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Attract cardinals to your yard

The Northern Cardinal is a living lawn ornament. Its crispy plumage makes it a fan favorite among bird lovers. Learn how to identify and attract the Northern Cardinal to your yard!

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How to attract cardinals to your backyard

Attracting cardinals takes a few basic elements that the cardinal may need (or want). To make sure you are satisfying each of these needs, I am going to ask a few simple questions. If you answer 'no' to any question, I will offer a remedy to help you improve your chances of attracting a cardinal! Note: I created this guide in the traditional identification key format. If you have never been forced to use one of these, they can be difficult, hilarious, or easy. Hopefully, this one is the latter.

  1. Do you live in the normal range of the Northern Cardinal? (see map)

    1. Yes... go to question 2.

    2. No... move. (Seriously, I have nothing else for you. {sad face}.)

  2. Do you have a bird feeder?

    1. Yes... fill it with black oil sunflower seed, and proceed to question 3.

    2. No... here you go. Then proceed to question 3.

  3. Do you have appropriate habitat?

    1. Yes... great! Proceed to question 4.

    2. No... cardinals prefer shrubby habitats. Cardinals utilize dense foliage for nesting and foraging during the breeding and winter season(s)! Learn more about building a great backyard for birds! Now, proceed to question 5.

  4. Do you use pesticides?

    1. Yes... stop. Northern Cardinals feed their chicks healthy numbers of insects. You can have a serious negative impact on your local population. Stop use, then proceed to question 5.

    2. No... good. Proceed to question 5.

  5. Do you have outdoor cats?

    1. Yes... do not try to attract cardinals. OR, use a catio or enclosed play area to keep cardinals protected from non-native pets. Put your cat inside, then proceed to question 6.

    2. No... wonderful. Proceed to question 6.

  6. Are your windows bird-safe?

    1. Yes... great! You can prevent unnecessary window collisions by keeping your windows bird-friendly! Proceed to question 7.

    2. No... try some of our ideas to prevent window-caused bird deaths. Then, proceed to question 7.

  7. Do you have a birdbath?

    1. Yes... having fresh water may be the last concrete step you can take to attract and help cardinals. If this does not work, you might make sure you have not offended your local cardinal's delicate song sensitivity with some shower time caterwauling.

    2. No... fresh water can often be more important to birds than providing a bird feeder. If you have done everything else and still have no cardinals, give these options a try!

What types of food attract cardinals?

Cardinals' diets change based on the season, however, supplementing their natural diet with sunflower seeds is a GREAT way to attract a cardinal to your yard. Personally, I prefer small seed black oil sunflower seed, but almost any sunflower seed will work. If you have less desirable birds that visit your feeders as well, you can try safflower seed. Safflower seed is not as desired by House Sparrows and European Starlings but is still frequented by Northern Cardinals.

Black oil sunflower seed attracts cardinals!

What habitat types do cardinals prefer?

The Northern Cardinal prefers dense, woody foliage for its habitat throughout the year. In fact, during the breeding season, the Northern Cardinal nests in denser vegetation than other given spots within their territory. While they prefer these densely vegetated areas, they also need conspicuous perches for singing. If you apply this information to planting your yard to attract cardinals, you should come away with the idea of native shrubs and interspersed medium to large trees. This will provide the cover, insect food, and perching opportunities that cardinals could utilize. Is it a guarantee? No, but more native habitat ALWAYS means more native birds.

Where can cardinals be found?

The Northern Cardinal is a species of dense vegetation in the eastern and southern regions of North America. It is a permanent resident of most of its typical range, though there can be small movements during seasonal changes. Its global population is estimated to be around 130,000,000, with 93% of that population being found in the United States. Over 80% of its range is in the United States, but it is only regularly found within <50% of the United States. What does that all mean? If you live west of the Great Plains, you are unlikely to see many Northern Cardinals in your backyard (unless you are in the desert southwest). If you want to see more cardinals, travel southeast, as the greatest densities of Northern Cardinal are found amongst the Gulf Coast states. In fact, Texas holds a whopping 15-20% of the global population!

Range map of the Northern Cardinal
Range map of the Northern Cardinal

Do cardinals use nestboxes or birdhouses?

Unfortunately, no. You will not lure a cardinal to your home through the use of a nestbox or birdhouse. Cardinals build cup nests in dense foliage, and they do not use cavities, natural nor artificial, to build nests or raise young. Your best bet to lure some baby-making cardinals in is to create a yard full of habitat that would make any cardinal blush. Of course, you will not be able to tell they are blushing. (Because they are red!)

Enjoy your backyard cardinals

Think you have all the steps above covered thoroughly? Good. If you can TRULY meet all those steps listed in our 'cardinal key,' you have a great chance to attract and enjoy some Northern Cardinals in your backyard! If you cannot satisfy the first requirement of being within the normal range of our cardinal species, I suggest you start working on those airline miles! If you already get these vibrant beauties, enjoy them thoroughly. An inexpensive superzoom camera can help to capture those special moments when the cardinals come-a-calling.

The Panasonic FZ80 is an affordable birding camera for most budgets.

Learn to identify cardinals


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