Red means go! Go attract cardinals to your backyard!

a Northern Cardinal sits in a tree while the sun rises

Looks like a greeting card, doesn't it?

If you are looking to add a flash of red-feathered fireworks to your backyard this year, there is no better way than by attracting some Northern Cardinals! These beautiful red birds are the perfect addition to any landscape, and they are not difficult to attract if you know what their needs and wants are! In this cardinal profile, you will learn the range, habitat, identification, and bird food choices of this common feeder bird.

A range map full of red | Where to see Northern Cardinals

When it comes to range, Northern Cardinals are found throughout the eastern United States, the Gulf Coast states, the northern Atlantic states, parts of the Midwest, parts of the desert southwest, and down into Mexico. So, if you live in one of these areas, you are in luck! If you live on the West Coast, in the Rockies, or throughout most of Canada, unfortunately, you will have to settle for other gorgeous red birds like Red Crossbills and Rufous Hummingbirds.

two Northern Cardinals sit on a Birds Choice hopper feeder
Northern Cardinals enjoy ample perch-space.

If you build it, they will come | Habitat needs of Northern Cardinals

Northern Cardinals prefer wooded areas with dense vegetation. Depending upon your location within its range, Northern Cardinals might be found near habitats including shrubs, small trees, forest edges, interior forest, shrubby areas where logging or other removal activities have occurred, marsh edges, shrublands, previously and constantly disturbed fields, hedgerows in agricultural lands, plantings in urban areas, peatlands, and riparian forests. On the lower Gulf Coast, Northern Cardinals can be found in mangrove forest, and for those in the desert southwest, cardinals use desert shrublands.

If you live within its range and have suitable habitat, cardinals should be found fairly nearby! Why? The Northern Cardinal is one of the most abundant species of birds in North America. Some estimates put the total Northern Cardinal population at over 100,000,000 individuals. If you live just outside of the current range of the Northern Cardinal, within a few years, that may change. The Northern Cardinal is finding suitable habitat, thanks to human disturbance, on the western and northern bounds of its range! That means you might start seeing cardinals in your backyard very soon!

a Northern Cardinal sits on a green plant in Florida
Northern Cardinal color pops!

What plants can attract cardinals?

While Northern Cardinals are not as particular about what type of plant life is present in their habitat as some other bird species, there are a few native plants that they prefer. These include American beautyberry, yaupon holly, possumhaw, and Wax myrtle. If you have any of these plants in your yard or are thinking about planting them, you will have a better chance of attracting cardinals!

For the breeding season, Northern Cardinals need woody plants with dense foliage for nests, and locations with conspicuous perches for males to sing and establish territories. When given the choice, cardinals will almost always opt for the more dense vegetation to hide their nests. This offers the best chance for nest survival!

What is that brown cardinal? | How to identify the Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal is a medium to large songbird with a length of 8 to 11 inches from top to bottom. Cardinals have stout, cone-shaped bills with a reddish coloration and their plumage is mostly red. The shade of red can range from a deep scarlet to a brighter, coral hue. The one conspicuous area of a male Northern Cardinal that is not red is the area in front of the eye, called the lore. The lore of the male cardinal is black, contrasting with the bill and the face.

a female Northern Cardinal sits in the snow
This brown cardinal is a female!

If you see a brown cardinal, do not panic! There is nothing wrong with that individual. You have just witnessed a female northern cardinal OR a cardinal in its juvenile plumage. While female cardinals do not ever become red, young male Northern Cardinals will reach adulthood and molt into their bright red feathers.

There are few species of birds that appear similar to the Northern Cardinal. The Summer and Scarlet Tanagers are both bright red, but they lack the tall crests and bright red bills of their cousin. While you are unlikely to mistake many species of birds for this flying neon sign, having a local field guide is always a wise decision.

Cardinal, cardinal, cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia!

The Northern Cardinal is not the only member of the cardinal family in North America. In fact, there is one very closely related species, the Pyrrhuloxia, that shares some of the same range as its all-red brethren. The Pyrrhuloxia is found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, overlapping the desert residing Northern Cardinal. While the Pyrrhuloxia is similar-looking to the Northern Cardinal, they lack the complete bright red plumage of the males. Females may look more similar, but a quick inspection of the bill can reveal that Pyrrhuloxia have yellow to yellowish bills while cardinals have red to orangeish bills.

What do Northern Cardinals eat? | Bird food choices

Northern Cardinals are mostly seedeaters and will visit backyard bird feeders year-round in some areas. In other areas, cardinals might only visit feeders during the winter months. Cardinals also eat a fair amount of insects, which they will capture by flying out from a perch to snatch them from the air or glean them from vegetation. Some favorite foods of the Northern Cardinal include sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, crushed peanuts, millet, mealworms, and various berries. Planting a native garden can attract insects during the breeding season, providing cardinals an invertebrate buffet to feed their chicks.

two Northern Cardinals eat sunflowerseeds on a Birds Choice hopper feeder

What bird feeder type do cardinals prefer?

Most northern cardinals will use a variety of feeders, including tube feeders, hopper feeders, and platform feeders. They are not shy about using feeding stations that are close to human activity and will often be found at the busiest birdfeeders in the neighborhood! Cardinals have been known to eat suet from suet feeders, though, providing black oil sunflower seed in one of the previously mentioned feeders will offer the best attractant to your window view. Birds Choice carries all the preferred feeder types that can help to brighten your backyard up!

a Northern Cardinal sits on a fly-thru feeder by Birds Choice

A shining red light for the neighborhood

Northern Cardinals are beautiful and common backyard birds that can be easily attracted to a feeder with the right birdseed. In this article, you have learned about the range, habitat, and food choices of these popular songbirds. You also learned about what you are experiencing when you see a brown cardinal and how to identify a close cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia. Now that you know all there is to know about Northern Cardinals, go out and enjoy these wonderful backyard birds!

See our favorite Northern Cardinal feeders!