Northern Cardinals are one of the most easily recognized backyard birds in North America. Whether you desire them in your yard for their flashy plumage or cheerful songs, with the right food and feeders they will be easy to attract and enjoy.
So what is the best type of bird feeder for cardinals? In this article we will discuss the answer to that question, as well as where you can find northern cardinals, what they like to eat, and other tips for attracting them to your yard.
Northern Cardinals are medium sized song birds with a distinctive crest and bright orange bill. Males are entirely red with a black mask around the face and neck. Females are a soft brown with red on their tails and wings.
There are at least 16 different known calls for the Northern Cardinal, but the one most commonly heard is a loud and clear metallic chirp. Often you will hear this chirp announcing the cardinal is nearby before you spot them. Both males and females sing, often in descending or ascending whistle-like tunes. Their peak singing season is in the spring and early summer.
What Kind of Bird Feeders do Cardinals Like?
Not all feeder are created equal when it comes to attracting cardinals. Here are some important factors to consider when finding feeders best suited for cardinals.
Cardinals are big
Cardinals are on the larger side for feeder birds. This means they require a sturdy feeder that can support their weight. A lightweight feeder may tip or sway under the weight of one or two cardinals. Cardinals do not like this swaying motion.
Their size also prevents them from squeezing into small spaces. A tube feeder with a cage would be a bad choice as cardinals likely would not be able to fit through the bars.
Tube feeders also are generally not great choices because cardinals don’t like the narrow perches and have a hard time finding a way to balance while still reaching the feeding ports due to their size.
Cardinals prefer feeding on the ground
Cardinals are ground feeders. In fact you will quickly notice that when they visit your yard they are likely to forage on the ground under all your feeders before attempting to get seed from any of them. Feeders that mimic ground foraging and provide the cardinal with room to spread out will have a much greater chance of being used.
Taking all this into consideration, Platform Feeders are often the absolute best choice for feeding cardinals.
As the name suggests, this type of feeder is a large flat platform. Cardinals will have the most room for their mid-sized body. It also best mimics picking seeds up off the ground. These types of feeders can come in a few different forms, and can sit right on the ground, be hung, or be mounted atop a pole.
Here are my picks for great platform style feeders
- Woodlink Going Green Platform Feeder – Cardinals can perch on all sides and hop into the tray. Lots of room for foraging and many birds can use at once. Great visibility for bird viewing. Recycled plastic construction means easy cleaning and durability. Sturdy enough that the cardinals won’t be scared away by too much swaying.
- Woodlink Going Green Fly Thru Bird Feeder – Cardinals can perch on the sides and hop into the tray. Roof provides some weather protection. Recycled plastic body means easy cleaning and durability.
Trouble with squirrels?
If you have trouble with pesky squirrels at your feeders, you can still purchase any of the above mentioned feeders and try experimenting with location or using hot pepper seed. If that doesn’t work you can try a true “squirrel proof” feeder or look at squirrel proof bird feeder poles.
Here are my top two recommendations for “squirrel proof” feeders that cardinals will use.
- Woodlink Absolute II Squirrel Resistant Bird Feeder – The long perch and tray-like style of seed distribution in this hopper feeder make this a decent choice for cardinals. My mother has had this style for many years and cardinals use it all the time. This model can be hung or pole mounted, and birds can feed from both sides. It features a locking top and a pretty large seed capacity. The weight of squirrels will cause the feeding ports to close. I recommend this model, the “II” over the first model because this model has a metal perch bar. The first model has a wooden perch bar and people have reported squirrels chewing and ruining it.
- Squirrel Buster Plus Wild Bird Feeder with Cardinal Ring – One of most highly recommended feeders in general is the Squirrel Buster Plus. It’s really great at combatting squirrels, holds a ton of seed and is super durable. However as I said above, cardinals generally don’t love tube style feeders. However, this feeder comes with an optional ring perch you can attach in order to make the feeder more cardinal friendly. The ring perch allows them to have more room to maneuver and reach the seed ports more easily. In my opinion it’s still not as good as the more open platform feeders or the hopper, but I have seen cardinals use this feeder in my own yard, so it does work.
For more tips on keeping squirrels away, check out these articles:
Stuck with a Tube Feeder?
As we have said, cardinals generally don’t love tube style feeders. But if you already have one and don’t want to change styles or add another, there is something you can try. Consider a seed catcher!
This is a dish-like tray that you can place under your feeder to catch the seeds that other birds knock off. Not only does this keep your ground cleaner, but it provides a secondary eating area for other birds. Cardinals may like the platform style of this tray.
An example is this Seed Tray & Seed Catcher by Brome. Many feeders, especially Droll Yankees brand, sell attachable trays for the bottom of tube feeders. So if you have a tube feeder try Googling your specific model and see if a tray attachment is available.
Are there cardinals where I live?
It is estimated that there are about 120 million northern cardinals. The bulk of the population is made up of 77% in the U.S. and 22% in Mexico. They can be found along the east coast from southern Canada to the bottom tip of Florida.
Their range extends west into Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. They also are found throughout a large portion of Mexico into the Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike some other species of birds, Northern Cardinals do not migrate. This means wherever they are native to, they will be found year round.
These pretty birds are so popular that they are the state bird of seven states (the most of any bird!): Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Now, let’s talk about what cardinals like to eat.
What kind of birdseed do cardinals like?
In the wild cardinals eat seeds and fruits including wild grape, grasses, mulberry, blackberry, corn, dogwood and sumac. They also supplement their diet with insects such as flies, spiders, beetles and crickets.
The Northern Cardinal has a large thick beak which is very strong and perfect for cracking large seeds and other tougher foods. The best way to attract cardinals to your yard is to provide their favorite types of feeder food. They seem to have a strong preference for sunflower and safflower seeds as well as peanuts and cracked corn.
Cardinals love sunflower seeds! You can purchase them in a few different varieties.
- Black Oil Sunflower – Black oil sunflower seeds are small with an entirely black shell. This is always a safe choice since cardinals love them, but most other feeder birds love them as well. They are high calorie for their size due to their fat and protein content. Their thin shells are easy to crack open and this attracts the greatest variety of seed-eating feeder birds. They are typically inexpensive, can be used in all kinds of feeders, and you can buy them at a variety of places including Amazon.
- Gray and Black striped Sunflower – Gray and Black striped sunflower seeds are larger but also a favorite of the cardinals. Some feeder birds may have trouble eating this type of seed because their beaks are not large enough and they have trouble cracking open the shell. If you want to target cardinals specifically and “weed out” some other birds such as house sparrows or blackbirds, this might be a good choice.
- Sunflower kernels / Sunflower hearts – This is just the “meat” of the seed with the shell already removed. With no shell to crack, this can be enjoyed by the widest variety of feeder birds. These also will make for a much cleaner feeder since they don’t leave shell casings all over the ground. This is beneficial if you have your feeders on a deck and often sweep up piles of shell casings. Or if you live in an apartment where a big mess of shells could disturb neighbors. However, you pay more money for this convenience. It is important to note that removing the protection of the shell leaves the kernels vulnerable to much quicker spoilage. You should not leave out more hearts than can be eaten within a few days. It is also recommended that you do not use hearts in tube feeders where moisture can get trapped and spoil the seeds.
Safflower seeds are small and white, and a good source of protein and fat. Many birds that enjoy sunflower seeds also enjoy safflower. However, a big benefit of safflower seeds is most of the less desirable “pests” that raid bird feeders like blackbirds, grackles, starlings and squirrels, do not like them. This is a great choice to feed cardinals and other birds you enjoy, while keeping out the riff raff.
Did you know peanuts are the best single source of protein and fat for your backyard birds? Shelled peanuts are a high energy food enjoyed by cardinals and many other birds such as woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees and jays. With no shell, they are 100% edible leaving no mess. These are so desirable that many birds will grab a nut and hide it in their cache for later.
Now that we’ve identified what foods cardinals like, let’s delve into what bird feeders are best for cardinals.
More Tips on Feeding Cardinals
Consider feeding times
Cardinals favorite times of day to feed are early morning and before sunset. They are like that party guest that shows up before you are ready and then is the last to leave.
The important thing to remember here is to fill your feeders at night so they are ready with seed for Cardinals first thing in the morning. The more reliably and readily they can find food at your feeder whenever they visit, the more likely they will be to keep returning.
Lure them with ground seed
If you are having trouble getting cardinals to use your feeder, sprinkle a bit of the seed you are using on the ground under the feeder. Once they have eaten all the ground seed and want more they will be more likely to check out your feeder.
This obviously won’t work if you continue to sprinkle seed indefinitely or they will just wait for you to put out their meal on the ground! Only do this a few times until they get used to coming to your feeder area.
Cardinals are shy
Cardinals are actually rather shy despite their size and bright coloring. If you are able, place your feeder close to (within approximately 10 feet) some shrubs or other areas of cover.
Often cardinals will hang out in sheltered areas until they are ready to forage, and will frequently go back and forth, in and out of the cover during a foraging session.
You may notice you often hear their sharp metallic chirp coming from your tree line more often than you actually see them. If you are interested in landscape gardening, consider planting blueberries or grapevines. Cardinals love the shelter and food source they provide.
In keeping with their shyness, they often will fly off if they sense a lot of movement. Having a feeder too close to a window where you frequently walk by, or to a driveway or road with a lot of traffic, may spook them. A quiet spot with a little distance from the house will help them feel safer.
Troubles with Safflower
People sometimes report filling a feeder with safflower (a good choice for cardinals as we have stated above) only to have cardinals seem to not like it. If it seems cardinals are snubbing your safflower, try a 50/50 mix with sunflower first. Once they get a taste for it you can slowly switch over to 100% safflower if you desire.
Sunflower, Safflower, and Space
When it comes to cardinals remember the three S’s. Sunflower, Safflower, and Space. Present the foods they love and enough space for them to perch their larger frame and cardinals will continue to return to your yard to feast!
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.