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It’s hard not to like Northern Cardinals. One of our most popular feeder birds, the male’s beautiful red color pops in the yard, especially during dull grey winter months. The female’s more subtle orange and red tones are lovely as well. They come to our feeders fairly readily and are polite guests. While they might bicker with each other a little bit, especially during spring breeding season, they don’t give other species a hard time. If you live within their range, attracting cardinals to feeders usually isn’t hard to do.
Lots of Cardinals!
In my yard, we get a LOT of cardinals. On a typical day, I’ll easily see twenty or more in the yard. On snowy days their numbers can climb to over thirty. They usually arrive at the feeders in pairs or (in the spring) in small family groups. Always the earliest birds at the feeders each day, some or all of them are typically at the feeders from around dawn to after dusk. If I don’t see them for awhile it is usually because they are waiting out a prowling Cooper’s Hawk.
Cardinals are also usually the last birds at the feeders. They gather in the largest numbers in late afternoon and dusk. At this time many birds leave feeders to settle down for the night, leaving the feeders open for the cardinals. I call this “cardinal cocktail hour.”
Offer Safflower Seed
Many people will tell you that you should offer sunflower seed to attract Northern Cardinals. I imagine that would definitely work; it’s a seed that they do eat readily. But in my yard, the seed they seem to crave is safflower. Given a choice, they go for the feeders with safflower over sunflower. They will also eat millet.
Safflower is not a seed that all bird species’ beaks can handle or that all birds like. So it isn’t the only seed you’d want to offer to attract a wide mix of birds. But if you want cardinals, give it a try in one feeder and see what happens. It also has the advantage that some birds we less often like at the feeders aren’t fans of it.
Keep in mind that even cardinals can take a little time to get used to safflower if they haven’t encountered it before. Start with a small amount and let them get used to it. They will also eat the Nutra-Saff version of safflower. Again, it may take a little while for them to get used to it.
Feeders Cardinals Prefer
If you want to attract cardinals to your feeders, you need to use feeders that work for their eating style. Cardinals are by nature ground feeding birds and will often pick up spilled seed off the ground. But they will also accept seed from certain types of feeders where the seed is easy to access but is also easier to keep clean and dry.
I have a lot of feeders in my yard of various types. The cardinals seem to strongly prefer platform feeders. Their favorite feeders are two Birds Choice platform feeders mounted on poles side by side.
Their second favorites are two Birds Choice platform feeders hanging from a shepherd’s hook pole. These four feeders, when filled with safflower, are always their first choice. They will also eat at the hopper feeders, but usually choose them when platform feeders are dominated by other birds.
Tube Feeders Not So Much
The cardinals in my yard don’t seem to be fans of tube feeders. I’ve read that cardinals don’t like to sit sideways at a feeder port. That is how perches on most tube feeders tend to work. The two Squirrel-Buster Plus feeders I have include “cardinal rings” that allow birds to face the feeder.
Interestingly, in the years that I’ve had the Squirrel-Buster feeders, I don’t usually see cardinals on them, regardless of the seed in them. (I usually fill them with sunflower hearts but sometimes with safflower.) They seem willing to wait for platform feeders to be free rather than use tube feeders.
It’s very possible that if these were the only feeders available, they would use them. I think there are enough other feeders that they like better that they don’t feel the need to use these.
One Particular Tube Feeder
BUT, there is one tube feeder that is very popular with cardinals. It is a monster-sized Garden Treasures metal mesh tube feeder I got from the local hardware store years ago. The perches require them to sit sideways but that doesn’t seem to bother them here. They hang out at this feeder all day long.
I honestly don’t know why they like this one, but not other tube feeders. The ports and perch length are about the same size, although this feeder’s perches are a little closer to the ports. There is also a little lip at the bottom that catches spilled seed where they like to sit and eat. It is in the front yard which has fewer feeders and so is usually a bit less busy.
Feeder Bird Dominance
While it is easy to attract cardinals to feeders, you will probably notice that cardinals are not typically aggressive with other feeder bird species. They will eat peacefully with Mourning Doves, House Finches, Red-Winged Blackbirds and most other birds. But they back off when aggressive birds like Common Grackles and European Starlings show up and/or when large flocks of other birds take over feeders.
When other birds take over the feeders, cardinals typically move to a nearby bush or tree and wait for an opening. If I walk outside, that usually will startle the flock of Mourning Doves or the spring nuisance bird flocks that can dominate feeders at times. The flock is quick to fly off and within a few minutes, the cardinals take advantage of the reprieve and hop back to the feeders.
Cardinals also deal with this problem by arriving early at the feeders in the morning and staying later than most other birds at dusk. So if you want to attract cardinals, be sure to keep your feeders full at these times.
Water is also important to offer birds. I have several birdbaths available all year round. If you are going to offer water, it is important to keep the water clean. You need to be willing to keep an eye on it and change the water at least every few days. In the winter, I heat two birdbaths, one with a birdbath heater. For the other, I swap out the bowl for a heated one.
Northern Cardinals, like most feeder birds, appreciate cover somewhere near the feeder. When they arrive at the platform feeder area, they typically stop to land on a tree, bush or vine ten to fifteen feet from the feeder. There they check out the area and only then go over to the feeder.
The metal mesh feeder on the other hand, hangs from a tree branch. So here, they can fly to a branch a little higher in the tree to check things out. Then they drop down to the feeder.
Having a tree or shrubs at at a short distance from a feeder keeps it out of squirrel jumping range but gives birds a chance to get out from the open when a predator arrives. They tend to retreat to cover any time they are spooked and when giving way to more dominant birds. If the problem is just a busy feeder, they wait, seemingly patiently, until the other birds move on. Then they take their turn at the feeders.
Cardinals use dense shrubbery to nest in, although I doubt they would choose to nest next to a busy feeder. (At least I’ve never seen that.) But if you have thick bushes elsewhere on your property, they might decide to nest there. It’s fun to watch mom and dad cardinal bringing their little ones to the feeders for the first time.
Choose Native Plants
If you plan to plant trees or bushes, keep in mind that native plants support native bugs and insects. That too is a big part of what cardinals and other backyard birds eat, making your yard even more attractive to them.
Cardinals are a joy to watch and not hard to attract. Just offer them foods they like in a welcoming environment and you are likely to have them visit your feeders.
Learn More About Northern Cardinals
Learn More About Maryland Birds
See my post on Central Maryland Backyard Birds.
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