Proven Ways to Attract and Identify Northern Cardinals

Attract Northern cardinals to your backyard by growing plants with the berries and seeds they love to eat, and shrubs for nesting sites and shelter.

Northern cardinal rests on a branchCourtesy Michelle Summers

What Do Northern Cardinals Look Like?

It’s hard to resist northern cardinals—they’re lively, bright and amazing songsters. At about 9 inches, with a 12 inch wingspan, these flashy members of the finch family are easy to spot, if not by the males’ scarlet plumage, then by the long tails and crested heads of both the males and the reddish-tan, less showy females. Check out 15 simply stunning photos of northern cardinals.

What Does a Male Cardinal Look Like?

The male cardinal is bright red with a black face. He also has a prominent crest and pink or orange bill.

female cardinalCourtesy Shawn Parson
Female northern cardinal 

What Does a Female Cardinal Look Like?

If you spot a male, chances are his mate is nearby, especially in breeding season. A female cardinal is fawn colored with red accents. We asked the experts: Do cardinals mate for life?

How to Attract Northern Cardinals

For a surefire way to attract cardinals, fill a bird feeder with black oil sunflower seeds. 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 wild bird guide Northern Cardinal. A deep dive into the life of these birds unveils clues to help you attract cardinals. 

male and female cardinal at feederCourtesy Sharon Cuartero

What Do Northern Cardinals Eat?

Cardinals aren’t picky about food or how you offer it. They are frequent backyard visitors. Feeders full of sunflower seeds or safflower seeds are a surefire way to keep them happy.

The shape and structure of a northern 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 eat bigger seeds. When selecting plants to attract cardinals, look for some with medium-sized seeds as well as a mixture of seasonality. Seed-bearing plants to try include Purple Majesty millet, nasturtium, purple coneflower, safflower, sunflower and sweet pea. Check out the 3 types of seeds birds love best.

Cardinal on a snowy branch surrounded by red berriesCourtesy Paul Hersey
Northern cardinals are attracted to red berries.

Although seeds are a favorite food, Northern cardinals also eat a lot of berries. 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. Look for berry bushes with a range of fruiting times and, since cardinals forage low to the ground, dwarf shrubs. To attract cardinals, try sumac, dogwood, hackberry, northern bayberry and serviceberry. Here’s how to attract backyard birds with berries.

Why Are Northern Cardinals Red?

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.

Northern Cardinal Song and Call

Cardinals sing more than 24 different songs. The most common is “What cheer! What cheer! What cheer!” The call is a high-pitched “chip!” This is one of the few species whose female sings. A pair of cardinals might even share song phrases, using them to communicate at nesting time.

Listen to the Northern cardinal’s song.

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Northern Cardinal Range Map and Habitat

Cardinals may show up anyplace with dense low cover, such as backyards, parks, forest, swamps, even deserts. Meet the pyrrhuloxia: desert cardinal of the Southwest.

Northern Cardinal Bird Species

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

cardinal nest, what do baby cardinals eatCourtesy Ryan Schoenfeld
A female cardinal feeds babies in the nest.

Northern Cardinal Nests and Eggs

Female cardinals lay three to four whitish-gray eggs with brown speckles in a nest of twigs and grasses hidden in a dense tree or shrub. 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 feet off the ground. Northern cardinals are territorial during breeding and the male stays near the nest. To see cardinals year-round in your yard, 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 planting a mix of small, dense trees and shrubs is ideal. Some cover trees and plants to try are box elder, eastern red cedar, nannyberry, and shrub roses. Wild grapevine is a good addition, too, because cardinals use its bark for nesting material.

Here’s what to do if you find a bird nest with eggs or a baby bird.

baby cardinalCourtesy Terri Villacci
Baby cardinal

What Do Baby Cardinals Eat?

For much of the year, 75 percent of the food that Northern cardinals eat is plant material, but at the height of summer breeding season, cardinals supplement their diet with insects. They also will go after bugs to feed their nestlings. In fact, cardinal parents feed their young almost exclusively with insects, which provide the protein that nestlings need to grow muscle. When very young, baby cardinals eat soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars. To attract Northern cardinals and help the weary parents, your garden should include butterfly host plants such as dill, fennel, hollyhock, mustard greens and snapdragon.

Cardinals seek cover in evergreen treesCourtesy Ronald Washington
In winter, cardinals seek cover in evergreen trees.

Plant Evergreens for Northern Cardinals

Though Northern cardinals forage on open ground, the birds need a place to retreat quickly to safety. In summer, cardinals use the same dense 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. Yards that offer plentiful food and cover have the best chance of creating that picture-perfect vision of red cardinals dotting a snow-covered evergreen. Try arborvitae, juniper and spruce. For more ideas, check out the top 10 dwarf conifers.

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Heather Lamb
Heather Lamb is a writer and gardener from Columbia, Missouri.