Attract Cardinals to Your Yard With These 15 Proven Tips – Guaranteed!

Author: Tammy Poppie
Male northern cardinal sitting on a branch

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Attract Cardinals to Your Yard With These 15 Proven Tips – Guaranteed!

Author: Tammy Poppie
Male northern cardinal sitting on a branch

This post contains affiliate links, and we will be compensated if you buy after clicking on our links.

Attract cardinals to your yard easily with my 15 guaranteed tips. Each tip is simple to apply and will create a backyard that is so attractive to northern cardinals, they CANNOT resist it.

Good news! 

If you live in the eastern half of the U.S. (which is where cardinals are found) your chances of having them visit are excellent!

I live in Wisconsin and have had northern cardinals in my yard on a regular basis. They are very common and easy to entice. 

Still, it never hurts to apply some insider tips to guarantee their arrival.

15 Proven Ways to Attract Cardinals to Your Yard:

  1. Provide feeder food cardinals love
  2. Have water available
  3. Offer mealworms
  4. Go organic
  5. Install plants with varying heights & density
  6. Have shelter available 
  7. Plant native
  8. Provide nesting materials
  9. Keep kitty Inside
  10. Use a cardinal-friendly feeder 
  11. Leave the babies alone
  12. Offer high-fat foods in winter
  13. Safe feeder placement
  14. Put up window decals
  15. Maintain your feeders & birdbaths

1. Provide Feeder Food Cardinals Love

attract cardinals with black oil sunflower seed
Black-oil sunflower seeds.

Attract cardinals with their favorite feeder foods. Of all the bird food people offer at the bird feeder, time and time again, the same few types keep emerging as the most popular for attracting cardinals. Here they are:

  • black-oil sunflower Seeds
  • safflower seeds
  • sunflower seeds (striped)
  • nuts (especially shelled peanuts)
  • suet

2. Have Water Available

Cardinal in birdbath
Cardinals need water year-round.

You can attract cardinals by providing a water source. All wild birds need water to drink and bathe in and northern cardinals are no different. 

If a natural source of water is not available nearby consider installing a pond – even a small patio pond will attract all wild birds. 

A birdbath is another popular option.  

Birds are drawn to moving water so adding a fountain to the birdbath could increase your chances of attracting one. Cardinals are not small birds, but if you have some smaller birds visiting add layers of flat rocks to offer alternate depths of water.

In the winter install a heated birdbath or add a deicer to an existing birdbath.

Be sure to refresh the water every few days. In the heat of the summer, refresh the water more often.

3. Offer Mealworms

YouTube video

Attract cardinals with mealworms. They’re actually the larvae of the mealworm beetle and since cardinals’ key source of food is insects – this food is ideal and easy to offer.

Live mealworms are commonly available at your local nature store and dehydrated varieties are available online as well as at the local nature store.

Dehydrated mealworms last longer, require no maintenance, and are cheaper but sometimes take birds longer to realize they are actually food, delaying their visit to your yard.

Pro tip: Offer 1/2 dozen live, wiggly mealworms at first to catch the cardinal’s eye more easily. Then, slowly transition to a mix of live and dehydrated mealworms until you are offering exclusively dehydrated.

Mealworms can be placed in a dish for the birds – just make sure the dish has sides when offering live ones otherwise they’ll climb out and escape!

4. Go Organic

While cardinals are primarily seed eaters, in spring they switch to hunting insects. Adult cardinals eat insects and insects are exclusively what they feed their young. 

Here are a few of their favorite insects:

  • Beetles
  • Mealworms
  • Crickets
  • Katydids
  • Caterpillars

You’ll attract cardinals by going organic and avoiding the use of chemicals in your yard and garden.  Grass fertilizer and pesticides kill the insects. If you kill off the insects, there won’t be any to eat.

Equally horrible would be death by poisoning in the case of a wild bird eating a toxic insect!

5. Install plants with a variety of heights & density

In the early spring, unpaired cardinals sing from the treetops for a mate. 

YouTube video

Plant tall trees, or trees that will eventually reach tall heights, so cardinals in your area have a place to sing.

Later they need dense shrubs, bushes, and trees for nesting. The initial brood is placed relatively low, such as a few feet high in a thick viburnum shrub, but as the season progresses, higher locations are selected. Cedar and pine trees are ideal heights for late season nesting.

A variety of tree heights and densities encourage cardinals to mate and nest in your yard. 

6. Have shelter available 

Northern cardinals are vulnerable to predators such as domestic cats, Cooper’s hawks, shrikes, squirrels, and owls (just to name a few). 

The video below is a great example of a cardinal seeking shelter in a native plant. It’s a holly bush! While not the most amazing videography, I think it illustrates how thick, dense vegetation can provide much needed shelter.

YouTube video

Spruce up your landscaping with a large grouping of trees, known as treelines. This concentrated vegetation provides cardinals with excellent protection from predators. 

The thicker and denser the better – especially for male cardinals. Their bright red plumage makes them especially susceptible to predation.

7. Plant Native

chokecherry shrub native plant for cardinals and other wild birds
Chokecherry shrub (Prunus spp). Image by Jan Haerer from Pixabay

During the fall, winter, and early spring when insects are scarce, cardinals rely on native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to provide sustenance. 

In the spring and summer, native plants attract a banquet of insects for cardinals to dine on. 

Why native?

Unlike trees and other foliage shipped in from far away lands, native plants attract a better quality of insects – the kind birds actually want to eat.

The National Wildlife Association brought to light a study that observed California chickadees as they searched for insects to feed their young. The birds went out of their way past several gingko (non-native) and crepe myrtle (non-native) trees to get to a native willow oak tree. 

Biologists involved in the study explained the birds go hundreds of yards past the non-native trees because they know native trees like willow oaks produce more insect prey. 

While the study focused on chickadees, the lesson learned can be applied to cardinals and wild birds everywhere. Native plants are the best!

Another reason native plants are ideal is because they’re easier to grow. Unlike the non-natives that require toxic fertilizers and pesticides, native plants don’t require special treatment to thrive and produce fruits & berries. 

Here are a few excellent native plants that cardinals will flock to. They provide shelter, nesting sites, berries, and/or attract insects.

Common NameScientific NameHow it Attracts CardinalsPlant Type
alleghany serviceberryAmelanchier laevisShelter, Nest Location, Berries, InsectsShrub
red-osier dogwoodCornus sericeaBerries, Insects, ShelterShrub
ChokecherryPrunus sppFruit, Insects, ShelterTree
northern white cedar (arborvitae)Thuja occidentalisSeeds, Shelter, Nest LocationTree (conifer)
nannyberry viburnumViburnum lentagoBerries, Shelter, Nest LocationShrub
Native Plants to Attract Cardinals

8. Provide Nesting Materials

Dog fur in a suet cage hung from a tree
Dog fur offers ideal nesting material for wild birds. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

You can also attract cardinals by offering nesting materials. While they generally build their nests with natural plant materials they will also use animal fur to line the nest.

Pet fur is ideal, as well as short pieces of string or yarn remnants. I put my pup’s fur in an empty suet cage and hung it near shrubs where they’ll build their nest.

Caution: Never provide human hair as birds can get tangled in it.

9. Keep Kitty Inside

domestic cat hunting wild birds in tall grass
Sure, kitty looks sweet until you let him outside and his animal instincts kick in! Image by Sue Rickhuss from Pixabay

As mentioned earlier, domestic cats are predators of cardinals. In fact, all wild birds can fall prey to Fluffy. This includes feral cats that can roam a neighborhood.

According to a study published in Nature Communications, each year almost 4 billion wild birds lose their lives to outdoor cats. Not only does this rock the ecology it makes your yard unappealing and dangerous for many forms of wildlife.

If it’s your cat, keep it inside. Don’t be fooled. Even the nicest and sweetest of kitties have the natural instinct to hunt birds. It’s not their fault.

If it’s a feral cat implement a non-toxic deterrent method such as scattered fresh orange or lemon peels in the area.

If you’re really gung ho, consider trapping the feral feline and taking it to a human society that offers free neutering/spaying. This may prevent the next person from having to deal with a feral cat at their feeder.

10. Use a Cardinal-Friendly Bird Feeder

female cardinal perched on platform bird feeder
Female cardinal perched on a cardinal-friendly Woodlawn platform feeder. Photo taken by Tammy Poppie.

You can attract cardinals with the right food, but in order to keep them coming back, you need a cardinal-friendly feeder. Cardinals prefer bird feeders with large perches

The best cardinal-friendly feeder I’ve found is the Woodlink platform feeder (affiliate). The wide-open spaciousness of this model allows cardinals to feed comfortably while perched on the edge. It’s made from recycled plastic which makes it a breeze to clean!

Plus, the Woodlink bird feeder supports any type of feed so you can offer a variety of bird food to entice them.

Did I mention cardinals are natural ground foragers? This is great because they’re happy to clean up seeds kicked off the feeder by other birds. 

11. Leave the babies alone

baby cardinal
Cardinal fledgling. Photo by Sherry McCarver Photography.

In the summer and early fall you may be lucky enough to see baby cardinals around your yard.

If you see any babies in the grass or out of the nest PLEASE resist the urge to scoop them up and rescue them! You could do more harm than good.


In most cases, you’re seeing a fledgling (just fledged the nest) or juvenile (fledged days or weeks ago) cardinal which is doing exactly what is natural for them. They’re exploring their new world and learning to fly. They do not need saving.

If you’re unsure what the different stages of baby cardinals look like check out the photos below and the one of the fledgling above. Study the photos and know the difference.

Juvenile Cardinal

Male juvenile cardinal
Juvenile. If you see this guy outside the nest, relax. This guy does not need rescuing.

Nestling Cardinal

Nestling baby bird
If you see a nestling out of the nest, contact a bird rescuer ASAP.

Hatchling Cardinal

3 cardinal eggs and hatchling in a nest
If you see one of these tiny birds out of the nest, contact a bird rescuer ASAP.

You can also learn more about baby birds here: How to Help a Baby Bird  

12. Offer High Fat Foods in Winter

Male and female cardinals. Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash

Cardinals and other backyard birds don’t really need our help to find food. We offer it because we love to see them up close. It’s true!

With that said, when the cold winter winds blow hard and chilly you can help cardinals survive the frigid season by offering high fat foods. They’ll spend a ton of energy shivering to stay warm (yes, that’s a thing) so need extra energy in the form of high fat foods to keep going.

The best high fat foods cardinals will eat include:

  • Black-oil sunflower seed
  • Peanuts (shelled)
  • Suet

13. Safe feeder placement

For the safety of wild birds everywhere, please place the feeder less than 3’ from the window or more than 30’ away to avoid window crashes.

When less than 3′ from the window, the bird will not have built enough momentum to crash hard into the window causing serious injury. Beyond 30′ the bird has a greater chance of heading in the direction where there is no window.

14. Put up window decals

Female cardinal attacking a car window
Female cardinal sees her reflection in a window and goes on the offensive. Photo by Bobby Glenn Lanier.

Cardinals smashing into windows is a big deal – especially in spring and summer when they are mating.

You can help mitigate this problem by placing feeders within 3’ from the window (as we mentioned earlier) as well as adhering decals to your window.

The cardinals will see the decal instead of their reflection and fly away from the window instead of right into it.

15. Maintain your Feeders & Bird baths

Backyard birding is simple and rewarding. However, it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it hobby. 

If left unattended, bird baths can grow bacteria or algae which will make cardinals sick. 

Bird feeders tend to accumulate chunks of rotten bird seed if not dumped out periodically. This is a natural result of precipitation making its way to the bird seed. It happens. But you must clean the feeder.

Good news! It’s easy to maintain bird feeders and birdbaths.  Mark your calendar to take these steps every 2 weeks:

  1. Scrub the debris off feeders and birdbaths.
  2. Wash with hot water and dish soap. Rinse.
  3. Soak for 10 minutes in a 1:9 bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly. That’s 1 part bleach + 1 part water.

That’s it! Easy peasy.

Next Steps

Enticing northern cardinals to your backyard might happen naturally. But why risk it! Take and apply a a handful of my tips to transform your yard into a cardinal’s dream.

Or, if you’re really serious about attracting them to your yard – apply all 15 of them!

Also, as backyard birders we have a responsibility to clean our feeders and birdbaths. Getting wild birds sick on our watch is unacceptable! Keeping the feeders and baths clean is easy and the right thing to do.

Good luck and happy birding!

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers. Read more about Tammy

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