What Do Cardinals Eat? The Definitive Guide To Their Diet

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What Do Cardinals Eat

Bird lovers oftentimes wonder how they can get more cardinals to come and feed at their feeders. One way to do that is to learn what kind of things they like to eat. This article will cover their dietary needs so you can make changes to the type of seed you set out in your feeders and bring more birds to your feeder.

Cardinals are widely considered the most inclusive eaters of any bird species. What does that mean? It means they eat a wider variety of food than any other birds. A typical adult cardinal diet consists of 30% insects and 70% fruits, grains, seeds, and different kinds of greens. Baby cardinals prefer greens and alfalfa sprouts when readily available. The northern cardinal typically forages for food sources along the ground. They look for food in bushes and along low-hanging tree branches. For water, northern cardinals drink from puddles and along the edges of ponds, lakes, rivers, or streams. Interestingly enough, the insects, fruits, and even greens all give them some water too.

What Do Cardinals Eat
photo credit: Timothy Dykes, unsplash.com

This definitive article, based on extensive research, will help you to find out what the most recognizable wild bird in the United States likes to eat to help draw more of them to your yard.

You’ll have no problem keeping…

cardinals coming back time and time again

…by setting out the appropriate food for them.

Believe me, it will make all the difference in the world. Soon your feeders will be stocked full of happy cardinals.

So, what do cardinals eat and how can you get them to continue to come and feed on your feeder? Well, for that information you’re just going to have to read further and find out.

You’ll find out:

  • What kind of food cardinals prefer
  • Where to position the feeder to make them feel comfortable
  • Techniques to get cardinals to return again and again
  • Dietary requirements from birth to adulthood 

What Do Cardinals Eat and How Can You Set Out The Appropriate Food For Them?

Some of you would probably be surprised at finding out there are forty species of cardinals, although the northern cardinal is by far the most widely known and most recognizable of those. Cardinals have an 11-inch wingspan and typically measure between 8.1 inches and 9.3 inches long. They weigh in at a measly 1.5 to 1.7 ounces. They are so incredibly abundant in both northern and northeastern states of the United States that seven states have honored them as their state birds. 

Males of the species have bright red plumage and are readily recognized by their black masks of feathers on their faces. The females have reddish streaks along the crest, wings, and tail although their overwhelming color of plumage is tan.

They mate for life and typically in the spring male cardinals will bring their mates sunflower seeds and feed them to her. The females will usually lay three or four eggs at some point during the spring mating season and then once again in the warmer summer months. During this time, the male cardinals bring food supplies to the nest for their hatchlings as well as for their mate. The males usually sing to his female counterpart and will watch over his mate as she takes care of feeding the babies.

When They’re Young

Cardinal hatchlings are ravenous when they are born and most parents have to feed them sometimes up to eight times an hour. The male is never at rest during this period, racing back and forth to the next with new supplies of food for his family. This happens for the first five days after which the feedings slow to three or four times per hour. Believe it or not, the fledglings will be able to not only fly after six or seven weeks but also able to feed themselves.

They are typically fed a fat-rich diet by way of insects. This type of diet ensures that hatchlings are given the type of nutrients to help them grow and build up their strength.

Adult Diet

Just like our diets change as we grow from children to adults so do the cardinals. While they still eat insects, they branch out and eat a wide variety of things. This helps them to never go hungry because if one segment of their diet grows scarce, they can always supplement it with some other aspect of their diet.

What an adult cardinal likes to eat:

  • Insects
  • Fruits
  • Seeds
  • Greens
  • Other Foods

Different Types of Fruits

One huge benefit northern cardinals have over other birds is that they live and forage in small towns, suburbia, woodlands, farmlands, or swamps. This means they never have to look very far to find some form of satisfactory food supply.  

They enjoy foraging for mulberries, elderberries, crabapples, and serviceberries. They can also eat the fruit directly from a bush or tree. These can include apples, pears, and strawberries. They are not picky eaters, even eating the fruit from a poison ivy plant.

Cardinals enjoy almost every type of fruit we do. You can share apple slices or raspberries, grapes, blueberries, raisins, cherries, or blackberries. The fruit you share with them can be either fresh or dried like what you would find in a pre-made mix.

Different Types of Seeds

Just like with fruits, cardinals are not picky about the kinds of seeds they like either. They like to hop and forage around bushes and shrubs along the ground. They will crack the seeds open with their beaks and eat the kernel whole. They will eat safflower seeds, sunflower seeds, squash seeds, black oil sunflower seeds, along with an unbelievable 39 kinds of weed seed. 

Their favorites are black oil sunflower seeds.

Why?

Well, they have thin shells which means it’s easy pickings for them. The seeds are full of:

  • iron
  • vitamin E
  • fat
  • B Vitamins
  • protein
  • fiber
  • calcium

They have enough energy to keep the cardinals going strong. They also have a high oil content unlike the hulled and striped sunflowers.

Most store-bought seed mixes come with considerable amounts of thick-shelled safflower seeds which are another favorite of the cardinals. The bonus of using them is that squirrels and sparrows don’t care for them so there won’t be a high level of competition for that type of seed as with other kinds.

The hulled sunflower seeds are the same as the black oil sunflower seeds

however,

they have the shells already removed.

This prevents a mess with hulls falling to the ground once cardinals crack them open. Other seeds that cardinals enjoy include box elder seeds, ragweed, and muskmelon.

Grains and Other Types of Food

Cardinals are the raccoons of the bird world. They eat:

  • oats
  • millet–small white
  • grey, red or yellow seeds seen in birdseed mix–bread crumbs
  • cracked corn
  • maple sap from holes in the trees

Another type of food some bird enthusiasts forget about is called suet. This is a kidney fat from sheep or cattle and is a high-calorie food full of nutrients. This food is extremely important during the long winter months when insects are non-existent. Suet offers plenty of energy to make it through the winter.

If you buy a store-bought suet ball, you’ll notice it contains sunflower seeds, cornmeal, peanut bits, and organic peanut butter. 

Insects

One collateral benefit of feeding cardinals and having them prowling about your yard is they are a perfect insect control mechanism. They help house owners, gardeners, and farmers from harmful insects such as aphids, grasshoppers, cutworms, bollworms, snails, or slugs.

Some insects cardinals seek are:

  • Katydids
  • Crickets
  • Beetles
  • Centipedes
  • Moths
  • Cicadas
  • Butterflies
  • Flies
  • Spiders
  • Leafhoppers

While the northern cardinal eats a variety of insects, seeds, and grains and does not migrate, the indigo bunting and scarlet tanager, which both migrate, eat primarily insects throughout the summer and do migrate. 

The rose-breasted grosbeak which is also migratory eats berries, bees, ants, and sawflies when traveling and moths when breeding. 

Cardinals are easy to please, even eating ants, mealworms, snails, dragonflies, and spiders.

How to Get Cardinals to My Yard

Well, now that you know what type of food cardinals like now you have to figure out the best way to present it to them. 

Setting out a bird feeder that cardinals love is an excellent way to get cardinals to your yard. Aside from enjoying these bright red birds feeding so close to your proximity, they will also help keep the insects to a tolerable level.

Cardinals typically enjoy honeysuckle hedges, hackberry, sumac, and dogwood too. They like yards with numerous trees and low-lying bushes because of the potential for numerous natural food sources and nesting options.

The best food is a readily prepared mix of safflower seeds, apple bits, berries, plums, peanut pieces, and black oil sunflower seeds. If you don’t have the time to dedicate to making your own mix, there are cardinal seed mixes available. 

The northern cardinal likes to perch on a firm bar or perch. Don’t buy free-swinging feeders and expect them to feed on them. They like to be stationary. 

Conclusion

Cardinals can live to about 15 years old. With a little help from you, they will come back to your feeder year after year and provide you with countless hours of free entertainment. They don’t migrate, so they will be with you year-round. Place the feeder in low tree branches or on a porch to allow for easy access.

Follow these guidelines of hours of enjoyable cardinal watching.