A Complete Guide on Feeding Any Cardinal Bird

cardinal eating seed
Cardinals will eat most seeds, nuts, fruit, berries, suet, and insects. Use a hopper, platform, or table feeder for feeding cardinals, since these songbirds are ground foragers and like to look for their food in open spaces. It is recommended that people feed cardinals, especially through the mating season from March to September. 

Cardinal birds are omnivores and eat quite a variety of foods! With the right mix of fruits, insects, and bird seed, you’re sure to have these gorgeous red birds flocking to your yard year-round.  

So, what are the cardinal bird’s favorite foods, and do these non-migratory birds need different foods in the winter?

We’ll tackle these and other common questions about feeding cardinal birds.

Northern Cardinals Favorite Foods List

Northern cardinals love a variety of seeds like white milo, black oil sunflowers, and safflower seeds; all of these seeds will quickly attract cardinal birds to your backyard bird feeder.

You can buy commercial bird seed or mix your own. Just make sure you’re using seeds meant for birds and not for human consumption.

Cardinals will enjoy a mix of any or all of the following favorite cardinal foods:

  • white milo
  • millet
  • black oil sunflower seeds
  • safflower seeds
  • weed seeds
  • cracked corn
  • shelled and crushed peanuts
  • squash seeds
  • hulled pumpkin seeds
  • crushed almonds
  • crushed cashews

If trying to avoid attracting sparrows, stick to larger, harder seeds. Cardinals have strong beaks and can eat many too difficult seeds for sparrows to eat.

What do cardinals eat? Cardinal pictured eating a wild berry hanging from a twig.
Cardinals eat wild berries.

Feed Cardinals Suet and Fruit

Cardinals will eat a variety of store-bought suet. They will also eat many types of fruits as long as they are cut into small enough pieces.

Choose suets made for omnivorous songbirds. Many suet brands will list the bird species on the back of each suet block.

Fresh and dried fruits are great for cardinals as long as they are free of sweeteners and in small enough pieces.

Here are a few fruits they enjoy during the warmer months:

  • blackberries
  • raspberries
  • elderberries
  • blueberries
  • mulberries
  • grapes
  • apples
  • watermelon

Be sure to clean leftover fruits daily to avoid attracting pests.

Watch our video and discover 10 facts about Cardinals you may not have known about!

The Diet of Cardinal Nestlings

Baby cardinals are fed insects and other invertebrates by their parents. When they are older, the male cardinal will bring whole bugs to the nest for the baby cardinals to eat.

It’s important to plant and maintain native plant life in your yard as well. Not only do they provide places for songbirds to nest, but they also attract the insects that make up a good part of the cardinal bird diet.

Sumac, dogwood, mulberry trees, and serviceberry trees are all great at attracting the cardinal’s favorite invertebrates. They also make great nesting sites. Leftover fruits in bowls nearby, but not too close to bird feeders also bring insects that cardinals can munch on.

Cardinals enjoy several different bugs:

  • Butterflies and moths
  • Grasshoppers and crickets
  • Spiders
  • Locust and katydids
  • Beetles of all types
  • Ants
  • Centipedes and mealworms
  • Caterpillars and moth worms
  • Cardinals will also eat snails, but wild-caught snails pose a parasite risk to birds and other animals.

While providing bird seed to backyard birds is beneficial, giving them ample room and resources to hunt their insects is also good for our feathered friends!

What do baby cardinals eat?

Best Feeders for Cardinal Birds

Hopper feeders or platform feeders are the best bird feeders for cardinals.

Hopper feeders and platform feeders are ideal for cardinals since they like to stand in their food while eating. Cardinals will also eat in groups instead of one or two birds at a time.

Cardinals also like large tube feeders like the kind hung from a pole or supported by a stake in the ground.

If you choose a tube feeder, ensure the bottom tray is wide. Otherwise, cardinals will wait until other birds spill the seeds so they can eat from the ground.

Cardinals like to be shielded when they eat, so keep your bird feeders and other food sources close to trees and bushes.

If squirrels are around your yard, a squirrel-proof feeder is a must. Squirrel-proof feeders can be found in online stores like Amazon. If you already have bird feeders hanging from poles, you can buy a squirrel baffle to keep squirrels from climbing the poles.

Make sure to keep bird baths nearby, too! Fresh water is an important part of balancing the cardinal diet.

desert cardinal eating seeds
Desert cardinal eating seeds off a wooden ledge.

How do you tell the difference between Northern cardinals and other cardinal birds?

There are two different species of cardinal birds in the United States. Northern cardinals are the all-over red birds with black masks and red beaks. The Desert cardinal is grayer, with red highlights on the mask, crest, chest, wings, and tail.

Both species of cardinal belong to the family Cardinalidae. The Cardinalidae family comprises cardinals, buntings, grosbeaks, and tanagers. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are non-migratory birds found throughout North America. The Desert cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus) home range is South Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The Desert cardinal is sometimes called the Pyrrhuloxia or Gray-tailed Cardinal. While it is also a non-migratory bird species, the Desert Cardinal has been spotted in a few cities in Mexico near the border of their home state range.

Should you feed Northern cardinals and other wild birds?

There has been some debate on whether feeding wild birds is beneficial. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and other top conservation groups, feeding wild birds is recommended. There’s no doubt that feeding wild birds brings joy to bird lovers.

Being able to attract certain types of birds and learning through observation is one of the many perks of backyard bird watching.

But feeding wild birds isn’t just good for humans; it also helps our feathered friends. Urban expansion, the changing climate, and predation by outdoor cats all contribute to wild bird population loss.

Providing nutritious bird feed for songbirds helps wild birds manage the many challenges they face in the modern world.

Wet desert cardinal feeding from a tube feeder
Wet desert cardinal feeding from a tube feeder

Do adult cardinals need special food during breeding season?

Cardinal breeding season is from March until September. During that time, offering high-quality cardinal bird feed and using suet feeders will help support adult cardinals.

Both male and female cardinals feed baby cardinals, so make sure you have plenty of food from early Spring to late Summer. They will raise 2-3 broods each breeding season.

While many bird species will use a nesting box or birdhouse, cardinals will not. Keeping thick shrubs and vining bushes in your yard will provide plenty of nesting sites for cardinals. Make sure to wait until late fall to cut back vining plants and trees, as you can accidentally disturb nestlings or destroy cardinal nests.

Do cardinals need different types of food during the winter months?

Like most animals, cardinal birds need more fat and protein in the winter. Fat seeds like safflower and high-fat suet feeders are a great way to support the cardinal bird during the harsh winter.

Cardinals are non-migratory birds, meaning they live in the same place year-round. During the winter, they eat what is available.

In harsher climates, providing a variety of high-fat content foods is even more important. You can also offer dried mealworms, like those sold for chickens or songbirds. For adult cardinals eating from a backyard bird feeder, it’s important to provide food during the winter months.

Make sure the food source is clean and easily accessible. Feeding cardinal birds is a rewarding experience for any backyard bird-watching enthusiast.

Follow these easy tips to attract cardinals to your yard year-round:

  •   Keep the food source near trees for coverage
  •   Use commercial birdseed specifically for cardinal diets
  •   Create your bird feed from the list of insects, fruits, and seeds above
  •   Leave your yard wild from Spring through summer to provide ample nesting materials and a site for wild birds
  •   Don’t forget at least one birdbath with fresh water!

Vianna Arenas

Vianna Arenas is a lifetime songbird enthusiast and nature lover. An avid backyard birdwatcher, Vianna loves gardening and creating a backyard oasis for the wildlife native to her home state of Texas. When she’s not camping or hiking with her family, she can be found sewing critter bags for orphaned wildlife.

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