Northern cardinals are a favorite of wild bird watchers from the East Coast to the Great Plains, and many people who put out birdseed wonder how they can attract more of these beautiful red birds to their backyards.
It starts with picking the right birdseed. Not every generic birdseed works for every bird, so putting out foods that cardinals are known to eat will help boost your chances of cardinals making a year-round home in your backyard.
Cardinals aren’t known to be extremely picky eaters, but that doesn’t mean some seeds aren’t better than others, especially if you’re in a busy area like a suburb where birds may have plentiful options to choose from. Many birdseed companies make cardinal-specific mixes, but if you know what kind of seeds cardinals like, you’ll know what to look for even if those mixes are unavailable.
What Seeds Should I Use?
Cardinals’ large red beaks are designed to crack through tough outer seed shells like sunflower and safflower. These are two very common natural ingredients in any cardinal mix, so if you’re making your own mix, these are a good place to start.
There are two main types of sunflower seeds in birdseed: black oil sunflower seeds and striped sunflower seeds.
Black oil sunflower seeds are smaller and more common in birdseed than the kind of sunflower seeds humans eat. Their shell is all black and is generally pretty easy for all kinds of birds to crack open.
Striped sunflower seeds are larger, and their hard shells are difficult to crack for less desirable backyard birds such as starlings, blackbirds, and house sparrows. However, large-beaked birds like cardinals and grosbeaks won’t have any problems cracking open their tough outer shells.
If you want to feed all types of birds, cardinals included, black oil sunflower seeds are the way to go, but if you’re seeing your feeders overrun with starlings and sparrows, you may want to consider making a switch. Cardinals won’t have a strong preference between the two.
While sunflower seeds are popular with a wide variety of birds, they can be messy. Birds aren’t known to clean up after themselves, so when they’re eating sunflower seeds, they leave piles of sunflower seeds on the ground, which some homeowners don’t like.
One solution to this problem, although typically more expensive, is to buy sunflower kernels with the shells already removed. In addition to being more expensive, birds can tear through them quickly, so you may fill your feeders more often. But if you want to put out sunflower seeds while avoiding messes, it’s an option.
It’s never a good choice to use sunflower seeds intended for humans. These seeds include unnecessary ingredients and unnatural levels of salt, which isn’t good for birds. Make sure to buy bird-specific sunflower seeds to keep the birds in your backyard healthy.
Another popular seed in cardinal mixes is safflower seeds. These white seeds are similar to sunflower seeds, and you’ll find that the birds in your backyard, cardinals included, will also come to enjoy safflower seeds.
According to some observers, one potential benefit to safflower seeds is that squirrels are said not to enjoy the bitter taste of the fresh seeds. While you likely won’t be able to keep squirrels from trying to make their way up your feeders, some people believe that safflower is one seed that scavenging squirrels won’t quickly gobble up. Others aren’t so sure that’s true anymore.
In a 2013 interview, Backyard Naturalist owner Debi Klein estimated to the Washington Post that at one point, just 5 percent of squirrels she saw ate safflower, but that number had risen to 50 percent, meaning squirrels were warming to the bitter taste.
Still, it might be worth a shot if your bird feeders are overrun by squirrels. After all, 50 percent is better than 100 percent.
Most cardinal seed packages will include a mixture of safflower and sunflower seeds. Some mixes will also include cheap filler ingredients like milo and white millet, but they ultimately don’t do much to attract birds to your backyard. While some birds will eat them, skip these ingredients if you’re mixing your own birdseed.
Some companies, including Kaytee, also use artificial cherry flavoring in their pre-packaged cardinal mixes, which brings me to my next point.
What Do Cardinals Eat Besides Seeds?
In addition to sunflower and safflower seeds, cardinals also enjoy eating fruit, nuts, and insects.
Wild berries are often a cardinal favorite, so planting wild berry bushes in your backyard is one way to please cardinals, although you may have to wait a couple of years to see results as the plants grow. Cardinals have also been known to eat fruits like cherries, grapes, and apples. Some cardinal bird seed mixes will also include raisins.
Feeding fruit to birds can get expensive, however. If you’re racking up a hefty grocery bill buying berries for the birds, consider planting bushes or putting out fruit on a regimented schedule.
For example, if you put out a certain amount of berries each morning before you have your morning coffee, birds like cardinals may start to develop a routine, knowing there’s likely to be fruit available in your yard at a certain time. They won’t forget about you overnight when there’s no fruit out.
It’s always a wise suggestion to clean your bird feeders often to reduce the spread of diseases, but it’s imperative when feeding birds fruit. Fruits can be sticky, and uncleaned fruit juices can be a source of mold and bacteria.
Wash feeders with soap and water or put them in your dishwasher. You can also use a ten-percent bleach solution afterward, but be sure to rinse off all bleach and give your feeders time to dry before putting them back out.
Unlike blue jays, which will swarm a feeder of in-shell peanuts, cardinals prefer peanuts already out of their shells.
One note on peanuts: make sure to buy roasted peanuts intended for birds, as raw peanuts can be toxic when contaminated with a chemical called aflatoxin. To be on the safe side, stick to roasted peanuts.
Like sunflower seeds, peanuts packaged for humans are often far too salty for birds. You can buy bird-specific peanuts that will be much healthier for cardinals and the rest of your backyard wildlife.
Cardinals don’t migrate, even in northern stretches of their range like Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York. If you live in areas where the ground and trees are covered with winter snow, the stark contrast of a red cardinal against the pearly white snow is a beautiful sight.
As other favorite food sources dwindle, Cardinals and other birds are likely even more desperate for food in the winter. Suet, or fat from beef, lamb, or mutton, is a high-energy food for cardinals and other birds like woodpeckers.
You could make your own suet, but save yourself the hassle and buy suet cakes from a store. They’re usually mixed with seeds and provide birds with a lot of energy through the harsh, cold months.
Homemade suet isn’t recommended during hot summer months. Processed suet isn’t likely to melt unless the temperature is consistently in the 90s. But, some suet products can go bad quickly in the hot summer sun. If you see your suet products melting during the summer, take them down and wait for winter when the temperatures drop.
Although we’re not suggesting going out and purchasing bugs in mass quantities to feed birds, creating a backyard full of diversity and life is a surefire way to increase the number of birds in your backyard.
It may not seem desirable to have more bugs in the backyard. After all, many people treat their yards to remove bugs. However, creating a sharply cut lawn devoid of native plants and bugs isn’t always the best option.
Aside from annoying bugs like mosquitos, there are tons of other species that won’t bother you. You likely don’t even notice most of the bugs living in your garden or trees.
Avoid Chemicals Like Pesticides
In general, avoid chemicals like pesticides and herbicides in your backyard. Cardinals and other birds feed on insects, dead and alive, and these chemicals can be deadly to birds.
The EPA once estimated that 67 million birds are killed yearly by pesticides worldwide, so do your part to support your local birds’ health.
Mealworms are perhaps best known for attracting bluebirds, but cardinals are among the other birds that eat mealworms. You can buy live mealworms, but dried mealworms are readily available and relatively inexpensive. You can put mealworms in a separate bird feeding station or mix them with your usual birdseed mix.
What Kind of Feeder?
The best type of bird feeder for cardinals is a standard platform or tray feeder that they can perch on while they crack open sunflower and safflower seeds.
Make sure your cardinal bird feeder is large and stable enough to handle the weight of several birds. Cardinals can be fairly large compared to other backyard birds, so you’ll need a feeder to support their weight and then some, as they likely won’t be the only birds coming to feed.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the best cardinal feeders.
What Else Can I Do to Attract Cardinals?
While food is great and necessary for survival, this beautiful bird species also need water and a place to live when they’re not eating.
You’ll need to have trees and bushes available in your yard to give yourself a chance of a cardinal nesting in your backyard. If you cannot add trees to your yard, don’t panic. While cardinals may end up nesting in someone else’s yard, they will fly around in search of a reliable food source and can still make their way to your feeders.
That said, creating a space full of shade and cover will go a long way to making your land a good setting for birds. Cardinals often nest in shrubs and the forks of tree branches and bird lovers often enjoy the sight of a cardinal taking cover in evergreen branches throughout the winter months.
Having a water source that won’t freeze during the winter is also a good step. Cardinals are known to visit bird baths, and heated bird baths are available if you want to keep yours from freezing.
I’m Doing Everything Right. Why Am I Not Seeing Cardinals?
There’s no foolproof way to attract these beautiful birds to your backyard. Despite your best efforts, there may not be cardinals in your area, or they could be nesting comfortably elsewhere. If you are doing everything right, but cardinals still aren’t showing up at your feeders, don’t give up.
As new birds are born, and conditions change in other areas, birds may take up residence in new locations. It may not happen overnight, but birds will eventually find your yard if you provide suitable habitat, abundant food, and available water sources.