What To Feed Cardinals In Winter: Winter Feasts




What To Feed Cardinals In Winter

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The frosty embrace of winter can be challenging for many backyard birds, but with a little preparation, you can turn your garden into a haven for the radiant Northern Cardinal. As their natural food sources dwindle during the colder months, cardinals rely more on backyard feeders for sustenance.

Dive into the essentials of winter bird care and discover how to provide the perfect feast for your crimson visitors, ensuring they sing their way through the season.

Cardinals in winter thrive on high-fat and protein-rich foods to maintain energy in the cold. The best options are black oil sunflower seeds, which they prefer due to their high calorie content and easy-to-crack shells. Safflower seeds are another top choice, less attractive to other birds, ensuring cardinals get their share. Offering unsalted peanuts provides vital fats, while dried fruits like raisins give quick energy. Including mealworms can supplement their protein intake, and always ensure they have access to fresh, unfrozen water. Regularly cleaning feeders is crucial to prevent disease spread.

Quick Summary

  1. Black Oil Sunflower Seeds: A cardinal favorite, these seeds are high in fat and provide the necessary calories that birds need during the colder months. Their thin shells are easy for cardinals to crack open, making them an accessible and nutritious choice.
  2. Safflower Seeds: Another top pick for cardinals, safflower seeds are not only nutritious but also less attractive to many other birds and squirrels. This means cardinals can feed with fewer interruptions.
  3. Peanuts: Offering shelled, unsalted peanuts can be a high-energy treat for cardinals. They are packed with fats and proteins that help cardinals maintain body heat and energy during winter.
  4. Cracked Corn: While it’s not their first choice, cardinals will eat cracked corn, especially when other food sources are limited.
  5. Fruit: Fresh or dried fruits, like raisins, currants, or apple chunks, can be a great supplement. They provide natural sugars that give birds a quick energy boost.
  6. Mealworms: These protein-rich offerings can be a valuable food source, especially when insect availability is low in winter.


  1. Fresh Water: Always provide fresh water, as it can be hard for birds to find unfrozen water sources during winter.
  2. Placement: Place feeders near shrubs or trees to provide cardinals with a quick escape from predators. Ensure you have planted trees and shrubs that cardinals prefer.
  3. Maintenance: Clean feeders regularly to prevent mold and diseases.
  4. Consistency: Try to keep the feeders consistently stocked, especially during severe weather, as wild birds come to rely on them.

What to Feed Cardinals in Winter

Feeding cardinals in the winter can be a delightful experience, but there are best practices to follow. Here are some do’s and don’ts for feeding a northern cardinal in the winter:


  • Provide High-Calorie Foods: Offer seeds in your bird feeders like black oil sunflower and safflower, which provide the energy cardinals need during the cold months.
  • Offer Fresh Water: Make sure there’s a source of fresh, unfrozen water nearby. Consider using a heated birdbath to prevent freezing.
  • Clean Feeders: Regularly clean and sanitize feeders to prevent the spread of diseases.
  • Offer Shelter: Place feeders near shrubs or trees. This provides cardinals with a place to hide from predators and offers protection from the elements.
  • Keep Feeders Full: Winter is a challenging time for birds to find food, so try to consistently replenish the feeders, especially before snowstorms or particularly cold days.
  • Diversify the Menu: In addition to seeds, offer fruit bits like apples or raisins and even mealworms to provide a variety of nutrients.
  • Use Platform Feeders: Cardinals often prefer platform or tray feeders, which provide a flat surface to feed from.


  • Don’t Use Low-Quality Seed Mixes: These often contain fillers like milo or wheat that cardinals and many other birds don’t prefer.
  • Don’t Forget Ground Feeding: Some cardinals prefer to forage on the ground. Spread some seed on a clear patch of ground for them.
  • Don’t Let Feeders Go Moldy: Wet seeds can develop mold. Ensure the feeder is dry and if seeds get wet, clean the feeder and replace them.
  • Don’t Place Feeders Near Windows: This can lead to window collisions. If you have feeders close to windows, install decals or other window collision preventatives.
  • Don’t Neglect Natural Food Sources: Even while you’re supplementing with a feeder, ensure your yard has native plants that produce winter berries or seeds.
  • Don’t Use Salted or Spiced Nuts: If offering peanuts, ensure they are unsalted and unspiced. Salt and spices can be harmful to birds.
  • Don’t Interrupt Their Natural Behavior: If cardinals are foraging naturally or seem uninterested in the feeder, don’t attempt to redirect them. They know best!

By adhering to these do’s and don’ts, you can create a winter haven for cardinals and enjoy their vibrant presence all season long.

Food TypeDescriptionBenefits for Cardinals
Black Oil Sunflower SeedsThese seeds have a high oil content, providing the essential fats that birds need during cold months.High in calories, provides necessary energy for winter.
Safflower SeedsThese seeds are a favorite for cardinals, and squirrels typically don’t like them, making them an ideal choice.Provides nutrition without attracting many pests.
Cracked CornAn affordable option that can be scattered on the ground or in feeders.Offers energy and attracts a variety of birds.
PeanutsOffer shelled, unsalted peanuts. Ensure they’re fresh to avoid mold.Good source of protein and fats.
SuetThis is hardened fat and can be purchased in cakes that fit into special suet bird feeders.Provides essential fats and calories during cold months.
MealwormsThese can be offered dried or live.Good source of protein.
Fruit BitsOffer small bits of fresh or dried fruits like apples, berries, or raisins.Source of vitamins and adds variety to the diet.
Thistle Seed (Nyjer)Less commonly consumed by cardinals but can be mixed in with other seeds.Good for attracting a variety of winter birds.


Seeds are a cardinal’s first choice for winter food. They provide essential nutrients and energy for these birds. Some of the best seeds to offer to cardinals include:

Black oil sunflower seeds

Black oil sunflower seeds are a high-calorie favorite among cardinals. Many other birds also enjoy these seeds, so having them in your feeder can attract a variety of bird species.

Safflower seeds

Cardinals are big fans of safflower seeds. The great thing about safflower seeds is that most other birds, as well as pests like squirrels and chipmunks, are less interested in them. This means that more safflower seeds will be available for your cardinal friends.

Special cardinal bird food blend

If you want to offer a mix of different seeds that are specifically formulated for cardinals, you can consider a special cardinal bird food blend. These blends often contain a combination of sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, milo, squash seeds, and other weed seeds that cardinals love.


Cardinals also enjoy eating grains in the winter. Grains provide a good source of carbohydrates and can help keep cardinals energized. Some grains that you can offer to cardinals include:


Oats are a nutritious grain that cardinals will enjoy. You can scatter oats on the ground or offer them in a tray or feeder.


Barley is another grain that you can offer to cardinals. They will appreciate the variety and nutritional benefits that barley provides.


Buckwheat is a great source of nutrients for cardinals. You can mix it with other grains or offer it on its own.

Cracked corn

Cracked corn is a popular food choice among many bird species, including cardinals. Just make sure that wild turkeys don’t get to it before the cardinals do!


Cardinals enjoy eating fruit, especially during the winter months when other food sources may be scarce. Some fruits that you can offer to cardinals include:


Cardinals enjoy all types of berries. You can offer them fresh or dried berries such as raisins, cherries, grapes, apples, plums, or blueberries.

Larger fruit like crabapples

Cardinals can also eat larger fruits like crabapples. If you have crabapple trees in your yard, cardinals will appreciate having access to these fruits during the winter.

Fresh or dried fruit

In addition to berries and larger fruits, you can also offer cardinals fresh or dried fruits. They will enjoy the sweetness and the variety of flavors that fruits provide.


Nuts are a high-calorie food source that can provide cardinals with the energy they need to stay warm during the winter. One nut that cardinals particularly enjoy is crushed peanuts. You can offer them in a tray or feeder.


Suet is a great source of fat and energy for cardinals in the winter, especially for the female cardinal. However, cardinals may have difficulty accessing suet from typical hanging suet feeders. Consider using suet nuggets instead, which are more accessible for cardinals, or a suet bird feeder which does not hang.


Insects make up a significant portion of a cardinal’s diet in the spring and summer. However, during the winter, insects can be hard for cardinals to find. You can give them a boost by offering live or dried mealworms. Dried mealworms are more convenient since they cannot escape the feeder.


While not a food, water is essential for cardinals in the winter. They need water for drinking and bathing. Providing a heated bird bath can offer lifesaving water to cardinals and many other birds on the coldest days of winter, especially if you do not live near an area with naturally running water.

Feeder and Location

Cardinals need a large and sturdy feeder to sit on while they cardinals eat because they are too large for most tube feeders. They also prefer to eat facing forward.

Northern cardinals prefer to feed on the ground, so you can also spread food directly onto the snow or bare dirt for them. However, keep in mind that other creatures may also take the food on the ground.

Feeder placement is also crucial for attracting cardinals. Due to their bright red color, the male northern cardinal is more susceptible to predators. The male cardinal prefer to have as much coverage from brush and vegetation as possible and will protect female cardinals and their cardinal nest by placing it in dense shrubbery.

Placing your feeder near evergreen trees and bushes will attract cardinals to your yard. Dawn and dusk are the most common times cardinals feed, but you can spot them at any time of day if you keep an eye out.

How Do Northern Cardinals Survive the Winter?

Northern cardinals have developed a range of adaptations and strategies to survive the cold winter months. They are non-migratory birds, meaning they stay in their habitats year-round, including during winter. Their bright red plumage, while striking, is also dense and provides good insulation against the cold.

Adult cardinals fluff up their feathers to trap more air, creating an insulating layer that keeps them warmer. They are also adept at locating food sources in winter, frequently visiting bird feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, their favorite.

They often form flocks in winter, which increases their chances of finding food and offers collective warmth during particularly cold periods.

At night, cardinals will seek out dense shrubbery or evergreen trees to roost in and for their cardinals nest, offering them some protection from the cold and potential predators. Their ability to adapt their behaviors (showing how smart cardinals are) and capitalize on available resources ensures their survival through the winter months.

FAQS on Feeding Cardinals in the Winter Months

Should I feed cardinals in winter?

Yes, feeding cardinals in winter is a great idea. During the colder months, natural food sources become scarcer, and cardinals, like many birds, appreciate the consistent food supply that feeders provide.

How do you take care of cardinals in the winter?

To care for cardinals in winter:

  1. Provide a steady supply of their favorite seeds, such as black oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds.
  2. Offer suet, which provides much-needed fats to help them maintain their energy levels.
  3. Ensure feeders are clean and free from snow or ice.
  4. Position feeders in sheltered locations to protect birds from cold winds.

How do you feed cardinals in the winter?

To feed cardinals in winter:

  1. Use large, platform feeders or hopper feeders filled with their preferred seeds.
  2. Ensure feeders are stocked consistently, especially during snowstorms when natural food is harder to find.
  3. Consider adding a heated bird bath or a bird bath heater to provide fresh water.

Do cardinals need water in winter?

Yes, cardinals need water in winter for drinking and bathing. Bathing in cold temperatures helps birds keep their feathers clean, which ensures efficient insulation. If you’re providing water, consider a heated bird bath to prevent the water from freezing.

Should you put bird feeders out in the winter?

Absolutely! Winter can be a challenging time for birds in terms of finding food, especially during snowfalls or in areas with prolonged cold temperatures. Bird feeders provide a reliable food source, and many bird enthusiasts find winter to be an active and rewarding time for bird watching.

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