Setting out a bird feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds is a surefire way to attract northern cardinals—but ambitious gardeners shouldn’t stop there, because the right plants bring in these ruby red beauties and other songbirds, too. The key is to focus on the trifecta of providing food, cover and places to raise young, says Gary Ritchison, an ornithologist at Eastern Kentucky University and writer of the bird guide Northern Cardinal. A deep dive into the life of cardinals unveils clues to help you attract the ubiquitous backyard birds.
The shape and structure of a cardinal’s bill reveals the birds’ food preference. The downward curve, typical of seed-eating birds, allows them to crack open or crush seeds. Cardinals also have larger jaw muscles than many other songbirds, which means they can consume bigger seeds. When selecting plants, look for some with medium-sized seeds as well as a mixture of seasonality. (Read more: 3 Types of Seeds Birds Love Best)
Seed-bearing plants to try: corn, Purple Majesty millet, nasturtium, purple coneflower, safflower, sunflower and sweet pea.
Although seeds are a favorite food, cardinals eat a lot of wild fruits. As nonmigratory birds, they seek a variety of foods as availability changes throughout the year. “They’re pretty adaptive,” Gary says. “They have to be, as a resident bird.” But as they consume fruits, studies suggest, cardinals still are after the seeds, often discarding much of the fruit pulp. For that reason, fruits with larger seeds may be more attractive. Also look for a range of fruiting times and, since cardinals forage low to the ground, shorter varieties. (How to: Attract Backyard Birds with Berries)
Berry plants to try: dogwood, hackberry, northern bayberry and serviceberry.
3. Red-Fruited Plants
The vivid crimson color of male cardinals comes from carotenoid pigments, which are found in red fruits. Eating more of these scarlet-hued snacks, especially during molt, helps a male form brighter red feathers. The flashy color boosts his ability to successfully attract mates and defend a pair’s nesting territory. (Get more info on Attracting Cardinals to Your Backyard)
Red-fruited plants to try: hawthorn, raspberry, sumac and winterberry.
4. Cover Plants
For cardinal nests, concealment is key: The showy birds look for the camouflage of dense shrubs and trees. Compared to other birds, their nests are low, only 4 to 8 off the ground. Cardinals are territorial during breeding and the male stays near the nest, so to see cardinals year-round, host a nesting pair. For their first nests in April or May, cardinals often choose the protection of evergreens. Pairs raise several broods a year and select different sites, so a mix of small, dense trees and shrubs is ideal. Wild grape is a good addition, too, because cardinals use its bark for nesting material. (Check out: Northern Cardinal species profile)
Cover plants to try: box elder, eastern red cedar, hawthorn, nannyberry, rose and wild grape.
Parent cardinals feed their young almost exclusively with insects, which provide the protein that nestlings need to grow muscle. When very young, the babies eat soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars. Planting additional beds of butterfly host plants is a good way to help stock the pantry for the weary parents. For much of the year, 75 percent of the food that cardinals eat is plant material, but at the height of summer breeding season, the majority of their diet is insects. (Read more: 11 Must-Have Host Plants for Butterflies)
Caterpillar host plants to try: dill, fennel, hollyhock, mustard greens and snapdragon.
Often foraging on open ground, cardinals need to retreat quickly to safety. In summer, they use the same shrubs that provide nesting sites, but in winter, they escape to evergreens. During cold weather, cardinals form flocks that move around in search of food. So yards with plentiful food and cover have the best chance of hosting that picture-perfect vision of red dotting a snow-covered tree. (Check out: Top 10 Dwarf Conifers)
Evergreens to try: arborvitae, juniper and spruce.