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!)

What do you think? Tell us!

comments powered by Disqus

New On This Site

The Latest Comments

  • I understand that the ducks' blood vessel arrangement in their feet is to provide the benefits of the counter-current heat exchanger mechanism; returning cold venous blood from the feet is warmed by the descending warm arterial blood, preventing excess heat loss by the feet and avoiding cold blood from chilling the body. This means that the feet are cold, not warm.
    by Frank Barch, Sat, 02 Jan 2021
  • I have the same situation. The feeder is attached to the middle of a large picture window that goes ceiling to floor w/ no ledge or sill for animals to climb or balance. Yet every morning all the sunflower seeds have been cracked open and hulls left. Any ideas what it is?
    by Liza Fox, Sun, 15 Nov 2020
  • I have a bird feeder that sticks to my window and I've been hearing noises against the window at night right now its going on. But whatever it is it is aware of me. And when I get to window it leaves.I can't imagine a squirrel or mouse or possom being able to get at it. ...So as I was reading this article im to assume no bird eats at night. Or no birds will eat at night. Why is that? Then im also thinking of a sinereo that could a lost confused bird eat at night. This eating thing is watching meI turn out the light go there noise dissappears..Thank you.
    by Nosferatu, Thu, 05 Nov 2020
  • I have metal baffles (cones) on my pole for my bird feeders. Something is still tempting them at night. What else could it be? Deer???
    by Ella Spencer Connolly, Thu, 27 Aug 2020
  • I found where he lives, then I keep him up all day by singing at full volume! Hah, that'll show the little sucker!
    by Pike Juan, Tue, 11 Aug 2020