Cardinals in Winter – Photos Tips – Fabricating Perches


I Just Love My Outdoor Birdies

In many parts of the US, winter is difficult for birds, like our Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis. In the last post on Blue Jays, you saw a family of three young birds experiencing their first look at snow. Their curiosity in watching the flakes fall was fun to observe. I really enjoy their antics and cute expressions.


Male Cardinal Perching

f5.6 1/1600 ISO 400 300mm

Unlike the Blue Jays, male and female cardinals have a different appearance, yet are the most recognizable bird in the US. They donโ€™t molt into a dull plumage in winter, and are stunning in snowy gardens.


Female Cardinal in the Falling Snow.

f5.6 1/320 ISO 1000 300mm 8 feet from the subjectย  – A seed hangs out of her beak, like a vampire fang. She looks especially so with that pointy crest slicked upward.


Male Cardinal in a Snow Storm.

Finding food is frequently a challenge for all birds, but especially so for those facing their first winter. They face days that are regularly windy and cold, with nights even colder.

Berries on shrubs and trees have often withered or been consumed, and many of the insects have died, or went underground to become dormant. But not all. See the post from standingoutinmyfield, Snow Insects for a few brave insects.

You have to be realistic about your planting of fruit and seed producing plants. Unless you have long hedgerows of plants, the seed and fruit is usually long gone before winter if you have specimen variety planting beds.


Male Cardinal with a cute gaze.

f5.6 f1000 ISO400 300mm

Even trees known to hold fruit through the winter are very often picked clean. The pear below has been heavily foraged for instance.


What’s On the Menu?

In their natural habitats, cardinals will eat seed from pine trees, and many common weeds and grasses, such as smartweed, bindweed, foxtail, dock, chickweed, button weed, and sorrel. They will forage for grapes, dogwood fruit, blackberries, cherries, and raspberries.


Natural Perching. The cut Monarda stems left standing.

In your yard, you will provide the food source by purchased seed and/or planted gardens, so by knowing your subject’s natural needs, you will be more successful. Whether they forage, like at the pear tree or eat at the feeder, knowing what a bird will eat is important in planning for their visit.


Female Cardinal at the bird feeder.

f 5.6 1/640 ISO 800

The conical-shaped beak of the Cardinal lets you know it is a seed eater. They do eat fruit, but their preference is seed and nuts. Northern Cardinals are very fond of safflower seed. Also on the menu for them is hulled sunflower seed, shelled peanuts, peanut hearts and cut apples.


Male Cardinal in the Thickets

f11.0 1/100 ISO200 300mm

Plant to Protect

They like dense shrubby areas for safety, like in the image above at Niagara Falls State Park.


Cardinal in Lilac

In my yard, they frequently are found in the Viburnum, Lilac and Crabapple. But not all the shrubs are within camera range, even at a 300mm.ย  If you plant the densely branching shrubs within eight feet of your viewing window, they will likely use it for safety. The Viburnum is eight feet away, the Crabapple is 20 feet away and the lilacs are at 30 feet.


Cardinal in Crabapple

Each species works the yard differently, so knowing their habits helps quite a bit. The trees and shrubs in my yard were selected with this intent. I will list the plants in an upcoming post in this series.


They do like the little Crabapple even though the fruit is long gone. I have seen six cardinals at one time in this small tree.

But like all things, there is always exception to the rules. Even providing safety zones can have a kink in the planning. Some hawks are very capable of entering the dense shrubs, and the Sharp-Shinned is one such agile bird.

The one below was in my lilac today, but as usual, came up without a meal. So far, no feather strewn yard or blood soaked snow.


Sharp-shinned Hawk in a French Lilac shrub.

Cardinals range. (source – Cornell Labs)



Cardinal and a Sparrow

Tips for the Backyard Photo Studio – For Closeup Portraits, Make Use of Man Made Objects

Leave ornament and furniture outside that can withstand the winter. It allows for a variety of places for birds to perch. Best of all, you can move it to where you can actually get good pictures. You can easily arrange cut branches to suit your needs and plant or affix them with clamps to the man-made objects like I will show you soon.

Above is a planter that I ‘planted’ with Concolor branches. This is one of the ‘Shooting Galleries’ I fabricated so the birds would perch on a natural element. You can see they always don’t perch precisely where you want them to, avoiding the garden furnishings.

The point of the cut, portable branch is that we want to control where they land, the background of the image and the light hitting the scene. Movable perches allow for all three. The sparrow in the photo above, on the other hand, landed where I wanted for my photo, but not the Cardinal.


Looking at Me from the Top of Pear Tree

Creating a perch sets up your photo nicely….


Cardinal with a beakful of snow.

f5.6 1/400 ISO 800

But the birds are not always happy about the intrusion shown by the expression of the one below. The bird you are seeing above and below has an injured leg which it cannot bring close to its body. It is not as evident in these images, but she must have been attacked by a cat or hawk and escaped with her life.


Have you noticed a trend in angry females in this post?ย  I have been getting the evil eye a lot lately. Oh, and I know birds express displeasure as I have a cockatoo that does it so well.


Cardinal at rest.

Above is the outdoor dining table, minus the glass table top, and it is close to my viewing windows for shots from indoors. Unfortunately though, it does make for a distracting background, even blurred.

Below, the background is the clay speed tile wall, but at such a distance, it only appears as a colored background, making for a more pleasing shot.


Female Cardinal

Above is a Shepard’s Hook. This is the most active spot in the backyard for perching since it holds a bird feeder. They sit here waiting for an opening at the feeder. I sit inside waiting for them.


Male Cardinal at the bird bath.

Heated bird baths are always in use. I position it three feet from one of the windows where I shoot photos.


Male Cardinal in the Pear Tree in a Snow Storm.

Brrrr, but I am warm inside, and that is a great tip.

Starlings in Winter – Photo Studio Introduction

Blue Jays in Winter – Photo Tip – Prune Those Trees

Let’s recap tips mentioned so far.

  • Buy seed specific for the species of birds you want to attract.
  • Install plants that feed and shelter the birds. Enhance the habitat.
  • Design the garden to benefit wildlife. Use shelter plants liberally.
  • Place feeding stations deliberately to aid in photographing.
  • Add perching natural props.
  • Prune out plants for unobstructed landing perches.
  • Learn the habits of your subject.
  • Leave out ornament and furniture that can withstand the winter for varied perching.
  • Make movable shooting galleries.
  • Add to your backyard birding habitat with a heated water source. Position it close to where you will be photographing.

Next, we tour the backyard, see the plants supporting wildlife and some unique things I did to encourage birds to visit. Not necessarily a pretty post, but one with a lot of useful information if you too enjoy having and photographing backyard birds.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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67 Responses to Cardinals in Winter – Photos Tips – Fabricating Perches

  1. Pat says:

    Great post, full of lovely shots of the Cardinals!

  2. Christy says:

    I say this everytime I look at your pictures….absolutely breathtaking!! Your garden is definitely a wildlife habitat.

    • Thanks, Christy. I very much enjoyed visiting your backyard habitat. I refused the NWF signage and withdrew support when they had the issue with Scotts Miracle Gro. I did not like the handling of their working association and was quite disturbed by what transpired.

  3. I love them, too! And cardinals are one of the few I like better than blue jays. This was a problem when my younger son was taking the Chicago/St. Louis baseball rivalry a little too personally. Our cardinals like to hang out in an old Deutzia. They also seem to really like wild currant (Ribes americanum). Also, I noticed this winter that they actually like peanuts in the shell – they grab them and fly off – which surprised me.

    • I can believe in baseball there would be a problem with those red birds! I am a Phillies fan.
      They do like the shrubs that are dense. I see blue jays with unshelled peanuts, but never the cardinals. You must have tougher birds in Chicago.

  4. EcoGrrl says:

    Your photos are absolutely phenomenal. thank you.

  5. These are fantastic and you’ve done a marvelous job setting the scene.

  6. LyndaMichele says:

    Love these! Your shots are amazing!

  7. Cat says:

    Nice. You make me want a 300! And snow. Well, maybe not the snow. But definitely a 300! My uncle has a 500 that I borrowed when the owls were in residence but it was so heavy and cumbersome (not to mention, expensive) that it made me nervous to use it. Even on the tripod I had visions of it falling. I think you shoot with the same camera I have; a D7000. What 300 are you using?

  8. One thing I miss about the east coast is the cardinals. They are one of the first things I try to see/hear when I go back there to visit. Thanks for posting these lovely photos.

  9. Sonja Daniel says:

    Those are the best bird photos I’ve ever seen! Wow!

  10. paulinemulligan says:

    Beautiful photos with such useful tips on photographing the birds, with scenes like this outside your windows, how do you get any work done!!

  11. Wow, Donna! You are so talented! I wonder whether you speak to them and make them take those poses!
    Incredible shots! For some reason I’m stuck on the female cardinal on the falling snow and at the bird feeder, for their amazing expressions!!!! But they’re all amazing anyway!

  12. Oh my! What a beautiful bird the Cardinal is.

  13. I think I love the cardinals shots the best especially in winter…your birds are certainly lucky. Great advice too. I hope to find a good temp spot for my new suet feeder this winter until I get a better more permanent spot figured out. I like the idea of the furniture left out. I have some I can do that with.

  14. Wonderful post. I watch the cardinals at the feeder all year long. One of my favorite birds. Thanks for all the tips on providing food and shelter for cardinals.

    • Me too. They come all year, but I mostly photograph them in winter, since that is the only time I feed the birds. I do in Spring if the weather is bad. Summer, it is hummingbird time! Fall they eat the tree and shrub berries.

  15. Some very funny expressions on those cardinals. Maybe you have already mentioned that gardeners should purchase hulled sunflower seed because the shells contain toxins that impede the growth of other plants. It is best to keep the shells out of the garden.

  16. Stunning photos! Love cardinals!

  17. Phil Lanoue says:

    Fantastic series of these wonderful winter cardinals and wow, a bonus hawk! Excellent!

  18. Pingback: Birds of Winter-they eat, they leave, they complain if seeds are needed | Wester Avenue in rural northern Wisconsin

  19. Wonderful photos and great tips. The birds haven’t discovered my bird feeder yet. Keep your fingers crossed.

  20. Karen says:

    I so enjoy my visits…your photos are just beautiful.

  21. Cardinals are certainly some of the most photogenic birds on the East coast especially in winter. They are fun to watch especially since the male and female feed pretty peacefully with one another. I have watched a male feed a female seeds during courting season.

  22. HolleyGarden says:

    Great ideas! I love that you have managed to figure out how to stay warm and yet get such great photos. I especially like the first pic, and the one of the unhappy one (with the injured leg). Both show such personality!

  23. Marguerite says:

    There’s some really great ideas here for capturing good bird photos. One thing I noted though – your windows must be super clean because when I try to catch photos through a window you sure can tell. ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Your bird shots are some of my favorites. ๐Ÿ™‚ I love the way you capture their expressions so well. I set out a lot of seed/suet for my winter birds, including several cardinals. They also love my heated bird bath. The vampire cardinal cracks me up!

    • I did a Photoshop version of the ‘fang’ on the other side of her beak (which REALLY made it look vampire-like) , but I did not include it since the post was kinda on the instructional side. I did not want to manipulate images or people might think I did that for all of them. It was funny though.

  25. You have captured the cardinals so well. And I enjoy you telling us all about them-almost as though they are our friends.

    • They are to a point. I have three pairs of Cardinals that visit daily. They get to know the person feeding them and unlike those that visit as newcomers, will sit outside until I finish filling the feeders. I can photograph them outside, but it is so darn cold. I have woodpeckers that have sat inches from me as I filled the feeders. They wait patiently. The woodpeckers live in the Black Walnut behind my garage, so see me everyday.

  26. Donna – those are some stunning photos. You even made the females look sexy for a change!

  27. I often have cardinals visit my garden, but i rarely get a good photo. Yours are fabulous. thanks for all the good tips!

    • Thanks Deb. The series does have a number of tips many would not know. I learned them from a famous wildlife photographer in classes I took this past year. He is also a naturalist, and knows the birds and plants that attract them. I have books by him also.

  28. Fossillady says:

    I’ve never seen a hawk perched anywhere near my yard. How is it you’re so lucky with that? I’ve seen cardinals feeding their female counterparts and it’s really adorable to watch! Enjoying your garden posts! Kathi :O)

  29. I love the opening photo of the cardinal peering down into the lens โ€“ these birds have great expressions and look like such characters. They seem to cooperate pretty well with your natural props though, I wonder if wildlife is getting wise to photography?

    Looking forward to reading tips and natural props for photographing foraging bees in summer. Perhaps bee stations? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • The birds are used to me being in the garden, that I do know. If I feel like sitting outside in the freezing cold, they will let me. You have to be my consultant on the bees. ๐Ÿ˜€ I have no idea other than spreading some honey, but that would create some territorial disputes I bet. I like my bees fat and happy. Seriously, it would be great to have bees pose where you wanted them to.

  30. Yep, those are similar scenes to the ones in my garden. Except I can’t even begin to capture them as beautifully as you have. Gosh, Donna, the photos in this series are among the best I have ever seen of birds in the garden. Truly delightful!

    • Thank you so much! You can too do this type of photos, Beth. That is why I am doing this series of posts. I want others to see they too can capture the birds close up. You just have to plan the yard for it (homemade perches) and note my camera settings. Plant it and they will come so to speak. I have been noting that eight feet from a window is a good distance for images of the perches along with three feet on the birdbath. Next post shows the perches I made, hope you stop back to see. The birds are comfortable and most cameras on zoom have no problem with these distances.

  31. I think some of the best backgrounds (and foregrounds) for shooting photos of cardinals is falling snow. You certainly have a nice contrast with it. I will have to look at some of the pictures I took this morning of Mrs. Cardinal.

    • I am sure they are beautiful. I hope they are posted so we can see. I have a post coming up of the cardinals in the snowy landscape. Now that is real contrast! Thank you for saying I had nice contrast in the images in his post. It is difficult getting good exposure on dreary days in snow conditions. They get soft, flat and muted.

      I have saved my snow cardinals for the last post before I travel. I really like these shots. Of course, it has tips for shooting in the snow, with camera settings, but I do realize not all the garden readers need this direction or information.

  32. Fantastic photos, and a very nice site here. Well done on both accounts! I look forward to poking around.

  33. Your pictures and the birds are so lovely!!

  34. Some stunning images of Cardinals. You do so very well capturing their spirit and giving us a wind into their lives

  35. That’s supposed to be “window”

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