What Do Cardinals Eat?

Category: Birds.

Cardinals, also known as cardinal-grosbeaks and cardinal buntings, are a Passerine bird or songbirds found in both North and South America. These are hardy little birds, with strong beaks for eating seeds with. On average, the family range in size from 4.7 inches to 9.8 inches in length.

A female Northern cardinal eating a katydid. © Bob Warrick.

Their physical characteristics

The two sexes are very different in appearance, with the male Northern cardinal having a distinctive red crest. It was this red crest that got the bird named, as it looks like a Catholic cardinal’s miter. Most birds in the cardinal family are doing well, and are not on any endangered list, although some are classed as near threatened.

A cardinal’s diet

The entire family eats a huge variety of fruits and seeds, so they spend a lot of time foraging and flitting from plant to plant. They also drink fresh water from ponds and streams, as well as garden fountains. They like to stay around 15 feet above the ground in berry-bearing bushes, or lower down, eating from seed-carrying plants.

Northern and Southern Cardinals

A male cardinal eating berries. © Macomb Paynes.

Cardinals living in the northern half of the territory like to eat field corn, sumac, vervain flowers, oats, grapes and sedge, while their southern cousins prefer blackberry, plantains, ragweed and wild cherry.

Feeding cardinals

If you like to feed birds in your garden, you’ll see that cardinals eat mostly from the ground, and prefer to sit on perches if they use a feeder. They can’t resist sunflower seeds, or safflower seeds. Safflower seeds are unpopular among other birds, so if you want to attract cardinals to your garden, put some safflower seeds in a cardinal-exclusive pot or feeder.

A Brazilian cardinal pauses while feeding on a fallen mango fruit. © Scot Nelson.

What else can you can feed them with?

You will also see that they enjoy millet, peanuts, raisins, white bread and squash seeds. There’s anecdotal accounts of cardinals eating dry cat food, although it’s not sure if this is widespread behavior among the family. In winter, though, they will flock to suet balls, especially if there is a few sunflower seeds to be pecked out of them!

Caring for an injured cardinal

An often overlooked part of the cardinals’ diet is insects. They will eat beetles, flies, centipedes and katydids, as well as butterflies and moths. A lot of the insects actually go to the nestlings, as they need a source of good quality protein and fat. If you find a cardinal that’s fallen out of its nest, you should feed it with dry cat food mixed with water, as well as tinned cat food and even tinned fish, like tuna or salmon. You must make sure that you give the bird water from a pipette, but don’t give it milk.

Don’t forget about the water

As well as all this food, don’t forget that all wild birds need a steady supply of fresh water, and cardinals will like to visit birdbaths all year round. In the colder north, it’s advisable to put your birdbath in a sunny spot, or to put it near an outdoor heater when it’s very cold to stop the water freezing over. Another idea is a small fountain or waterfall, which will attract the birds in the summer, as they’ll want to bathe. In the winter, it’ll be a source of clean, relatively warm water.

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