How To Attract Northern Cardinals To Your Yard In 4 Easy Steps

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The sights and sounds of Northern Cardinals are a welcome addition to any landscape. Follow these four simple steps to attract more of these beautiful songbirds to your yard.

Northern Cardinals are one of the most recognized birds throughout their range and a favourite backyard visitor of many. Cardinals are often the bird homeowners most wish to attract when placing a feeder in their yard. This winter I regularly have a dozen cardinals visiting my feeders at the same time providing an incredible sight. In order to lure all these cardinals to my yard I have implemented a few simple measures to make my landscape more enticing. Attracting cardinals is quite simple if you follow these four easy steps.

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Cedars provide shelter from the elements and predators making them a perfect tree for attracting cardinals.

Provide Adequate Habitat

Northern Cardinals prefer a habitat consisting of dense thickets that provide cover. If your yard is void of this type of vegetation, adding a certain few trees and shrubs is a good place to start. I know what you’re thinking, “Trees take years to grow, and I won’t see cardinals for decades.” By carefully choosing which species to plant the benefits will be reaped much sooner. Fortunately, cardinals tend to hide low to the ground, which means large mature trees are not required for attracting cardinals.

Two of my favourite native species which provide great cover for cardinals are the Red Osier Dogwood and the Eastern White Cedar. Both of these are readily available at area nurseries, are inexpensive to purchase, and as is the case with all plants native to our area are extremely easy to grow even if you lack a green thumb.

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Female Northern Cardinal perched in the safety of a dense thicket.

Fruit from the Red Osier Dogwood is consumed by over 100 bird species in Ontario making it my favourite native shrub. Since introducing this species to my landscape several years ago, I have seen an increase in the variety of birds visiting my yard and an increase in the number of cardinals. This plant is incredibly hardy and does best in full sun to part shade. An incredibly versatile shrub, it can tolerate dry conditions but will also grow in standing water.

Red Osier Dogwoods are fast growing reaching a maximum height and spread of 12 feet in only a few years. Dogwoods are easily pruned if a smaller shrub is more suited to your yard. Comprised of multiple stems, Red Osier Dogwoods provide excellent shelter to a multitude of songbirds including the cardinal. The deep red branches add a beautiful element of colour to any landscape especially during the winter months when colour is absent from most yards.

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Female Northern Cardinal.

When searching for a cedar tree, make sure you in fact purchase an Eastern White Cedar. Emerald Cedars are often sold in mass quantities at every garden centre, home improvement store, and just about any other retailer selling live plants come spring. The reason to avoid these non native trees is their foliage is too dense denying birds access to the inner branches, thus providing no shelter at all. The Eastern White Cedar’s drooping branches and dark green foliage provide protection from the elements and predators not to mention the perfect location to construct a nest.

Tolerant of some shade, the Eastern White Cedar can reach a height of 50 feet and prefers moist soil. These trees can be purchased at area garden centres as 3 to 4 foot specimens, a sufficient size to attract cardinals. Like the Red Osier Dogwood, Eastern White Cedars can be topped and pruned to control their size and are perfect for hedges.   

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Regardless of the weather, a source of fresh water will attract more cardinals.

Add A Water Source 

Fresh water is an excellent way to attract more birds and is an even bigger draw than food as not every yard has a water source. Water can be offered in a variety of ways from a simple dish to an elaborate water feature. Bird baths are one of the most common ways to provide water as birds can both drink and bathe. For the cold winter months consider a heated birdbath to prevent the water from freezing.

Despite frigid temperatures across our region during winter months, birds still need to bathe as feather maintenance is vital to their survival. A heated bird bath will certainly attract more cardinals to your yard as this can be the unique feature that makes your yard more attractive than your neighbour’s.

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After clearing the seed ports on my feeders, cardinals will readily cleanup spilled seed from the ground.

Offer Their Two Favourite Seeds 

Cardinals will consume a wide variety of seed, but they do have two favourties, sunflower and safflower. Black oil sunflower seed is the most economical seed on the market and is consumed by all songbirds that frequent our area. If I could only have one type of seed to offer in my feeders, black oil sunflower would be my choice. If cleaning up shells from beneath your feeder is something you wish to avoid, hulled sunflower seed is the perfect choice. Hulled sunflower is simply black oil sunflower seed out of the shell. This is more of a premium seed and costs a bit more money due to processing costs, but will keep your lawn or patio much cleaner. Keep in mind that when buying a bag of hulled sunflower seed you are only paying for seed and not the shells. A good portion of a 10 pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds is actually shell weight, so once this is factored in paying extra for hulled sunflower is easier to swallow, for you and the birds. 

Safflower seed is another great option for attracting cardinals. This white seed is a favourite of cardinals, but is also consumed by Mourning Doves, House Finches, and Black-capped Chickadees. Another benefit of safflower seed is that it is less desirable to squirrels and blackbirds. If squirrels, Common Grackles, and European Starlings are a problem in your yard, try switching to safflower seed.

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Northern Cardinals prefer to feed on the ground. During the winter months be sure to keep the snow beneath your feeders packed down to provide these birds an added place to feed.

Choose The Right Feeder   

Northern Cardinals are ground feeding birds by nature, so this is important to keep in mind when choosing a feeder. One of the best choices is a ground tray, which is simply an open tray with legs that you place on the ground. The bottoms of these feeders are made of perforated galvanized metal to allow drainage of the exposed seed.

Unfortunately, these feeders are not very popular as they can quickly become a squirrel feeder if the right seed is not chosen. Safflower seed is the best choice for a ground feeder when trying to attract the Northern Cardinal while deterring squirrels. Expect an abundance of Mourning Doves to be attracted to this setup as well. 

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Tray style feeders are perfect for attracting Northern Cardinals.

Another great feeder for attracting cardinals is a hanging or pole mounted tray feeder. This style of feeder is virtually identical to the ground tray except that it can be pole mounted or hung. If placed where squirrels can’t access it, try a mix of sunflower and safflower for best results. 

The only downside to tray feeders is that the seed is exposed to the rain and snow. If using one of these feeders, putting out small amounts of seed will help keep it fresh. For many, these feeders are inconvenient, but in my opinion are two of the best for attracting cardinals. 

Something else to keep in mind when choosing a feeder is that cardinals like to face forward when they feed. This is another reason why tray feeders work so well. If however a tray feeder is not what you are after than other great options exist. 

A hopper feeder that can be hung or pole mounted will definitely entice cardinals to feed. These feeders typically have a ledge where cardinals can sit and feed or a large tray incorporated on the bottom, which makes them a great choice for cardinals. 

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This tube feeder complete with a large perch ring and filled with black oil sunflower seeds is a favourite of the cardinals that visit my backyard.

Tube feeders are also great for attracting Northern Cardinals. Remember that cardinals like to face forward to feed so make sure the tube feeder you choose has large enough perches to accommodate this. Two excellent choices are Brome’s Squirrel Buster Plus or Squirrel Buster Classic. Both of these feeders are squirrel proof with the seed ports closing off under the weight of a squirrel. The Squirrel Buster Plus also comes with a lifetime guarantee so though it may seem pricey, it might just be the last feeder you buy.   

Any of these feeders can be purchased from your local retailer specializing in wild birds. Choose the style that is best suited for your yard and fill with either sunflower, safflower of a mix of both. Remember to keep your feeder clean and the seed ports free of snow and ice during the winter months. 

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Attracting cardinals to your yard is simple by following the above mentioned four easy steps.

At dawn, cardinals are often the first bird to arrive at a backyard feeder and also the last to leave at dusk. Sometimes they can only be identified by their silhouettes and soft calls during these low light conditions. Attracting cardinals to your yard is quite easy if you follow these four steps. If you are lacking cardinals in your yard, recognize which of these elements you are missing and make a point of implementing it. By providing these necessitates, I’m sure you will see and increase in the number of Northern Cardinals frequenting your yard.

Good birding,

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