How to Attract More Cardinals

What is the most attractive feeder food for cardinals? What types of feeders do they favor? These are important questions if you're looking for ways to attract cardinals to your yard.

The single most attractive feeder food for cardinals is black-oil sunflower seed. They also readily eat striped sunflower. For the bird feeding gourmet, higher-priced sunflower chips, sunflower hearts, and safflower seed are readily accepted cardinal treats. But cardinals also eat millet, cracked corn, and small fruits.

Which types of feeders do cardinals favor? Well, they can't hang upside-down or cling nimbly to a tiny perch like a chickadee, titmouse, goldfinch, or nuthatch. But standard hopper feeders and wide-open platform feeders are great for them. Also, they'll perch on a seed tray if one is attached to the bottom of a tube feeder. And cardinals feed on the ground as well.

Over a year, cardinal's diet includes about 70 percent plant matter and about 30 percent animal matter. But if you look season by season, the picture changes. Of course, in northern winters, almost all food will be from plants.

Cardinals will snap up mealworms offered in a tall-sided feeder with a rain-protecting roof. This protein source may be particularly useful to cardinals while they are raising their young in spring and summer. Young cardinals are fed almost exclusively insects and other invertebrates.

But you can also provide more "natural" foods by planting trees that provide cardinals nourishment. Cardinals eat tree buds and flower buds and blooms in spring, and berries throughout the year. They will take ripe berries from hollies, sumacs, cherries, mulberries, dogwoods, and hackberry, among many others. Dense shrubs and small trees conceal nests and provide shelter.

Like other birds, cardinals require safe, clean sources of water for drinking and bathing. Bird baths should be emptied and refilled daily if possible. Also, feeders and bird baths should be cleaned using a bleach solution of nine parts water to one part bleach at least once a month. Rinse well and allow to air dry before refilling.

A small backyard water feature with moving water, such as a small pond with re-circulating pump and filter, will draw cardinals and other birds close to your home. Make sure the vegetation around the pond is not too dense, so as not to shield a cat seeking easy pickings at the water's edge.

As you prune, clean up, and plant in your yard, keep cardinals in mind. You can attract cardinals to nest by planting or maintaining trees and shrubs and, where possible, fostering tangles of vegetation.

Not all vines are desirable for you and your habitat, however. Some vines are invasive and can take over and even kill trees and shrubs. These include fast-growing, introduced vines such as porcelainberry, kudzu, oriental bittersweet, Asiatic wisteria, and English ivy.

Poison ivy is native. Although its berries are relished by birds, the plant is a nuisance or danger to most humans. Most people given some contact with it have some type of allergic reaction to poison ivy. Greenbrier, Virginia creeper, and native wisteria are among the easily controlled native vines.

Another backyard habitat element is the brush pile. Fashioned from loosely arranged dead branches and other yard brush, this heap provides added shelter for your cardinals, wrens, sparrows, and other wildlife. If you have room in your backyard, you can "plant" tall dead tree limbs in the ground. These bare snags provide look-out and singing perches for cardinals and other birds.

The cardinals' thick bill provides the cutting and crushing power needed to extract the soft seeds from their protective husks. Among the plants that cardinals feed upon are wild grapes, blackberry, dogwood and mulberries, various grasses, sedges, hackberry, and knotweed. They may also be busy scouring your trees and lawn edge for beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, cicadas, leafhoppers, caterpillars, moths, true bugs, flies, spiders, centipedes, snails, and other invertebrates.

About Howard Youth

Howard Youth is a freelance natural history writer and Bird Watcher's Digest field editor. He is the author of two BWD backyard booklets: Enjoying Cardinals More and Enjoying Squirrels More (or Less!)

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021