Is there anything more uplifting in the dead of winter than the sight and sound of a bright red cardinal? No wonder so many people want to know how to attract cardinals! In this article, I’m going to show you how to attract cardinals to your yard and keep them all year-round with food, feeders, choice nesting sites and one other birdy trick. Read on to learn more.
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Where to find them
Cardinals are found in the Midwestern, eastern and south-eastern parts of North America, including Canada and Mexico. 1Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/norcar/breeding#nestsite accessed 6 February 2020
Unfortunately for us in the Pacific Northwest, we only get to envy other regions for this beautiful bird.
Assuming you live within the darker areas on this map, three simple strategies will help you bring attract cardinals to your garden.
How to attract northern cardinals to your yard
If you want to bring cardinals into your garden it helps to know a few basic facts:
Cardinals prefer to feed facing forward and are fairly large and heavy for a songbird – about 9” (23 cm) long and weighing about 1.5 ounces (40 to 45 grams). Only certain types of bird feeders work well for cardinals (no matter what the manufacturer says!)
Cardinals have strong deep and thick beaks or bills, which allows them to enjoy seeds that are too hard for smaller birds to eat. 2Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/norcar/breeding#nestsite accessed 6 February 2020
Cardinals don’t use nest boxes and they can be quite territorial during breeding season (May to August). During these months, they can be aggressive to other birds, so you might want a separate feeding station for smaller birds.
Fun Fact: Cardinals eat grapes and use their bills to peel the grapes, extract the pulp and seeds, then throw away the skins.
It’s worth the effort: Cardinals don’t migrate3Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/norcar/breeding#nestsite accessed 6 February 2020 so once they get to know you they’ll be around all year every year!
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What do cardinals eat?
In nature cardinals eat about 30% insects and larvae and about 70% seeds and fruit, depending on what season it is and what foods are available.4Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/norcar/breeding#nestsite accessed 6 February 2020
Baby cardinals (and most other birds) are fed only insects and larvae for the first few weeks of their lives.
Related: 10 Cool Facts about Cardinals
How to attract cardinals to a bird feeder
A 1980 study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed that cardinals love black oil sunflower seeds most of all but will also eat striped (bigger) sunflower seeds and white proso millet.5Geis, Aelred D., Relative attractiveness of different foods at wild bird feeders, Fish and Wildlife Service Special Scientific Report 233, accessed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015077574849&view=1up&seq=4 Feb 6 2020 A really good cardinal seed mix will contain all of these seeds and possibly some of the other foods they like.
Cardinals are also known to enjoy:
- Safflower seeds
- Shelled nuts
- Fruit and berries
As you can see, there are lots of tasty treat possibilities to attract cardinals to a bird feeder!
Use the right bird feeder for cardinals
Cardinals are quite finicky about which bird feeders they will use. Among people who own the very same bird feeders, some will say that cardinals take to it quickly while others say cardinals won’t go near it.
The best bird feeder for cardinals will be one of these types: platform feeders, hopper feeders with sturdy perches, and some tube feeders IF the tray under it is wide enough for them to perch on while facing the seed ports. (Don't be fooled by product images that show a cardinal on the feeder - most of those are PhotoShopped in because cardinals are such pretty and popular birds.)
Did I say they’re finicky? Here are a few feeders they won’t use.
Most tube feeders won’t work well for them: cardinals are good-sized birds that don’t like to twist around on a perch.
The same goes for most squirrel-proof bird feeders: tube-style feeders are hard for cardinals to eat from and they’re too big to fit through the openings on caged bird feeders. One notable exception is the Arundale Sky Cafe feeder – read our review here.
Related: The Top 5 Squirrel Proof Bird Feeders (that don’t kill birds)
They’re also heavier than many birds, so if you’ve got a weight-sensitive squirrel-proof bird feeder, you’ll have to adjust the spring so that cardinals can use it too.
The best bird feeder for cardinals tend to be quite open and spacious6Horn, D.J., Johansen, S.M. and Wilcoxen, T.E. (2014), Seed and feeder use by birds in the United States and Canada. Wildl. Soc. Bull., 38: 18-25. doi:10.1002/wsb.365 – which makes more sense to me now that I’ve seen the science.
Cardinals will crack and eat seeds right on the feeder, which means they’ll stay there for a relatively long time.7Alison M. Mostrom, Competitive Behavior of Birds at Feeders in Exploring Animal Behavior in Laboratory and Field, 2003, Pages 247-256, Academic Pres (Elsevier) 2003 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780125583305500248?via%3Dihub They can also be very territorial and may drive other birds away.8William E. Davis, Jr, Aggression by Birds at Winter Bird Feeders, BIRD OBSERVER Vol. 37, No. 1, 2009, accessed February 6, 2020 at https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/bo37-1-web.pdf#page=13
Pro Tip: If you want to see a variety of birds on your feeders, it might be a good idea to “reserve” one feeder especially for the cardinals so you can also feed smaller and/or less aggressive birds.
To sum up, the best bird feeder for cardinals is one that has plenty of room between the perch and the food and allows the bird to feed facing forward.
Where should you put your cardinal feeder?
Believe it or not, scientists have researched where cardinals like to eat!
They found that a cardinal feeder that is placed in an open area seems to work best9Matthew Granstaff, Seed Preference among Northern Cardinals, 2006 http://gransoutdoors.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/finalmanuscript2.htm, as seen on February 5, 2020 so go ahead and put that cardinal feeder where you can get a good view of it.
However, it’s worth noting that where there’s lots of human activity, cardinals seem to prefer feeders placed in or near the cover of evergreen trees and shrubs.
The best bird feeder for cardinals tend to be quite open and spacious10Horn, D.J., Johansen, S.M. and Wilcoxen, T.E. (2014), Seed and feeder use by birds in the United States and Canada. Wildl. Soc. Bull., 38: 18-25. doi:10.1002/wsb.365 – which makes more sense to me now that I’ve seen the science.
When to watch for cardinals
Cardinals will visit feeding stations throughout day, but especially near dawn and dusk. Often they will be the very first birds at your feeder in the morning.
The siren song of water
A bird bath full of fresh water is a fantastic way to attract cardinals – and all kinds of other birds too. Add a solar fountain or dripper kit and it will be near-irresistible!
Liquid water is hard for birds to find in winter when it’s really cold, so if you can provide a heated bird bath, that’s even better.
Related: Attract More Birds with a Bird Bath
Gardening to attract cardinals
Planting trees, vines and other plants that produce fruit and/or seeds is a sure-fire way to attract cardinals. Here are a few choices you might want to consider, depending on what climate zone live in 11McAtee, W.L. Food Habits of the Grosbeaks, USDA Bureau of Biological Survey Bulletin No. 32 Feb 29, 1908,12Grow These Native Plants So Your Backyard Birds Can Feast, https://www.audubon.org/news/grow-these-native-plants-so-your-backyard-birds-can-feast accessed February 6, 2020,13The Best Trees, Vines, And Shrubs To Plant For Birds: A Starter List, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/the-best-plants-and-trees-to-plant-for-birds-a-starter-list/, accessed February 6, 2020 :
Inviting cardinals to nest
A garden that provides good nesting spots is another way to attract cardinals, especially if you’ve got some very well established (i.e. dense) bushes or shrubs.
Cardinals love to nest in places with thick tangles of foliage, branches and vines, such as grapevines, honeysuckle, mature wisteria and clematis, and thick rose bushes.14McAtee, W.L. Food Habits of the Grosbeaks, USDA Bureau of Biological Survey Bulletin No. 32 Feb 29, 1908
If you do manage to attract cardinals to nest, be very careful not to disturb them as they will abandon their nests and eggs at the first sign of interference.15McAtee, W.L. Food Habits of the Grosbeaks, USDA Bureau of Biological Survey Bulletin No. 32 Feb 29, 1908
How many cardinals are there and where do they live?
Cardinals are found from southern Canada all the way down to Columbia and Venezuela in South America.
There are three species (and 18 subspecies) of cardinal15:
- Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), which lives in south-eastern Canada and throughout the US eastern and mid-western states except the Dakotas, northern Michigan and northwest Nebraska. Their natural range extends down through Mexico into Guatemala and Belize.
- Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) or desert cardinal, which is found in the US Southwest and northern Mexico,
- Vermillion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus), a brilliant red bird found in South America.
Do cardinals migrate?
No, they stay in their home area all year round, although helpful human feeders may have expanded their range to the north a bit. By converting forests to agricultural and suburban areas, and supplying food at winter feeders, human development has increased nesting habitat and enabled cardinals to remain during winter in areas not suitable in the past.
Do cardinals mate for life?
A lot of people make this claim, but I haven’t found any scientific evidence to back it up.
Cardinals are “socially monogamous” though, which means that in any given year a mated pair of cardinals tend to stick together.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a little hanky-panky on the side: genetic research16 has revealed that between 9 and 35 per cent of the cardinal babies studied were not fathered by the male that hangs out with their mother.
When do cardinals mate?
Any time between March and May, and again between April and late June.
When do cardinals lay eggs?
Cardinals start building their nests between the end of February and mid-April. It takes them about 2 to 3 weeks to complete the nest, and females lay their eggs about one week after that.
Male cardinals will protect and feed the female while she’s incubating the egg, which takes 11 to 13 days. After the chicks hatch, males will help feed the babies.
How long do baby cardinals stay in the nest?
Fledglings are mature enough to leave the nest at about 10 days.
Where do cardinals nest?
Cardinals don’t use nest boxes; they prefer to nest in places where there are deep tangles of branches, vines and foliage.
You may be able to attract cardinals to nest by planting honeysuckle, grapevines, rose bushes and blackberry or blueberry bushes and allowing their vines and branches to grow dense.
Cardinals will also nest in small trees or shrubs that are covered in vines, such as grape vines.
About two-thirds of cardinals will return to the same nesting area following years.
How long do cardinals live?
Cardinals can live 12 to 15 years unless they get sick, injured or preyed upon, but most probably survive only four years or so in the wild.
Are cardinals your favorite bird?
If not, what is and why? Let me know in the comments!
Featured image at top by US National Park Service, taken at Shenandoah Park.