower seeds have a thick shell, hard for some birds to crack open but it is a favorite among cardinals.
- Cracked corn
- Nyjer® seed
- Apple slices
- Grape Jelly
Flowers that Attract Cardinals to Your Yard
A beautiful array of flowers in your landscaping or container garden is sure to attract a bird’s eye. Many of these plants also produce tasty seeds for refueling or quick snacks.
- Purple coneflowers
- Black-eyed Susan
Consider adding native prairie plants like millet, sorghum, blanket flowers, goldenrod, and globe thistle, and birds will think they have gone to heaven.
More Ways to Attract Cardinals
1. Offer a Water Source or Bird Bath
To give your cardinals a little extra security in the water, add a small stick or two to your birdbath. It will give the bird a comfortable place to rest while it drinks or after bathing. Little touches like these can help attract and keep northern cardinals in your back yard all year long!
During colder months, heated bird baths are essential for providing winter water. Water should be frequently refreshed to avoid freezing, or a heated bird bath should be used to prevent freezing on the coldest of days. Because of their size, slightly deeper bird baths (2-3”) are most suitable for cardinals. Adding a dripper or mister is a great way to attract birds’ attention. Bird baths placed on the ground provide excellent security for the shy Cardinal.
2. Remove Reflective Surfaces. Cardinals are territorial birds and will defend their surroundings from intruders. This may result in them attacking their reflection in a window or mirror causing beak damage, stress, or even a fatal strike.
Other Fun Facts About Cardinals
Cardinals Love to Sing
Unlike most Northern songbirds, the cardinal is one of the few species whose female sings. A pair of cardinals might even share song phrases, using them to communicate at nesting time.
Watch this video of a male cardinal singing to his heart’s content.
Visitors from Heaven
Symbolism can be found in day to day life. A red rose for love. A white dove to represent peace. Birds represent a link between heaven and earth. A cardinal sighting has often been viewed as a visit from a loved one who has passed.
Cardinals are one of the most popular and easily recognizable species. They are low-maintenance visitors who love dense brush for hiding and nesting. Providing some thick foliage, a stable feeder, and a crunchy seed selection, these shy birds will grace your patio or garden and serenade you with their gratitude.