7 Proven Ways to Attract Northern Cardinals to Your Yard – Guaranteed!

You know you’ve “made it” in the backyard birding world when you’ve had a northern cardinal in your yard, or better yet at your feeder. Good news – if you live in the range of this bird the chances of making this happen are excellent!

I live in Wisconsin and have had them in my yard on a regular basis. They are very common and easy to entice. Still, to increase your chances even more I have 7 tips to share with you that will guarantee northern cardinals visit your yard. In fact, these are the only tips you need to attract cardinals.

Before I get into the detail I’d first like to share where they live, what they look like, their habitat, sounds, diet, mating, and nesting habits.

If you’re in a hurry feel free to skip ahead to the details.

7 Proven Ways to Attract Northern Cardinals to Your Yard:

  1. Provide Feeder Food Cardinals Love
  2. Have Water Available
  3. Offer Mealworms
  4. Go Organic
  5. Plant Native
  6. Provide Nesting Materials
  7. Keep Kitty Inside

Where Northern Cardinals Live

Northern cardinals live primarily in the US east of the Great Plains and parts of Mexico. They are year-round birds meaning they do not migrate. They spend all of their time, including breeding, in the same general area.

Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

Appearance

Male northern cardinal sitting on a branch
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Kathleen Balsamo.

Northern cardinals are large for a songbird sizing in at about 8 3/4″ in length.

The male is probably THE most recognized and easily identified bird in North America. They are all red with a generous tall crest, a black face, light brushes of black in the wings, and triangle-shaped beaks.

Have burning questions about the red color the male cardinal sports? I answer them all in my article Bright Red Cardinals: Is Red Their Super Power?.

The female northern cardinal is my absolute favorite bird. She has buff tan coloring throughout her body, sports a tall light orange crest with streaks of tan, has subtle highlights of red patched throughout her wings & tail, and a smidge of charcoal around her bright orange beak.

Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.

So while the male is uber-popular and gets much of the attention with his amazing red, vibrate color – the female has her own unique, color combination goin’ on!

Here are some additional photos depicting the northern cardinal at various stages of its life:

Female juvenile northern cardinal perched on a fence
Female juvenile northern cardinal. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash
Female northern cardinal after molting
Female northern cardinal after molting – feathers are slowly growing back. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

The northern cardinal below has a condition called leucism. More specifically, it has partial leucism.

Leucistic pied northern cardinal on a feeder
Leucistic pied northern cardinal. Photo by Bethany Knox.

According to the National Audubon Society, leucism is where the bird is unable to deposit the melanin (color) into its feathers.

Birds with partial leucism are often referred to as “pied” which means “of two or more colors in blotches”. If you ask me, I think this bird’s look is really cool! What an amazing photo capture by Bethany Knox.

Pyrrhuloxia – Distant Cousin to the Northern Cardinal – The pyrrhuloxia is a distant relative to the northern cardinal. In fact, they’re in the same family – Cardinalidae.

Male pyrrhuloxia sitting on the edge of a feeder
Male pyrrhuloxia – a distant cousin to the northern cardinal. Photo by Tina Glidden.

I wanted to mention the pyrrhuloxia because the resemblance is uncanny. If you live in an area where the two birds’ ranges overlap you may even see them both live and in person! They overlap in the southernmost parts of Arizona and New Mexico, the southwestern part of Texas, and northern Mexico.

Having trouble identifying the cardinal compared to other red birds in your yard? I wrote this article for you: 9 Birds That Look Like Cardinals.

Habitat

Male northern cardinal
Male northern cardinal. Photo by Tammy Poppie.

Northern cardinals in the midwest and eastern parts of the US enjoy a variety of habitats from the edges of wooded areas to thickets, tangled vines, city parks, and our backyard gardens.

Those in the southwest live around desert washes, areas thick with mesquite, and along the riverbanks of wooded areas.

Diet & Eating Behavior

In the spring and summer cardinals eat insects, spiders, centipedes, snails, and slugs. Fruit and seeds from plants such as grape, dogwood, hackberry, mulberry, sumac, corn, oats, blackberry, and a variety of grasses become their mainstay late summer, fall, and into winter. They are also fans of the feeder and seem to prefer foraging for them on the ground.

Sounds

Very few female songbirds actually “sing” but the female northern cardinal does.

Northern cardinal song. Audio compliments of Macaulay Library.
Northern cardinal call. Audio compliments of Macaulay Library.

Mating, Nest, Eggs, and Fledglings

Breeding for northern cardinals starts earlier than most birds – usually March but sometimes as early as February. The handsome red devils (males) will sing to attract a mate.

The female cardinal will seek out an appropriate nesting site – usually a dense shrub or tree about 3-10′ up.

She’ll spend between 3-9 days building her 4″ x 3″ open-cup nest made of twigs, grasses, pine needles, and bark chunks. Much of the material was brought to her from her mate.

Northern cardinals will have about 2-3 broods each year consisting of about 1-5 eggs each. Eggs are beige with brown spots.

Incubation is done by the female for 12-13 days and fledglings leave the nest after about 9-11 days.

Northern cardinal babies in a nest in shrub
Northern cardinal babies. Photo by Leanne Kennedy.

The male often cares for the recently fledged while the female begins to nest again. Time is of the essence when you’re having 3 broods a year!

According to The Cornell Lab, northern cardinals have a very low nesting rate – “Typically, fewer than 40 percent of nests fledge at least one young”.

How can that be? When you look around and see an abundance of this bird, how can there be such a low nesting rate?

The Cornell Lab has some theories. It may be because northern cardinals don’t migrate and therefore have a longer breeding season (February until about September) which provides more opportunities to produce young.

The Cornell Lab goes on to say another factor may be the northern cardinal finds many areas suitable for nesting.

Can’t get enough of baby cardinals? Check out my article All About Baby Cardinals from A-Z.

Predators

Adult northern cardinals can fall prey to hawks, shrikes, squirrels, owls, and domestic cats & dogs.

Nestlings and eggs are vulnerable to snakes, other birds (e.g. blue jays, brown-headed cowbirds will eat the eggs), and small mammals (squirrels, chipmunks).

Seven Ways to Attract Northern Cardinals to Your Yard

1. Provide Feeder Food Cardinals Love

Of all the bird food people offer at the feeder, time and time again the same few types keep emerging as the most popular for attracting cardinals. In order of having the greatest success they include: 

  • Black-Oil Sunflower Seed
  • Safflower Seed
  • Hulled peanuts
  • Cracked corn
  • Seed mixes

You can attract cardinals with the right food but in order to keep them coming back, you should have a cardinal-friendly feeder. Cardinals prefer feeders with large perches. You can read all about it here: The 3 Best Feeders for Cardinals.

Also please adhere to these bird feeder best practices:

  • To avoid window crashes, place the feeder less than 3’ from the window or more than 10’ away.
  • If squirrels are prevalent in your area, install a baffle AND keep the feeder at least 8’ away from launching pads such as trees, shrubs, swing sets, walls, etc.
  • Clean the feeder regularly to prevent and spread disease amongst your bird friends. 

Don’t worry about cleaning up seeds that have fallen from the feeder. Cardinals like to forage on the ground for them.

Male northern cardinal foraging for seeds
Male cardinal foraging for safflower seed under the bird feeder. Photo by Tammy Poppie

2. Have Water Available

Female northern cardinal
Female northern cardinal. Photo by Pert Roddy Garraway.

All birds need water to drink and bathe in. 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 viable 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 simple heater or mechanism that keeps the water moving. 

Also please adhere to these birdbath best practices:

  • Change the water every few days or even daily if you have many birds using it.
  • Clean the birdbath every few weeks to ensure your feathered friends remain healthy.

3. Offer Mealworms

Dish of mealworms
Mealworms.

Mealworms are 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 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

Avoid using chemicals in and around your yards such as grass fertilizer and pesticides. Cardinals, and other wild birds, consume insects as a key food source. 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. Plant Native

holly bush
Holly – a native plant for wild birds.

During the fall, winter, and early spring when insects are scarce, cardinals rely on fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to provide sustenance. Trees and shrubs that are dense also provide excellent nesting sites.

Native plants are particularly ideal because they don’t require special treatment to thrive and produce fruits & berries. Non-native plants often require toxic fertilizers and pesticides which can kill birds.

Here are some native shrub ideas for enhancing the appeal of your yard to cardinals:

  • Blackberry
  • Raspberry
  • Chokeberry
  • Chokecherry
  • Dogwood shrubs
  • Elderberry
  • Shadbush
  • Snowberry
  • Viburnums
  • Bayberry
  • Blackhaw
  • Cotoneaster
  • Highbush Cranberry
  • Holly
  • Mistletoe
  • Sumac
  • Highbush blueberry
  • Nannyberry
  • Winterberry

6. 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.

While cardinals 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. Trying putting them in an empty suet cage and hanging near shrubs where they’ll build their nest.

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

7. Keep Kitty Inside

sweet looking cat
Sure, kitty looks sweet until you let him outside and his animal instincts kick in! Photo by Amber Kipp

As mentioned, a primary predator to cardinals are cats – house cats. 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.

Next Steps

I think you’ll agree the cardinals are worth the effort to attract to your yard. Take and apply some of the tips I provided or if you’re really serious about attracting them to your yard – apply all of them! Good luck and happy birding!

Interested in more about baby cardinals? I have a treat for you! >> All About Baby Cardinals from A to Z

Are you serious about attracting cardinals? Put out the right food and offer to them in the right feeder! >> The 3 Best Bird Feeders for Cardinals.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are northern cardinals rare?

No, northern cardinals are not rare. Within their range, they are very common. Despite their dismal nesting rate of 40%, they manage to maintain their popularity likely through an extended breeding season afforded to non-migratory birds.

What happens if a Cardinal’s mate dies?

If a northern cardinal’s mate dies they will seek a new one to mate with. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a male cardinal to mate with a different female while the original one is still alive. Although they are serially monogamous, they are not above “extra-relationship affairs”.

How long do northern cardinals live?

The average lifespan of a northern cardinal is 15 years.

Do northern cardinals migrate?

No, northern cardinals do not migrate. They are year-round birds that live in the US east of the Great Plains and parts of Mexico.

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Tammy Poppie

More than 20 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her back yard (and repel others). In her free time, she can be found in nature kayaking, hiking, and biking always hoping to see a bird in the wild.