What do Cardinals Eat?
Feed Them This to Attract Them!

Are you in search of the best feed that you can provide to attract Cardinals to your backyard? Read ahead to find out more about it.

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David A. Swanson

May 30, 2021

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What’s This Post About?

Most of the time when people say Cardinals, they mean Northern Cardinals which are also known as Cardinalis. The chances of you coming across cardinals in your backyard might be high if you happen to live in the regions in which they are present.

However, what most bird lovers contemplate is, what can they feed cardinals to attract them to their backyards? To attract cardinals, you can use a few tricks and tips that might also include maintaining a healthy bird feeder for them.

If you already have a bird feeder then making changes or trying new feed might also make a difference.

Cardinals eat various kinds of seeds that include black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer seeds, peanut strips, sunflower seeds, and cracked corn seeds. Cardinals are not picky and they can eat a variety of bird seeds with selective natural fruits that include mulberry trees and dark-colored berries.

a cardinal visiting a feeder

What Do Cardinals Eat?

Cardinals are famous for being seed lovers and they can consume almost all types of bird seeds. Even when they are offered to have some fruits, they discard the pulp to get out its seed and munch on their favorite part. One of the most favorite seeds of cardinals is black sunflower seeds and nyjer seeds.

There are a couple of natural fruits that might attract cardinals and it includes mulberry trees, blueberry bushes, and a few dark-colored berries like serviceberries, crabapples, mulberries, elderberries, and other wild fruits.

In terms of seeds, they like a variety including squash seeds, sunflower seeds, and 39 different types of weed seeds.

bird seed

What Type of Food Do Cardinals’ Hatchlings Eat?

Since hatchlings are very young and need to grow in terms of size, they need more protein rather than carbs. That is why cardinals feed their hatchlings with insects, exclusively that are rich in protein along with larva bugs and butterflies.

By feeding a protein-rich diet to hatchlings, parent cardinals help their hatchlings grow so they can become bigger and can develop their flying skills. Not only common insects but they also catch butterflies and larva bugs from plants.

If you plant those bushes and small plants that are good hosts of butterflies then you can help those wearing parents in gathering up enough protein for their young ones.

a butterfly on a plant

More so, on average, 75% of the food that adult cardinals consume originates from plants. During summers, their breeding season begins and they consume a diet that majorly comprises insects.

Do Cardinals Eat Anything Other Than Seeds?

Even when cardinals decide to eat something other than seeds, like fruits, they try to go for its seeds mostly by discarding the majority of the fruit pulp.

Yes. While seeds are the topmost favorite food of cardinals, they do like other food like berry and fruits as well. Cardinals can be found eating a lot of berries and other kinds of foods.

Since cardinals do not migrate, they are flexible with their food supplies and can consume a diet comprising of multiple items. They are very adaptive as resident birds.

Hence if you try to feed cardinals coming to your garden or wish to attract more, you might put those fruits in your bird feeder that have larger seeds inside them. It might also be a great idea if you look for those kinds of berry bushes that have variable fruiting times.

Cardinals also get attracted to dwarf shrubs because they forage low on the ground.

True Fact!

The cone-shaped beaks of the cardinals are made in such a way that they are naturally adapted to eating seeds and easily open the hulls on seeds. They can also open shells on nuts very efficiently. Not only this, Northern Cardinals have been classified as granivorous animals which means the major part of their diet consists of seeds.

Maintaining Consistent Water Supply

As an enthusiastic bird lover, you must ensure that your garden has all the necessities that help in attracting birds. The birds in your yard including cardinals will be looking for a consistent water supply in the winter months when it gets harder to find non-frozen water.

Since cardinals in particular do not migrate in winters, you will have to make it a point to provide them with running water all through the year, even on freezing days!

a cardinal bird in water

Hence, you must prepare your mind to make some changes to your backyard making it more cardinal friendly. You can attract them by being consistent with your acts of supplying food and water as cardinals are very sociable birds.

If cardinals don’t receive consistent water and food supply, their average lifespan comes down to approximately three years.

Did You Know?

With regular water and food supply, a cardinal can survive up to 15 years, as the longest living female cardinal was found in Pennsylvania and her age was recorded to be 15 years and 9 months.

How to Create a Welcoming Environment for Cardinals?

a cardinal pair of male and female

To create a welcoming and suitable environment for cardinals, make them feel more secure by providing natural and effective shelters for them. You can place trees and plant shrubs in your backyard and plant bushes around the boundary which will provide natural shelter and nesting areas for cardinals.

To attract and create a welcoming surrounding for cardinals, your goal should be to keep the feeder filled with the feed they prefer.

Moreover, you can also put some food like seeds on the ground of your garden under the feeder.

Do remember to provide the same feed source to the cardinals visiting your backyard throughout the year as they are non-migrating birds and there is a high chance that they will visit your garden in search of food.

Why Do Cardinals Have Red Feathers?

a northern cardinal foraging

Just like humans, cardinals also have pigmentation in their feathers and the vivid crimson color of Northern cardinals is due to their carotenoid pigments.

These pigments are found in various red fruits that are the major part of cardinals’ diets. However, the difference in male and female cardinals is due to the difference in their diet.

Male cardinals have more scarlet-hued colored snacks which make them have brighter red color in their feathers. This bright red color also allows the male counterpart to attract the mate successfully.

The red printed plants that they usually like and get attracted to include raspberry, winterberry, sumac, and hawthorn.

Interesting Fact

There are a few Northern Cardinals that are found occasionally with a lack of their beautiful red pigment. In these cardinals, the red color gets replaced by lively yellow or orange pigment resulting in a yellow cardinal. This phenomenon is usually provoked by a genetic plumage variation known as xanthochroism.

Where Do Cardinals Prefer Nesting?

When it comes to making nests, the key for a cardinal to find the primmest location is to have maximum camouflage, dense shrubs, and a couple of trees as well. Unlike most birds, cardinals prefer having their nest at a low height of about 4-8 feet above the ground.

Since cardinals are one of those birds that are territorial, the male cardinal will stay near the nest.

If you eagerly want to see cardinals come to the yard throughout the year, you better try to become a good host for a nesting pair by providing them with supplies to attract them.

Around April or May, a cardinal may look out for evergreens that can provide them with protection. The pair will be coming to almost the same location or nearby sites to raise several broods a year.

northern cardinal brood


If you plant a mix of small-sized dense trees and shrubs in your garden then you can attract any mating pair of cardinals. This is another tip you can use to attract cardinals besides feeding them their desired food. Some of the plants that you can try are eastern red cedar, roses, wild grapevine, nannyberry, and boxelder to provide them with nesting material and environment.

What are the Ways to Attract Cardinals in Winter?

Although cardinals are mostly found foraging in the open ground, they like to prefer living in a place with shelter and safety for them. They usually forage on those grounds where they have a nearby shelter to retreat.

When summer season arrives, these cardinals use the same shrubs served as a nesting site the previous year. However, in winters, they mostly escape to evergreens to live their best life.

When it’s cold around them, they are found to be moving in flocks in search of food. This way they are more protected and safer. So if you want to attract them to the yard, you can offer plenty of food and get the best chance of seeing a whole flock in your garden.

You can also try putting juniper, spruce, and arborvitae in your yard.

a female cardinal in winter

Can Cardinals Be Hard to Find?

Although cardinals have a very bright and eye-catching color that can be seen from far, however, they can sometimes be very hard to spot.

These beautiful birds prefer to hang out in dense and shrubby areas among tangled branches which can make them hard to spot.

Moreover, their nests are in particular areas that are covered in well-sheltered areas. Their nests however can be found on trees and shrubs at low height only about 14 to 15 feet above the ground.

Yet one of the best ways to spot cardinals is to hear them singing their tune. The common time observed is at nightfall and the beginning of the day.

Keep Reading!

Anyone who has seen cardinals once wants to see them again because of their beautiful and vibrant color and to see them more, you might have to attract them by providing the most suitable bird feed in your backyard.

Cardinals are not picky when it comes to food and they can be liking almost every seed you leave for them. However, their preferred seeds include black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer seeds, and peanut strips.

They might also munch some fruits however, most of the time they end up leaving the pulp to enjoy their favorite part that is the seed.

I hope this blog helped you in finding what do cardinals eat and how you can this to your advantage to attract them to your backyard.

If you are successful in attracting a large number of birds, I would recommend you to read my blog on essential bird-watching gear to exemplify your bird-watching experience.

Backyard Bird Watching Essential Gear for Beginners - Fantastic & Amazing Guide

Are you interested in knowing what could make your bird-watching experience enthralling? Read on to find out about the essential gear you need to own.

David A. Swanson Picture

By David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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David A. Swanson Picture

David A. Swanson

Bird Watching USA

My name is David and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!



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