How to attract colourful backyard birds (Cardinals, Bluejays, Goldfinches)

What they eat and how to attract them

Goldfinch getting a drink at the birdbath.

A Goldfinch stops by the birdbath to get a drink in the early evening.

When it comes to birds, everyone loves a little colour in their backyards. That’s why the Cardinal, Blue Jay and Goldfinch are among the most desirable birds in our woodland wildlife gardens.

The Cardinal, Blue Jay and Goldfinch are among the easiest, seed-eating backyard birds to attract to your feeders providing you are giving them their favourite foods. Add natural sources of food from berries to insects, nesting habitat, and, of course, a reliable water source and you will create plenty of colour in your backyard.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

This image shows the subtle colour of a Goldfinch in winter during a snowstorm.

This image shows the subtle colour of a Goldfinch in winter during a snowstorm.

Of course these three stunners are not the only colourful birds we can attract to our backyards. My favourite colourful additions to the garden is the incredibly colourful Indigo bunting and the orange and black combination of the Baltimore Oriole. These two highly sought after and extremely colourful birds are more difficult to attract to your backyard feeders so I have tackled those in separate articles. (See my earlier stories on attracting Indigo Buntings and Orioles to your garden.)

To read my article on how the Goldfinch gets its stunning colour and how to attract them with native plants? Click here.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the Cardinal, Blue Jay and and Goldfinch: what they eat, where they nest and what little extras we can do to attract them to our backyards.

A male cardinal in a crabapple tree in spring.

A male cardinal in a crabapple tree in spring.

Cardinals: everyone’s favourite backyard bird

It’s hard not to fall in love with Cardinals. Their cheerful persistent songs, the male cardinal’s bright red coat of feathers standing out in the landscape, and the buff-coloured female just as beautiful in her muted colours especially after a fresh snowfall.

These are year-round birds in our area and a regular at the feeders spring, summer, winter and fall.

A sure way to keep them around is to always have a supply of black-oil sunflower seeds in the feeders.

I use a no-mess blend of cracked sunflower seed from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Cardinals’ powerful jaws, and curved beaks give them the ability to easily open larger, harder seeds with great ease. They will readily take to not only both types of sunflower seed, but peanut pieces and safflower.

Cardinals are actually one of the few birds who seem tho really enjoy safflower seed. In fact, I have a separate feeder filled with safflower aimed primarily at attracting cardinals.

Cardinals will readily eat from most feeders, but consider providing them with a large platform feeder as well.

Although most of us know the cardinal as a regular visitor to our backyard feeders, seeds are not their only source of food. Like most birds, Cardinals rely on a steady supply of caterpillars and insects in early spring and summer during the mating season and to raise their young.

Host plants for butterfly larvae – including milkweed, coneflowers, goldenrod, black-eyed Susan aster, and lupines – will encourage cardinals into your yard and provide them with sources of protein to raise their young.

Cardinals are also attracted to fruit bearing plants, especially red fruit-bearing plants. The male cardinal actually gets its bright red coat from the carotenoid pigments in the red fruit. Serviceberry is a cardinal magnet in our garden but so too are are the berries of sumac and dogwoods. The red berries of the native Flowering dogwoods are favourites but not the raspberry-type fruit of the Cornus Kousa which is actually eaten by few if any birds.

(If you are considering planting a Serviceberry, be sure to check out my earlier article on this native tree and shrub here.)

The breeding season for the Northern male Cardinal runs from as early as March through to September. The nest, which is often found in dense shrubbery or in branches of smaller trees anywhere from 1-15 feet off the ground, is made up of twigs, bark strips bits of roots and even paper. It is often lined with vines, grass and hair.

Because they are not cavity dwelling birds, they are not attracted to a bird house.

They do, however, enjoy using backyard bird baths. Look for one that is two- to three-inches deep.

A blue jay shows off its stunning colours.

A blue jay shows off its stunning colours.

How about those Blue jays?

These guys might be considered bullies at the bird feeder but their incredible colour is just too good for most of us not to attract them to our backyard feeders.

And there isn’t a nut they cannot crack.

Start with a good helping of shelled or unshelled peanuts in a platform feeder and you’ll likely get your share of Blue jays in short order.

Their long, strong black bills are built for cracking open the hardest of nuts. In the forest, it comes in handy making short order of even tough nuts like acorns.

At our feeders, peanuts, large striped sunflower seeds, black oil sunflower seeds and the condensed seed cylinders (wild Birds Unlimited) favoured by Blue Jays and woodpeckers are guaranteed to attract them to your feeders.

Blue Jays are also attracted to corn, grains and suet at our feeders.

If you are looking to feed them naturally, acorns (from the oak tree) are an excellent source of food. Beechnuts (from beech trees) are also among their favourites.

While they are most often seen at our feeders, insects are still an important part of their diets including grasshoppers and caterpillars. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that the stomach contents of Blue Jays studied over the course of a year showed that they contained about 22 per cent insects, with the remainder being acorns, nuts, fruits and grains.

We can’t overlook the fact that blue jays have been known to raid the nests of other birds and eat both the eggs and or the nestlings. If this is something that disturbs you, attracting Blue Jays may not be right for you.

Blue Jays nest from March through July in an open cup of twigs, grass, and sometimes mud, lined with rootlets. The nests are often in the crotch or thick outer branches of coniferous or deciduous trees. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that Blue Jays often set up their nest in all types of forests but most often near oak trees on forest edges. They are quick to nest in both urban and suburban areas where both Oak trees and bird feeders are often in abundance.

Be sure to provide them with a reliable water source as well. A large, deep bird bath (3 inches at its deepest) will be a good source for your local Blue Jays.

Goldfinches at the bird bath with a solar-powered DIY dripper.

Goldfinches at the bird bath with a solar-powered DIY dripper.

Goldfinches: Add a touch of tropical to your backyard

It’s not hard to think of the Goldfinch when Harry Belafonte sings about the Yellow Bird up high in banana tree.

One look at the male or female American Goldfinches in their finest colours is a reminder of how beautiful our local backyard birds are throughout most of the United States and Canada. No need to travel to tropical regions to see colourful birds and hear their lovely song.

More and more of our American Goldfinches remain here year round helped along by numerous bird feeders and seeds from our flower beds and roadside weeds.

These primarily seed-eating birds are drawn to Niger seeds at our feeders. Be sure to provide the small, black seeds in special feeders designed to allow access to the tiny beaks of the finches. Also available are finch socks filled with Niger that are easily hung from trees or a hook at the feeders.

In nature, Goldfinches eat mostly seeds, especially those in the daisy family. Although they do eat some small insects in summer as well as spring buds, bark from twigs, and maple sap, they always come back to seeds.

It’s not uncommon to see them foraging along fence lines in weedy areas gathering the seeds of thistle, grasses and the seeds from elm, birch and alder trees. Consider leaving an area in your garden to grow wild if you want to add a natural feeding source for Goldfinches as well as other birds that depend on these areas as a food and nesting area.

Audubon reports that Goldfinches are late season nesters, timing their nestlings just as daisy-like flowers begin producing seeds.

Nesting occurs mostly during late summer between July and August in deciduous shrubs or trees usually less than 30 feet above the ground. The nest is a compact cup of plant fibres, spiderwebs and plant down.

Goldfinches will readily come to bird baths. Consider a small, shallow one (depth 1-2 inches) for these diminutive colourful birds.

As an affiliate marketer with Amazon or other marketing companies, I earn money from qualifying purchases.


Why kids need more nature in their lives


A few of my favourite garden and wildlife things