Cardinals, commonly called redbirds, are some of the most recognizable wild birds in the U.S.
When most people refer to cardinals, they’re talking about Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), which populate suburbs, woodlands and rural areas throughout the Northern and Midwestern U.S, southern Canada, some southern states and parts of California and Mexico.
The males sport distinctive bright red plumage with a black mask on the face. Females are tan with reddish streaks on the tail, crest and wings.
Cardinals measure 8.1 to 9.3 inches long and weigh 1.5 to 1.7 ounces, with an 11 inch wingspan. Abundant in the northern and eastern U.S., cardinals are honored in seven states as the state bird.
There are 11 genera and 42 species of cardinals, with the Northern Cardinal the most well-known.
So what do cardinals eat, and how can you attract them to your yard? Read on to find out.
What Do Cardinals Eat? (Eating Habits from Birth to Adulthood)
Cardinals mate for life. In the spring, the male cardinal brings sunflower seeds to the female and feeds them to her.
Females lay three to four eggs during the spring mating season and again in the summer. Male cardinals gather food and bring it to their brood’s nest after hatchlings are born. He sings to his mate and watches over her as she feeds the young.
Cardinal parents feed their babies a protein and fat-rich insect diet to build up the fledglings’ strength. They feed hatchlings three or four times per hour, up to eight times per hour.
After five days, the feeding times revert to three or four meals per hour. Fledgings should be able to fly and feed themselves at six or seven weeks.
So what do cardinals eat? Cardinals are among the most inclusive eaters in the bird kingdom. Their diet is 30% insects, with the remaining 70% consisting of fruits, grains, seeds and greens. (Other birds have a much shorter list of preferred food types.)
Adult cardinals eat many types of grasses and tree buds, and babies can be feed chopped greens and alfalfa sprouts.
Northern cardinals forage for food on the ground and in bushes and low tree branches. They drink water from puddles and the edges of ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. The insects, fruit and greens they eat also provide water.
Since cardinals, especially Northern cardinals, live and forage in suburbia, small towns, woodlands, swamps or farmland, they never have to travel far for food.
These songbirds munch on serviceberries, mulberries, crabapples, elderberries and other wild fruits straight off the bush or tree. Cardinals even eat fruit from the poison ivy plant.
You can share most fruits in your kitchen with the cardinals in your backyard. Cardinals eat most everyday fruits, including raspberries, raisins, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, apples, blackberries, and cherries, either fresh or dried in a pre-made mix.
Cardinals hop and forage on the ground, searching low-lying shrubs and bushes for seeds. Once they’ve found some, they crack the seeds open with their beaks and swallow the kernel whole.
They aren’t picky about seeds, either, and eat safflower seeds, squash seeds, sunflower seeds, black oil sunflower seeds and 39 types of weed seeds.
Black oil sunflower seeds have thin shells, making it easy for cardinals to break it open with their beaks. These tiny black seeds are full of nutrients to energize cardinal on their travels, including iron, Vitamin E, potassium, fiber, calcium, protein, fat and B vitamins. They have a high oil content, striped and hulled sunflowers seeds lack.
Thick-shelled safflower seeds are a cardinal favorite, and store-bought mixes contain a generous amount of this seed. Squirrels and house sparrows don’t like safflower seeds, so cardinals may not have a lot of competition for these seeds in certain regions.
Hulled sunflower seeds are the same as black oil sunflower seeds except the shells have been removed. This prevents hulls from dropping on the ground and causing a mess.
Lesser-known seeds cardinals prefer include box elder seeds, muskmelon seeds and ragweed seeds.
Grains and Other Foods
Suet, a high-calorie kidney fat rendered from sheep or cattle, provides nutrients for cardinals year-round. In winter, it’s a replacement for scarce to non-existent insects and offers energy to get through harsh weather.
Homemade or store-bought suet balls contain sunflower seeds, peanut bits, corn meal, organic peanut butter and other ingredients geared to cardinals or other bird species.
These hungry, omnipresent birds also eat oats, buckwheat, millet (a tiny white, red, grey or yellow grain commonly used in birdseed mix), maple sap from holes in maple trees and bread crumbs or bits of bread.
Like many wild birds, they’ll also eat cracked corn. Dried, cracked corn kernels are full of protein and fiber.
Cardinals help gardeners and farmers by eating plant-harming pests like aphids grasshoppers, slugs, snails, cotton cutworms and bollworms. Insects often come to cardinals, saving travel time for the birds.
Other insects cardinals eat include:
The indigo bunting and scarlet tanager, two migratory members of the Cardinalidae family, eat primarily insects and hunt bugs during the summer.
Another migratory member of the cardinal family, the rose-breasted grosbeak, eats berries when traveling, then eats sawflies, ants, bees and moths when breeding.
Common redbirds are as easy to please in their insect diets as their fruit and seed diets. They also eat spiders, mealworms, ants, dragonflies and snails.
How to Attract More Cardinals to Your Yard
Encouraging cardinals to visit your yard with a birdbath or backyard feeder is beneficial to both humans and the birds. Cardinals eat insects that destroy plants and present a nuisance to people.
The food humans provide keeps the birds healthy and happy. Watching these red-plumed creatures is a free source of entertainment for many people, and a learning experience for children.
Yards with honeysuckle hedges, dogwood, hackberry and sumac are likely to attract cardinals. A yard or garden with many trees, low-lying bushes and plants provides cardinals with plenty of natural food sources and nesting possibilities.
Fill your birdfeeder with peanut pieces, bits of apples, berries and plums, safflower seeds and black oil sunflower seeds. If you don’t have time to make your own, pet stores offer bird food mixes suitable for cardinals, as well as packages of safflower and black oil sunflower seeds.
To attract cardinals, buy a birdfeeder with a bar or perch around the trough to make it easier for cardinals to eat. It should have a tub feeder and tray or open platform. Don’t use a free-swinging feeder. It won’t provide enough of a stable perch for the cardinals.
You can also add a suet feeder if you find the birds enjoy suet as much seeds and nuts. A large suet cake is placed in a wire cage and suspended from a tree branch, about five or six feet from the ground.
Cardinals clinging to the tree in search of insects (or eating bark) discover the suet feeder and add another course to their meal.
Place feeders 8 to 10 feet from trees or other shelter to make the structure more inviting. Check the food level and birds’ comings and goings from a window close to the feeder. Cardinals feed first thing in the morning and later at night as a safeguard against predators.
If you see a “balding” male cardinal with no crest or head feathers, this may be due to dietary issues or parasites, but the condition isn’t serious. Plumage will grow back on its own. Add quality fruit bits and seeds to your birdfeeder to provide needed sustenance for “balding” birds.
Cardinals are shy by nature, but persistent, friendly birders may hand-feed them.
How Do Cardinals Eat and Drink in the Winter?
Cardinals get water in the winter from snow and the fruits and insects they eat. Other water sources, including ponds and lakes, may be frozen over.
Buy a birdbath with a heater to ensure cardinals have a supply of clean water. Attach a de-icer if you already have a birdbath.
Cardinals are more visible to dogs, wolves and other predators in the winter, and they protect their own during cold weather by traveling in flocks. Nesting in the warmth of large evergreens and other deciduous trees, cardinals are able to hide from danger as they search for food.
With the help of birdbaths and birdfeeders maintained by humans, these non-migratory birds are able to eat well and survive cold, harsh winters.
With the help of a lifelong mate, food and water from friendly humans, and a fertile home ground with plenty of insects and other natural food cardinals can live from 13-15 years. (It’s important to keep house cats, owls and other predators away from them to improve the chances of a long, healthy life.)
These attractive redbirds are a welcome sight all year long in many backyards, and the stars of many holiday cards and nature drawings.
If you’re interested in reading more about cardinals, All About Birds provides a comprehensive overview of this distinctive songbird. Birdwatchers can find more detailed information by reading Bird Watching Daily or reading the Wild Bird Guide – Northern Cardinal.