How to Attract Cardinals to Your Yard

As one of the most popular birds in America, it's easy to see why birdwatchers love their brilliant red plumage.

Attracting birds with flowing fountains and homemade suet cakes are easy ways to invite feathered species of all kinds to your homestead. And this is true for attracting one of North America's most recognized birds: the Northern cardinal. It's should come as no surprise that the cardinal is the official state bird of seven eastern states; after all, cardinals are commonly seen in diverse landscapes across the eastern half of the United States, from Maine to southern Florida to Texas as well as parts of Mexico. The red cardinals, known for their brilliant plumage, are males who use their colorful status to attract their female counterparts who are brown. Both male and female cardinals have a striking diamond-like peak on their face and each can carry a joyful tune, one of the primary reasons why birdwatchers want them close to home.

So, what's the secret to luring these beloved songbirds to your neck of the woods? We asked two experts—Jessica Jane MacMurchy, the adoption coordinator at Animal Charity of Ohio, and Jillian Bell, Audubon Connecticut's bird-friendly community program (BFC) associate, and here's what they had to say.

red cardinal on fend post
Photo. Keith Draycott / Getty Images

Plant evergreen shrubs—ideally, with dense foliage.

It's not just because it makes for a pretty Christmas card—cardinals really do flock to evergreen trees. According to Bell, these birds prefer thick shrubs as well as evergreens for an array of reasons. For one, cardinals use lush shrubbery for nesting as well as protection. For another, many of these shrubs have winter seeds, which is another habitual favorite known to cardinals. Standout examples to attract more cardinals to your yard would be the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) winterberry holly (Ilex verticillate), serviceberry (Amelanchier Canadensis), and elderberry (Sambucus sp.); you can learn more about them via Audubon's Native Plant Database.

Provide a water source.

Like all wild birds, cardinals love water. They drink it, bathe in it, and will often splash around in it. Having at least one to two bird baths will attract more cardinals to your yard, according to Bell, and they are more likely to stay close to the water when they search for nesting sites.

Choose the right bird feeder and seed variety.

Cardinals are ground feeders, which is something to consider when purchasing a bird feeder. MacMurchy recommends purchasing a platform-style or non-hanging bird feeder so the cardinals can rest while they eat. Cardinals have stout, cone-shaped beaks that allow them to enjoy sunflower and safflower seeds, both of which have hard shells. Black-oil sunflower seeds will attract many species of birds, not just cardinals; meanwhile, striped sunflower seeds have a harder husk to crack open so the cardinals have no problem getting to the seed inside but many other birds do. Try a blend to see which type of bird seed your local cardinals enjoy best.

Plus, where you place your bird feeder can have an impact. According to MacMurchy, placing your feeder closets to the greenest or most dense shrubs in your yard, with a birdbath a few feet away, will increase the chance of spotting a cardinal.

Add caterpillar-hosting plants.

Adding plants such as wild grape (Vitis labrusca), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and other plants that host caterpillars will encourage more cardinals to flock to your home. "Not only do they eat the fruit, but it's also a host plant for the caterpillars that they will feed to their young. They also will use its peeling bark as nesting material," says Bell. "Leaving flower heads intact and not pruning seed and berry-producing plants before winter will ensure they have food through the lean times."

Layer your landscaping.

Hosting an assortment of trees and shrubs varying in height is another way to attract more cardinals. According to Bell, this not only makes ideal nesting availabilities for the songbirds but inspires them to sing too. "They love to have a high perch to sing from, while they like to nest in dense shrubs," she adds. "They'll also be attracted to a space that will provide them food through all of the seasons since they're with us year-round."

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