Planting ideas for attracting northern cardinals

December 1, 2021

Few sights are more stunning than scarlet-red northern cardinals against the bright white of freshly fallen snow. The best time to see cardinals is in the early morning and just before dark, at twilight, as cardinals are among the first and last birds to feed.

Male cardinals have bright-red feathers, and both males and females have crested heads. Female cardinals’ feathering is a duller reddish-brown. Unusual among songbirds, both the male and female cardinals sing.

You can attract northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) to your garden by planting shrubs and plants that provide food and shelter.

Northern cardinals eat mostly berries, weed seeds, grains and fruits. They are ground feeders that look for food while hopping along the ground. Because they do not migrate, they look for a variety of foods during the year.

They also eat slugs, snails and insects, and feed their young almost entirely on insects. With their strong jaw muscles, they can eat even large seeds. When choosing plants to attract cardinals, look for nasturtiums, Purple Majesty millet, elderberries, buckwheat, purple coneflower, safflower, sunflower and sweet pea.

They do eat fruits but often toss out most of the fruit pulp, preferring the seeds. So, plant fruits with larger seeds, such as sumac, dogwood, hackberry, northern bayberry and serviceberry.

To keep northern cardinals in your yard all year, try to get a pair to build a nest on your property. A few evergreens will be ideal to attract them when they build their first nests in early spring.

Northern cardinals often raise several broods of chicks each year and move their nests as the summer progresses. Plant a mix of small, dense trees and shrubs such as box elder, eastern red cedar, nannyberry, wild grapevines and shrub roses. Northern cardinals feed their chicks almost exclusively insects and caterpillars, so add plants that will bring in caterpillars, such as dill, fennel, hollyhock, mustard greens and snapdragon.

If you want to attract cardinals with a feeder, choose one mounted on a pole about six to eight feet high. Avoid hanging feeders because cardinals prefer solid, steady platforms, and they might not use a feeder that sways in the wind or is unsteady.

Northern cardinals need water both for drinking and bathing. A birdbath is a great way to provide both. Just like with bird feeders, your birdbath needs to be big and steady because of the northern cardinal's larger size. It should be about two to three inches deep.

Like most birds, northern cardinals prefer moving water, so try adding a drip hose or even a solar-driven fountain to the birdbath to keep the water fresh and moving around. Try putting a bird bath on the ground, because as the northern cardinals forage along, they will often stop and drink.

Some people believe that seeing a cardinal is a sign from someone who has died. Plant some cardinal-friendly plants and think of those you love near and far while watching the bright-red birds against the green of a fir tree.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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