Cardinals come in multiple colors.
They stake their claim to nesting sites with their songs, and they come to feeders over and over again all day, making their presence known to the humans who protect them.
Attracting cardinals isn’t as simple as putting out some birdseed.
Cardinals have some specific feeding requirements, and they have needs for protection that require a little advance planning.
In this article, we’ll give you some pointers on how to make cardinals feel welcome in your landscape, and what you need to do to attract and keep some of the rarer species of cardinals that aren’t necessarily red.
Provide Large Feeders that Allow Cardinals to Feed Facing Forward
Cardinals need feeders that are sturdy enough to let them perch without having to adjust for shaking, wobbling, and blowing in the wind.
They need feeders that are large enough to allow them to feed with their beaks facing forward, but with a clear view to the sides so they can stay alert to predators.
And cardinal feeders need to be cat and squirrel proof.
Cardinals can’t twist their bodies around well enough to use any but the largest tube feeders.
They need hoppers, trays, or platform feeders. Hoppers are rectangular feeders that have a slot in the bottom where cardinals can peck out the seed with their beaks.
You won’t attract cardinals with suet feeders, although they may enjoy an occasional treat from a fruit feeder.
The most effective feeders for cardinals will have a spring-loaded perch.
You can add a squirrel baffle to prevent squirrels from landing on the feeder form above or climbing up the mounting pole from below.
Give Cardinals Treats they Can’t Find in Nature
Nothing is more attractive to migrating cardinals than a sunflower patch you have allowed to go to seed.
Dead sunflowers aren’t particularly attractive in your landscape, however, do the next best thing and put unhulled sunflower seed in your bird feeder.
What’s even more attractive to cardinals than a feeder filled with sunflower seed?
If you live in a cold-weather climate, cardinals will love a heated bird bath.
Heated bird baths ensure that cardinals and migratory songbirds come back year after year. Even better, a heated birdbath with moving water will stop the growth of algae.
Because they are larger birds, cardinals need a deeper bird-bath, at least 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) deep. Drippers and misters catch their attention and increase the likelihood they will visit your birdbath.
Heated bird baths will attract cardinals to your yard all year-round.
Here are some things to remember about the food you put out for cardinals.
- The familiar red-coated Northern Cardinal needs larger seeds, like sunflower seeds or safflower seeds. Thistle seed and millet are too small for them to grasp with their beaks. It’s OK to buy a mixture of sunflower seeds and millet if you are also trying to attract chickadees, finches, or titmice.
- Cardinals also appreciate evergreens. They eat caterpillars that grow on spruce and pine in the spring.
- Consider setting aside some berry bushes for cardinals. You can use bird netting to protect the berry bushes you want to save for your human family’s consumption.
Choose the Placement of your Feeder Carefully
Cardinals are vulnerable to their predators while they are feeding, especially when they find an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Bird feeders for cardinals need to be out in the open, so they can find them, but near cover, so they can avoid being eaten while they are eating.
It’s also important to place feeders for cardinals at least 10 feet (3 meters) from any perch that can be used by squirrels to leap to the feeder, possibly knocking it down, and certainly raiding the birdseed.
Squirrel baffles don’t stop squirrels from leaping to your feeder.
Provide Appropriate Nesting Materials
Cardinals build new nests every year.
They won’t build nests in birdhouses.
They will use nesting shelves. Whatever locations cardinals choose for nesting, however, they will need new nesting materials.
Cardinals will use a number of nesting materials you can provide, such as:
- Small segments of string and yarn. You need to keep dogs and cats out of the area where you host cardinals, but you also need to be sure that your dogs and cats don’t swallow any string or yard you put out for birds. And if they swallow string or yarn that hangs out of one end of the digestive tract or the other, don’t pull on it. Let a veterinarian remove it.
- The hair you sweep up after haircuts and pet grooming. Hair makes great insulation for bird nests.
The easiest way to keep nesting materials from blowing away is by hanging them in a used suet bag.
Keep the Feeder Full
Many species of cardinals are actually migratory birds, flying north in the spring and flying south in the fall.
The most familiar species of cardinal, the Northern Cardinal, stays in more or less the same location all year, changing its feeding habits with the seasons, and nesting its eggs when the weather is reliably warm.
Providing a reliable source of food can attract a radiance or Vatican (large group) of cardinals to your property.
If you are attracting large numbers of cardinals, then choosing the right place to put your feeder is even more important.
Make Sure the feeder is Clean All the Time
Keeping the bird feeder clean will reduce bacterial and fungal infections in your birds.
It’s especially important to remove pigeon droppings.
Leave Some Cardinal Food on the Ground
If your cardinals have some close encounters with hawks or other predator birds, they will be less likely to visit your bird feeder.
Scattering some cardinal-appropriate bird food (sunflower seeds, safflower seeds) a foot or two (up to a little less than a meter) away from the thicket or bushes they use for cover keeps them comfortable with staying in your yard.
A tray or mesh net hanging beneath your feeder gives cardinals a little more protection from overhead predator birds, making the cardinals harder to see.
This could provide that fraction of a second of additional protection that allows them to escape to more effective cover.
Provide Layers of Cover
Cardinals are more likely to nest on your property if you provide them with multiple layers of cover.
They need large trees. They need small trees.
They need shrubs and bushes.
Even the perennials in your flower beds (which they won’t eat) can give them protection from the other animals that threaten them.
Drain Soggy Areas that may Breed Mosquitoes
Cardinals feed on flying insects, especially stinging insects, such as bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets.
You would think that they would thrive in the marshy areas that provide a home for mosquitoes, but mosquitoes are flying insects that can prey on cardinals.
Wildlife surveys have found that up to 64% of cardinals that live in marshy areas are infected with parasites they get from mosquito bites.
Don’t spray for mosquitoes, since you don’t want to deprive cardinals of the other insects on which they feed, but don’t let mosquitoes breed in large numbers if you want to attract cardinals.
Remove any Reflective Surfaces
Northern cardinals are extremely territorial.
They will fight any other cardinals they think are intruding on their nesting sites, including the “cardinals” they see on any reflective surface.
Cardinals will spend hours pecking at their reflections in windows, car bumpers, or car mirrors.
These unnecessary fights are usually not fatal, but they can damage the bird’s beak and leave nestlings defenseless for hours at a time.
Make sure the Cardinal Habitat is Not Accessible to Predators
Cardinals will prefer a cover that is behind a fence to protect them from raccoons and coyotes.
They will also need to be protected from cats, dogs, iguanas, and pet snakes.
There is no reason you can’t enjoy songbirds and pets. You just can’t enjoy them in the same space.
Leave a Little Bit of Woodland on your Property
Ornithologists have found that cardinals are “edge” dwellers.
They need dense forest for cover, but they need open spaces for hunting the flying insects that make up most of their diet.
You can invite cardinals to your backyard garden by leaving a hedge, or a stand of trees, or a small patch of the thicket for them to use for nesting.
The cover you provide for cardinals will also be inviting to painted buntings.
Just be sure their habitat is protected from squirrels, snakes, and cats, which may feed on their eggs and young.
Species-Specific Information for Attracting Cardinals
Most cardinals, you may be surprised to learn, don’t have red feathers. There are cardinals with yellow, green, and blue plumage.
All cardinals, however, are songbirds, and all of them will repay your hospitality by dining on bugs.
Here are some suggestions for the species of cardinals you are most likely to encounter in North America.
Crimson-Collared Grosbeak (Rhodothraupis celaeno)
You aren’t likely to see this seed- and leaf-eating cardinal with black feathers on its back and a red vest unless you live in northern Mexico or South Texas.
But you can make your yard more inviting to all the crimson-collared grosbeaks if you allow at least a small patch of grass to grow high.
The grosbeaks use the grass for cover in which to build their nests.
Of course, you don’t want an unsightly patch of weeds for grosbeak habitat.
But if you live in any of the hot-summer areas where this cardinal is common, you can protect a little patch of densely planted red sorghum (maize) for both garden color and an inviting rest stop for cardinals.
Dickcissel (Spiza americana)
Dickcissels are cardinals that fly north to the American Midwest to share the grain harvest, lay eggs, and raise their hatchlings before they return home to Central America, northern Colombia, and northern Venezuela.
Many farmers consider them to be a nuisance, but their interesting colors and entertaining birdsongs are a good reason to give them shelter in your personal bird sanctuary.
Dickcissels need undisturbed territory to build their nests and raise their young.
During this part of the year, you will only have a few dickcissels in any one location. But if you put out seed at the end of nesting season, you will have dozens or even hundreds of these birds to feast at your feeder.
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
This familiar species of cardinal with the red-feathered males and gray females is a welcome sight from southeastern Canada west to Minnesota and south as far as Florida and Texas.
It has been introduced to California, Arizona, Hawaii, and the Pacific coast of Mexico.
The male of this species is extremely territorial, warning intruders to stay away from its mate and nestlings with song.
Nesting adults feed their babies almost exclusively on insects and snails, so it’s important not to use insecticides where you want to have cardinals.
In the winter, northern cardinals mostly eat seeds.
They prefer easily husked seeds, such as sunflower seeds, oats, and corn. During nesting season, northern cardinals need protection from the snakes, blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, and cats that will raid their nests for eggs and baby birds.
Pyrrhuloxia, also known as Desert Cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus)
This cardinal of northern Mexico and the southwestern USA (mostly South and West Texas, the southern third of New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona) has males with gray feathers and just a splash of red around their necks and females with light blue plumage on their backs and gray feathers on their breasts.
Desert cardinals swoop down to snatch seeds off plants.
They also dive to catch insects on plants, and feast on tunas, the kind that grows on cacti, not the kind that swims in the ocean.
They will also visit bird feeders in the winter.
Just beware of the numbers. Desert cardinals sometimes gather in hundreds or even thousands around a large seed source.
Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)
This brilliantly colored cardinal of deep, dense woods in New England, the Appalachians, southern Ontario the Maritimes, and occasionally south to the Gulf and Caribbean coasts has males with bright red feathers and females with leaf-green feathers.
They prefer to eat flying insects, such as bees, wasps, hornets, sawflies, and dragonflies.
They will remove a stinger by smashing the bug against a tree before eating it. They will also eat termites, grasshoppers, snails, earthworms, and spiders.
When insects are not available, scarlet tanagers chow down on blackberries, mulberries, juneberries, huckleberries, serviceberries, chokeberries, and strawberries.
The most important thing you can do to welcome scarlet tanagers into your surroundings is to make sure they have undisturbed nesting space.
If they lose a clutch of eggs or something gets their hatchlings, they aren’t able to try again until the next year.
Eggs are light blue, sometimes with green specks. If you see a scarlet tanager nest, don’t disturb the eggs. Protect the nest from snakes and cats.
Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
This cardinal migrates north to the southern United States to lay its eggs and raise its young, and then migrates south to Central America and northern South America to spend the winter.
If you want to make it very happy at your bird feeder, add some fruits and nuts from South America, such as dried papaya, dried mango, and shelled cashews.
It also likes to catch wasps and bees, which you can attract with sugar water.
Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)
Western tanagers are distributed over British Columbia and the Western United States, especially the Great Basin and Pacific Northwest. Sometimes they spend summers as far north as Alaska and spend winters as far south as Costa Rica.
Males of this species have distinctive orange, yellow, and gray plumage. Females have camouflage-olive green feathers on their backs and yellow heads.
The most important thing you can do to provide warm-weather habitat for this cardinal is to give them a protected stand of evergreens where they can build their nests. Western tanagers build flimsy cup nests that are easily disturbed.
Western tanagers get about 75% of their diet by hawking, catching stinging insects in mid-air. Leaving them a supply of bees and wasps is important.
They also eat caterpillars and beetle grubs as well as dried fruit and birdseed.
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