Everyone loves to see Cardinals at their feeder. They can be both beautiful and fun to watch, but knowing how to attract Cardinals to your yard can be trickier than you think. There are things you can do to make your yard more attractive. The nice thing about Cardinals is that they don’t migrate, so it’s worth it to put in the effort to attract Cardinals to your yard.
1. Use Cardinal Specific Feeders
Cardinals won’t use just any feeder, even if it contains their favorite food. As a medium-sized bird, they prefer feeders big enough and solid enough for them to sit, perch, and, most importantly, feed facing forward.
It’s for this reason you’ll find them using hoppers over tube feeders – where they can’t twist their body enough to access the feed and the pegs may not support them. Set out a variety of feeders to find which ones your Cardinals like best, but be sure to include hoppers, trays, and platform feeders filled with the right food, of course.
2. Tempt With Right Treats
But how to attract Cardinals? With the right treats! Northen Cardinals will eat a variety of seeds, nuts, and even fruit. Their beak is sturdy and strong, best designed for husking and hulling seeds such as their favorite sunflower and safflower (1). Black-oil sunflower is one of the most popular feeds used for attracting Cardinals and many other birds to your feeder.
Another option is striped sunflower, which is bigger than black-oil and has a harder husk, although no trouble for the Cardinal. Safflower, a white seed often ignored by other birds and squirrels, is a favorite of the Cardinal and can be combined with sunflower seeds to create your own Cardinal specific blend. With their hearty beaks, Cardinals also love corn and shelled peanuts.
3. Place Feeder to The Right Location
Feeder placement can often make or break whether Cardinals will grace your yard with their presence. Given to an almost flirtatious shyness, these birds prefer protective cover and will often favor a feeder that provides them with greater protection.
To attract Cardinals the food sources should be placed near trees and shrubbery giving them both a place to hide from predators and a safe perch to check everything out before going in. Including multiple feeder locations at a variety of heights and proximity to encourage Cardinals to come to your yard. Give them plenty of places to hide and take cover and don’t forget to include ground-feeding locations.
4. Offer a Water Source (Preferably Moving)
Another essential tip on how to attract Cardinals is a water source. Often overlooked (especially in winter), water sources are essential to Cardinals and many other birds.
Like most mammals and birds, Northern Cardinals need to drink every day and providing a reliable water source is just one more way you can make your yard more attractive. Keeping them clean and changed often is the best way to avoid bacteria or algae growth, not to mention mosquito eggs.
Adding a small stick or two to your birdback can give Cardinals a little extra security in the water. It will give them a comfortable place to rest while they drink or after bathing.
Because of their size, slightly deeper bird baths (think 2-3 inches) are most suitable. Adding a dripper or mister is a great way to attract attention and bird baths placed on the ground provide excellent security for the shy Cardinal.
5. Keep Your Feeders Full at All Times
The great thing about Cardinals is that cardinals don’t migrate and stay year-round, meaning they will make use of your feeders at all times of the year and in all types of weather.
If you really want to know how to attract Cardinals then keep your feeders full even on the stormiest of winter days to give your birds a reliable food source – attracting even more birds to your feeder.
Often the first and last visitor to your feeder each day, a well-stocked reliable food source, can attract a group of cardinals, known as radiance or Vatican (2).
6. Encourage Ground-Feeding for Variety & Security
In addition to sturdy feeders, give your Cardinals ample opportunity for ground feeding as well. Not only does it give them a sense of security, especially with bushes or shrubs nearby, but leaving fallen seed on the ground for a few days can also encourage more Northern Cardinals to visit.
Place a tray, mesh net, or platform beneath hanging feeders to give Cardinals a better space to feed. As mentioned, feeders with narrow perches are less than ideal for the medium-sized Cardinal, attach a tray to the bottom of tube feeders to give Cardinals a place to land and eat too (3).
7. Offer Protective Shelter
Cardinals are very private birds that enjoy secluded areas, dense with growth, and lots of trees and shrubs. Planting trees and bushes of varying heights will help these songbirds feel safe and protected. I’ve found cedar bushes and trees to be particularly attractive to Cardinals, providing dense greenery and cover during the sparser winter months as well.
To give your birds as much coverage as possible, be sure to include the six basic layers: large trees, small trees, large shrubs, small shrubs, perennials, and ground cover. Not only will they appreciate the privacy and safety, but you’ll be providing much-needed shelter and nesting material too.
8. Provide Nesting Material
Northern Cardinals rarely use birdhouses (but they do use nesting shelves), preferring to nest in dense shrubbery or greens, another great reason to consider planting thick greenery that they can use.
A great way to attract nesting birds to your yard is to offer them a variety of nesting materials. You can easily do this by putting yarn, string, or even dog fur in an empty suet cage and hanging it near your feeders.
Any similar lightweight material, like the leftover hair in your brush, will do. Cardinals can have several broods per year but rarely reuse a nest. Offering nesting material is a small touch that can keep Cardinals coming to your yard all year long.
9. Prevent Frozen Water
During those colder months, heated bird baths are essential for providing winter water. Still, water should be frequently refreshed to avoid freezing, or a heated bird bath should be used to prevent freezing on even the coldest of days.
Heated baths usually come in two styles (basin or immersion), and both are useful in providing liquid water for backyard birds (4).
10. Remove Reflective Surfaces
Northern Cardinals are territorial birds, and when aggressive hormones are at their peak, these birds can spend many hours defending their territory against unwelcome intruders.
Unfortunately, they will attack their own reflection seen in a window, car mirror, or even a shiny bumper if they feel threatened. While often not fatal, these fights can last hours or days and may case beak damage or unnecessary stress (5).
Avoid reflective surfaces such as mirrors or gazing balls and use techniques to minimize agitation on surfaces that can’t be avoided, like large windows. The same methods used to prevent bird-window collisions can work to stop birds from attacking windows (6). Examples include covering car mirrors with something opaque (like a plastic bag) and use netting or decals on windows.
11. Avoid Predator-Accessible Feeding Areas
Northern Cardinals are very shy birds and every unexpected movement can scare them away. Keep outdoor pets away from feeding areas if you can.
Although low shrubs and bushes give them ample protection, avoid scattering seed or placing feeders near these bushes. They also give predators the perfect place to hide and easily attack your birds.
12. Keep the Feeders Clean
One of the most important tips to attract Cardinals to your feeder is to provide the safest feeding environment possible. This includes keeping your feeder clean and clear of mold, mildew, or anything else that has accumulated. Feeders can become messy places and, if not cleaned regularly, quickly become breeding grounds for disease and bacteria.
Feeders should be cleaned approximately every two weeks, more often during heavy use or poor conditions, to prevent the spread of avian diseases (7). Use mild dish soap and hot water, or a 1:9 bleach solution and then allow to dry before refilling it. Wild birds often depend on reliable sources of food, so avoid filling your feeder and then letting it go empty for long periods of time.