What Do Cardinals Eat: Guide to Cardinals Diet




What Do Cardinals Eat

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Cardinals, with their striking red plumage, are a breathtaking sight, often evoking feelings of warmth and admiration. But beyond their beauty, these birds have dietary habits that are intriguing to both casual observers and avid birdwatchers alike.

What sustains the energy and vibrancy of these backyard visitors?

Let’s embark on a culinary journey into the world of cardinals and discover their favorite feasts.

Cardinals primarily favor seeds such as sunflower and safflower seeds, along with cracked corn. These omnivorous birds also diversify their diet with fruits, berries, and insects, especially during breeding seasons when they require additional protein. In suburban areas, cardinals are often attracted to backyard bird feeders stocked with their preferred seeds, and they appreciate nearby shrubs or trees that provide shelter and safety. Offering fresh water sources can further entice these vibrant birds to visit regularly.

Quick Summary on What Cardinals eat

Type of FoodDescriptionExamples
SeedsCardinals primarily feed on seeds, especially from weeds and grasses. They have strong beaks to crack open seeds.Sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, millet
FruitsThey consume various berries and small fruits, especially during winters when insects are scarce.Hackberries, mulberries, dogwood berries
InsectsCardinals also eat a variety of insects, providing a good source of protein, especially during the breeding season.Beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, snails
GrainsGrains form a part of their diet, especially in agricultural areas.Corn, rice, oats
SupplementsIn urban areas or bird feeders, they might consume other types of food that humans provide.Suet, peanut pieces, bread crumbs

Diet of Northern Cardinals

Cardinals, belonging to the family Cardinalidae, are fascinating birds found exclusively in the Americas and the Caribbean. One of the most remarkable aspects of cardinals is their diverse diet, as they are primarily omnivorous and consume a mix of insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, and other plant matter.

This adaptability enables them to thrive in a wide range of habitats, from forests and grasslands to urban areas and gardens.

Omnivorous Diet

As omnivores, cardinals have the advantage of being able to obtain nutrients from both animal and plant sources. This flexibility allows them to survive in various environments where food availability may vary. By having a diverse diet, cardinals are also able to meet their nutritional needs, ensuring optimal health and reproduction.

Primary Food Sources

While cardinals have the ability to consume a wide range of foods, they do have specific preferences and rely on certain food sources more than others. Among their primary food sources are seeds, grains, fruits, insects, and nuts. These food items provide the necessary nutrients for cardinals to maintain their energy levels, reproduce, and thrive in their respective habitats.

Beak Shapes and Diet Variation

One intriguing aspect of cardinals is the variation in their beak shapes, which directly contributes to their dietary preferences. Some cardinals have short, thick beaks that are ideal for cracking seeds and nuts, while others have longer, more slender beaks that are suited for probing and extracting insects from crevices.

Diet of Baby Cardinals

When it comes to the diet of baby cardinals, it differs slightly from that of adult cardinals. Baby cardinals require a high-protein diet to support their rapid growth and development.

Therefore, their diet primarily consists of soft insects, berries, and regurgitated food from their parents. This protein-rich diet provides them with the necessary nutrients for healthy feather growth and overall development.

Winter Diet

During the winter months, cardinals’ diets may shift more towards plant-based foods. This shift is due to the reduced availability of insects and other animal food sources during the colder months.

To compensate, cardinals rely heavily on seeds, fruits, and berries to sustain themselves. Their ability to adapt their diet according to the changing seasons is a testament to their resilience and survival instincts.

Variety of Foods Eaten

Cardinals are true culinary adventurers, as they have an extensive menu that includes a wide variety of foods. Cardinals also consume insects and bugs, such as beetles, caterpillars, ants, and spiders. This protein-rich diet is crucial for their overall health and development.

Furthermore, cardinals have been observed consuming nuts and acorns occasionally, particularly during the winter when other food sources are scarce. While not a major part of their diet, nuts and acorns play a role in providing additional nutrients and sustenance during harsh conditions.

Cardinals eagerly devour mealworms, suet, and peanuts, which serve as excellent supplementary food sources. These options are often provided by bird enthusiasts who wish to attract cardinals to their gardens or feeders, adding variety to the cardinals’ diet.

Feeding Cardinals


  • Offer Sunflower Seeds: Black oil sunflower seeds are a favorite among cardinals. They are rich in oil, providing the necessary calories cardinals need.
  • Provide Fresh Water: Cardinals, like all birds, need fresh water for drinking and bathing. Keep a birdbath or shallow dish filled with clean water.
  • Use a Sturdy Feeder: Cardinals prefer sturdy platforms or large perches for feeding. Tube feeders with spacious perches work well.
  • Offer Safflower Seeds: These are another favorite and have the added benefit of being less attractive to many types of squirrels.
  • Keep Feeders Clean: Regularly clean and disinfect feeders to prevent the spread of diseases among birds.
  • Place Feeders Near Cover: Cardinals are skittish. Having shrubs or trees nearby provides them a quick escape from predators.
  • Provide Natural Food Sources: Plant native shrubs and trees that produce berries and seeds cardinals love, like dogwoods or serviceberries.


  • Don’t Use Cheap Seed Mixes: These often contain fillers like red milo which cardinals and many other birds generally ignore.
  • Don’t Forget to Refill: Cardinals are regular visitors. If you want to keep them coming back, ensure there’s always food.
  • Avoid Using Pesticides: If you’re trying to attract cardinals, make sure your garden is free from pesticides which can harm or kill the insects they eat.
  • Don’t Place Feeders in Busy Areas: Avoid high traffic areas. Cardinals are cautious birds and prefer quieter, less frequented spots.
  • Avoid Mono-Feeding: While seeds are a favorite, offering a diverse diet including fruits can attract a broader range of birds and keep cardinals healthy.
  • Don’t Let Feed Become Wet or Moldy: Wet or moldy feed can be harmful. Make sure the feed remains dry and replace it if it gets damp.
  • Avoid Reflective Surfaces: As mentioned in the previous question, cardinals can mistake their reflection for a rival and attack or hurt themselves on windows. If you place feeders near windows, consider using decals or other methods to reduce reflection.

Seeds as a Primary Choice for the Northern Cardinal

Seeds, particularly sunflower seeds, are a primary choice for feeding cardinals. Northern cardinals prefer sunflower seeds due to their high oil content, which provides essential energy for these active birds.

Offering a variety of seeds, such as safflower seeds, can also entice cardinals to visit your feeder and provide them with a well-rounded diet.

You may have seen male and female cardinals kissing. However, what’s really happening is male cardinals are providing the female cardinal with food during breeding season.

Fruits and Insects for Variety

To provide variety in their diet, it is beneficial to offer cardinals a selection of fruits and insects. Soft fruits, such as berries, are particularly appealing to cardinals.

These can include blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, and elderberries. By providing a fruit-bearing shrub or tree in your garden, you can attract cardinals and provide them with a natural food source.

Cardinals greatly benefit from the presence of insects in their diet. Planting native plants (from central america and Northen America) and providing suitable habitats for insects will attract a wide variety of bugs and provide an additional food source for cardinals and many other backyard birds.

By allowing cardinals to forage for insects, you are enhancing their natural behavior and contributing to their overall well-being.

Ground and Tree Feeders

To accommodate the feeding habits of cardinals, it is essential to provide both ground and tree feeders. Cardinals are known for their ground feeding habits, as they are comfortable foraging on the ground for fallen seeds and other food items.

By scattering seeds and fruit on the ground, you can attract cardinals and create a natural feeding environment.

Cardinals are also arboreal and enjoy feeding from bird feeders placed on trees or hung from branches. Providing a variety of feeder options can cater to their preferences and attract them to different areas of your garden, allowing you to observe their vibrant plumage and charming behavior up close.

Common Questions on Feeding Cardinals

What is a cardinal’s favorite food?

Cardinals are primarily granivorous, meaning they prefer seeds. Their favorite foods include sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and cracked corn. They also enjoy a variety of fruits and berries and will occasionally eat insects.

Why don’t cardinals eat from feeders?

Cardinals will eat from bird feeders, but they have specific preferences. They prefer feeders that are stable with a large perching area, such as platform or tray feeders. If a feeder is too small, swings too much, or doesn’t offer them a comfortable perching space, cardinals might be reluctant to use it. They don’t like using hanging feeders for these reasons.

What attracts cardinals to my yard?

To attract cardinals to your yard, provide their favorite foods in suitable bird feeder. This includes offering sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and cracked corn in platform or tray feeders. Having shrubs and trees for shelter, nesting, and roosting can make your yard more cardinal-friendly. Fresh water sources like birdbaths can also attract these birds so that you can observe cardinals.

Also providing them plenty of cover for suitable nesting sites will help attract cardinals.

Do cardinals eat birdseed?

Yes, cardinals eat birdseed, particularly sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. These seeds are among their favorites, and they will readily come to feeders offering them.

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