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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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018