What Do Cardinal Birds Eat? (Here Are Their Favorite Foods)

Cardinal birds are found in various habitats across North America and are known for their striking red feathers and unique crest. These beautiful birds attract many bird enthusiasts who want to learn more about their behavior and dietary habits. Cardinals are primarily omnivorous, consuming a wide variety of food items, from seeds and nuts to insects and fruits. Their diverse diet is important not only for their own nutrition but also for the proper care of their offspring.

During different seasons and life stages, cardinals adapt their diet to meet their nutritional requirements. They consume seeds, grains, and nuts, which provide energy, especially in the colder months, while insects and invertebrates serve as protein sources when feeding their nestlings and fledglings. Cardinals also enjoy a variety of fruits and berries, which contribute to their overall health. By understanding the dietary needs of these birds, bird enthusiasts can create a cardinal-friendly habitat around their homes.

Key Takeaways

  • Cardinals are omnivorous birds with a diverse diet consisting of seeds, insects, fruits, and other plant matter.
  • They adapt their diet according to seasonal changes and their nutritional needs during different life stages.
  • Creating a cardinal-friendly environment can help attract these beautiful birds and support their wellbeing.

Cardinal Diet Basics

Cardinal birds are known for their stunning appearance and melodious songs, but what is it that they enjoy eating? These attractive birds have a varied diet consisting of seeds, fruits, and insects, making them excellent omnivores.

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Seeds and Grains

Seeds are a cardinal favorite and form the major portion of their diet. They particularly enjoy sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and various grains. It’s common to find these beautiful birds visiting bird feeders filled with a variety of seeds such as black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer seeds, and peanut strips. Their love for seeds is evident, as the Northern Cardinal is known to consume around 90% seeds, grains, and fruits.


In addition to seeds and grains, cardinals also have a fondness for fruit. They are often seen snacking on wild grapes, dark-colored berries, and fruits from mulberry trees. Feeding on fruit helps provide the cardinals with essential nutrients that support their overall health.


Insects form another crucial element of the cardinal diet. Cardinals like to feast on a range of insects including flies, grasshoppers, spiders, and crickets. Insects are an excellent source of protein, which is particularly important during their mating season from March to September. These birds also feed on insects when raising their young, as baby cardinals require protein-rich meals for proper growth and development.

Overall, having a diverse diet is vital for maintaining cardinals’ health and well-being. By offering various seeds, fruits, and insects in your backyard, you can attract these vibrant birds and support their nutritional needs.

Favored Seeds and Nuts

Cardinals are known for their diverse diet that includes an array of seeds, nuts, and other food items. In this section, we will be focusing on their preferred types of seeds and nuts, which play a significant role in maintaining their health and attracting them to your backyard.

Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds are a favorite among cardinals, mainly due to their high nutritional value and ease of access. These seeds provide essential nutrients, including fats and proteins, that sustain cardinals’ energy levels and overall health. You can often spot cardinals eagerly feeding on sunflower seeds at bird feeders or foraging for them in the wild.

Safflower Seeds

Safflower seeds are another popular choice among cardinals. They appreciate the slightly bitter taste of these seeds, and due to their preference, other birds usually avoid them. Consequently, having safflower seeds in your bird feeder may attract more cardinals while discouraging unwelcome guests, such as pesky squirrels.


Peanuts serve as a nutritious treat for cardinals who enjoy the variety offered by this delicious nut. Rich in proteins and fats, peanuts are an excellent energy source for these energetic birds. To attract cardinals with peanuts, it’s best to offer shelled peanuts or peanut pieces in a bird feeder, making it easier for them to access and consume.

Cracked Corn

Cracked corn is another staple in the cardinals’ diet, as they relish its taste and nutritional benefits. This versatile grain provides essential carbohydrates that contribute to their energy needs, particularly during cold winter months. Including cracked corn in your bird feed mix might encourage cardinals to visit your backyard more often, ensuring a diverse and satisfying diet for these beautiful birds.

Insects and Invertebrates

Cardinal birds are known for their diverse diet, which includes a variety of insects and invertebrates. In this section, we will discuss some of the common insects that cardinals depend on for nourishment.

Caterpillars and Beetles

Cardinals enjoy feasting on caterpillars and beetles, which provide a good source of protein. They hunt for these insects in trees, bushes, and on the ground. Caterpillars, for example, can be found on the leaves of several plants, while beetles can be discovered in a variety of habitats. By consuming these insects, cardinals help control their populations and maintain a healthy ecosystem.


Flies make up another portion of the cardinal’s insect diet. These pesky insects are often found in different environments, such as near flowers, fruits, or garbage. Cardinals catch flies in mid-flight or snatch them from surfaces, providing them with a quick and accessible meal.


Grasshoppers are another insect commonly eaten by cardinals. These insects are found in grassy areas and can be easily spotted due to their jumping behavior. Grasshoppers serve as a nutritious food source for cardinals, offering high protein content and other essential nutrients.


In addition to insects, cardinals also consume spiders. Though spiders are not insects, they belong to the invertebrate category and offer similar benefits. Cardinals usually search for spiders in various hiding places, such as underneath leaves, on tree trunks, or within tangled webs. By consuming spiders, cardinals help regulate their population and maintain a balanced ecosystem.

Fruits and Berries

Winter Months Diet

During the cold winter months, cardinal birds rely on fruits and berries to make up a significant portion of their diet. Berries are an essential source of nutrients and energy for these birds when insects and seeds become scarce. Some common berries that cardinals enjoy are sumac, dogwood, and hawthorn. These fruits provide cardinals with the sustenance they need to stay healthy and active throughout the season.

Shrubs and Trees

Cardinals are attracted to fruit-bearing shrubs and trees in their habitat. They prefer native plants that produce a variety of fruits and berries. Having these plants in their environment not only provides cardinals with a steady supply of food, but also offers shelter and nesting sites. To increase the likelihood of spotting these beautiful birds in your backyard, you can grow native plants and shrubs that bear their favorite fruits. A diverse mix of fruits and berries in their diet helps cardinals remain strong and healthy.

In addition to berries, cardinals have been known to feast on fruit like apples and blueberries. These fruits can provide essential vitamins and minerals for cardinals and can be a valuable addition to their regular diet.

By understanding what cardinals eat and tailoring their habitat to include diverse fruit and berry sources, you can help support these beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Feeding Nestlings and Fledglings

What Do Baby Cardinals Eat

During their early stages, baby Cardinals or nestlings rely on their parents for food. Primarily, they consume protein-rich sources, which ensure proper growth and development. Both male and female Cardinals diligently feed their young, bringing them insects such as flies, grasshoppers, spiders, and crickets. Besides insects, they also include grains, greens, and fruits in their diet, making it diverse and well-balanced. As the baby cardinals mature into fledglings, they start exploring their surroundings and begin consuming seeds, wild grapes, and various types of berries.

Attracting Nesting Cardinals

To attract nesting cardinals to your backyard, focus on providing them with shelter and food sources that are essential during the breeding season. You can plant native shrubs and trees with dense, tangled vegetation, as this creates an ideal environment for female cardinals to build their nests 5 to 7 feet above the ground.

Another way to attract cardinals is by offering their favorite foods in bird feeders. For adult cardinals, sunflower seeds and cracked corn are highly popular. In contrast, for nestlings and fledglings, make sure to provide insect-based protein sources. You can also grow native plants that produce berries and fruits loved by these birds.

A combination of suitable nesting habitats and readily available food sources makes your backyard an appealing and safe location for cardinals to raise their young. Remember to maintain a clean and safe environment to encourage these beautiful birds to nest and thrive.

Setting Up a Cardinal-Friendly Feeder

Types of Bird Feeders

When setting up a feeder to attract cardinal birds, it is important to choose the right type of feeder for their preferences. Cardinals tend to favor platform feeders and hopper feeders, as these feeders provide easy access to their favorite foods, such as sunflower seeds and cracked corn. Tube feeders can also be a decent option, but make sure to pick one with cardinal-friendly perches.

  • Platform feeders: These feeders have a flat, open surface that allows cardinals to feed comfortably while perched or standing on the platform.
  • Hopper feeders: Hopper feeders feature a large, central container that dispenses seeds onto a tray or platform below.
  • Tube feeders: Although not the ideal choice, tube feeders with wide perches and lower feeding ports can still attract cardinals.

Feeding Behavior

Cardinals have specific feeding behaviors that should be considered when setting up a feeder. These birds are typically more active during the early morning and late afternoon, so ensuring the feeder is stocked with fresh food at these times is essential. Cardinals also prefer feeders that are placed near shrubs and trees for cover, as they feel more secure when feeding close to natural shelter.

Tip: Choose a feeder location that provides a clear view from a window so that you and your family can enjoy watching the cardinals as they feed.

Tips for a Successful Cardinal-Friendly Feeder

  1. Offer their favorite foods: Cardinals love sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and insects like flies, grasshoppers, spiders, and crickets. Ensure the feeder remains well-stocked with these preferred food sources.
  2. Keep the feeder clean: Cardinals prefer a clean eating environment. Regularly cleaning and disinfecting the feeder will help prevent the spread of diseases and keep the birds coming back for more.
  3. Choose durable construction: Opt for a feeder made from strong, long-lasting materials to withstand weather conditions and deter squirrels and other unwanted visitors.
  4. Provide water sources: Cardinals, like all birds, need access to fresh water for drinking and bathing. Including a birdbath or shallow water dish nearby will further attract cardinals to your feeding station.

Creating a Cardinal-Friendly Habitat

To attract cardinal birds to your yard, it’s essential to provide them with the proper environment. This includes offering suitable food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. Cardinals particularly enjoy large seeds like black oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds, which are easy for their strong, thick bills to crack open.

When creating a cardinal-friendly habitat, ensure you’re incorporating native plants and shrubs, as these provide a natural source of food and shelter for the birds. Evergreen trees are an excellent choice for cardinals, as they offer protection during harsh weather and a safe place to build their nests. Planting a variety of vegetation in your garden will help attract cardinals and other bird species.

Water is an essential element when crafting a cardinal-friendly space. Providing a birdbath or a shallow water source for them to drink and bathe in will undoubtedly draw these beautiful birds to your yard. Keep the water clean and fresh, as inviting as possible for them.

Another important aspect of a cardinal habitat is ensuring there is ample shelter. These birds prefer areas with dense shrubbery or hedgerows where they can hide from predators and forage for food. Creating layers of foliage by incorporating ground cover, bushes, and taller trees will make your garden an appealing location for cardinals.

Lastly, don’t forget about providing bird feeders specifically designed for cardinals. Tube bird feeders are an excellent option for them, as they accommodate their favorite seeds and attract a variety of other bird species as well.

By considering food, water, shelter, and appropriate plants in your garden or yard, you’ll be well on your way to creating an ideal habitat for cardinal birds. With patience and dedication, you’ll soon be enjoying the sight and sound of these bright, cheerful songbirds in your very own outdoor space.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of seeds do cardinals prefer?

Cardinals have a preference for certain seeds in their diet, with sunflower seeds and safflower seeds being among their favorites. They are also attracted to cracked corn and various other grains. These birds can often be found munching on seeds at bird feeders or nearby ground.

Do cardinals eat insects and worms?

Yes, apart from seeds and grains, cardinals also feed on a variety of insects and other small creatures. Their diet includes insects like flies, grasshoppers, spiders, and crickets. Occasionally, they might also consume snails, tiny lizards, or even small snakes. These protein sources make up a significant portion of their food intake.

Are fruits a part of the cardinal diet?

Certainly! Cardinals enjoy consuming various fruits such as wild grapes, raspberries, blackberries, mulberries, and even apples and oranges. These juicy treats not only provide energy and nutrition but also add variety to their diet.

Which nuts can cardinals consume?

Although cardinals mainly rely on seeds and grains as a primary food source, they may occasionally consume nuts such as peanuts, almonds, and walnuts. However, it’s essential to note that these nuts should be served in moderation and in small, manageable pieces since they are not their primary food source.

Is nectar a food source for cardinals?

While nectar is primarily consumed by hummingbirds and some other nectar-feeding birds, there is no substantial evidence suggesting that cardinals rely on nectar as a food source. Instead, cardinals prefer seeds, insects, fruits, and some nuts as their main dietary intake.

Do cardinals eat berries and other small fruits?

Yes, cardinals love to eat various berries and small fruits found in the wild. Some of their favorites include dogwood berries, raspberries, blackberries, and mulberries. These small fruits provide essential nutrients and energy, making them an important part of the cardinal’s diet.

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