What Do Cardinals Eat?

What do cardinals eat?

I’m guessing this is a question you’re asking because you want to attract cardinals to your backyard?

Well good, because it’s a great place to start.

If you’re new to backyard birdwatching, you may not know that there are actually 42 species of cardinals in the USA.

Now we’re not going to go through all the species, but we can stick with one that you probably do know about.

That’s the Northern Cardinal.

This guide will help you to figure out what cardinals eat. You’ll also learn about cardinal eating habits during their life stages and through the seasons.

Armed with this information you’ll be able to stock your feeders full of food the cardinals can’t resist.

Ready? Let’s get started.

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What do Cardinals eat?

What do cardinals eat in the wild?

Let’s start with adult cardinals as this is the type you will see most in your yard.

Something you need to know about cardinals is that they are not fussy eaters at all.

That means they have quite a varied diet compared to other wild birds.

70% of the cardinal’s diet is seeds, grains, fruits, and vegetation. The other 30% is from insects.

It’s thought that this is a survival strategy by cardinals to help them find food during harsh winter conditions.

Let’s take a look at each food type.

What Seeds Do Cardinals Eat?

Cardinals are mainly ground feeders. That means they love to forage around for seeds.

They have strong beaks and can easily crack open hard hulls.

Cardinals aren’t picky when it comes to the type of seed they like. But there are some noticeable favorites they do prefer including:

  • Black oil sunflower seeds
  • Safflower seeds
  • Sunflower hearts

Add these seeds to your feeders and you’ll be on to a winner with the cardinals in your area.

Black oil sunflower seeds are packed full of essential fats. These are ideal for cardinals to eat during winter and breeding season when energy levels need to be high.

Safflower seeds as a great challenge for cardinals. The shells are tough so they love to break them open to get the meat inside.

The good thing about safflower is that it’s not really favored by bully birds such as starlings. That’s good news for cardinals as they can be skittish around other birds.

Sunflower hearts are a great alternative to sunflower seeds in their shells.

Why? Well, they won’t make as much mess with leftover hulls in your backyard.

If you’re after a ready-made mix for your feeders then Wagner’s Cardinal Blend is my top choice.

But there are other options.

If you want to know more about the seeds the Bird and Wild readers use to attract cardinals then check out this guide on the Best Bird Feed for Cardinals.

Seeds Cardinals don’t eat

You’ll find cardinal will give most seeds a try.

But one seed I’d tell you to avoid straight off the bat is milo.

Don’t get me wrong, the Cardinals will eat milo, but it’s not one they prefer.

And it certainly won’t have them racing back for more. That is unless they have nothing better on offer.

Milo is really a ‘filler’ seed for cheap quality bird seed mixes. So unless you’re on a budget opt for a cardinal-specific blend without milo.

What Fruits Do Cardinals Eat?

Cardinals are foragers so they will eat most of what is naturally available to them in the wild.

Fruit and berries of trees and shrubs are a great source of energy, vitamins, and minerals for cardinals.

When cardinals eat fruit and berries it helps the plant to spread their seed and grow more plants.

Cardinals will eat a variety of fruits including apples, strawberries raspberries, and grapes.

They even try fresh fruit you offer at your feeders such as watermelon or banana.

Yet, cardinals do have a preference for darker berries. This includes blueberries, cherries, blackberries, and mulberries.

Seed blends with dried dark berries mixed in are a good choice for adding to your feeders to attract cardinals in the winter.

What insects do cardinals Eat?

Adult cardinals will, for most of the year, follow a vegetarian diet of seeds, fruits, nuts, grain, and vegetation.

But cardinals are seasonal feeders. That means you’ll during the prime breeding season in spring and summer you’ll see cardinals eating insects.

This is because cardinal chicks need a high protein diet to grow and thrive.

As cardinals are ground feeders they’ll forage around the plants for crawling or weed insects.

Cardinals will eat medium to large Insects including:

  • Caterpillars
  • Beetles
  • Grubs
  • Spiders
  • Crickets
  • Centipedes
  • Worms

What Vegetation do Cardinals Eat?

As foragers cardinals will make the most of what nature gives them.

They do enjoy a bit of vegetation in their diet as it’s a great way to get to the seeds.

You may even see cardinals eating some grasses and the bid of low-lying bushes and trees in your yard.

Favorite  trees and bushes for cardinals to eat are :

  • Staghorn sumac
  • Dogwood
  • Amelanchier
  • Crabapple
  • Clematis
  • Hawthorn

What Grains do Cardinals eat?

Because Cardinals aren’t fussy eater they are also partial to a bit of grain in their diet.

Grain provides cardinal with energy and fiber to give them healthy digestion.

Millet is a favorite of the cardinals. That can be handy as millet is often used as a filler in a lot of commercial birdseed.

Other grains you can offer to cardinals are oats and buckwheat.

Shelled or cracked corn is a great addition to add to your feeders as cardinals enjoy this.

However, if you’re having trouble with pests like squirrels or sparrows I’d keep away from the cracked corn as they love it.

What other Foods do cardinals eat?

Cardinal will probably give a try to most food you put out to them.

But, that doesn’t mean you can feed them anything and everything.

If you want ideas of safe foods to offer check out this list of foods to offer birds from your kitchen.

What do baby cardinal birds eat?

Baby cardinals will mainly eat an insect diet.

That may surprise you as adult cardinals are mainly seed eaters.

Well, insects provide baby birds with lots of protein and water. These nutrients go a long way to helping them to grow quickly.

Baby cardinals still in the nest will eat insects that their parents have swallowed spit bag up (regurgitated).

This helps them to digest the food easily until they have the skills to eat the food themselves.

However, a baby cardinal chick’s diet will change quickly.

Once baby cardinals are able to fly (fledglings), the adult carinal will show them how to forage for food.

This is when the baby cardinals start to eat a more seeds, grain, and fruit-based diet.

What do cardinals eat in the winter?

Cardinals don migrate for winter so they need to learn to survive on food that is seasonal and local.

Insects are hard to come by in winter so their diet is more plant and berry-based.

But really they’ll eat whatever they can forage.

Eating what they can gives them the energy to keep themselves warm through the cold winter months.

Using feeder during the winter is a great way to attract cardinals to your yard.

The cardinals will recognize your feeders as a safe and good food source. That means they will likely keep coming back each day.

Look out for them early in the morning and just as the sun goes down.

Cardinal food FAQ

Here are a few questions we get asked a lot about cardinal eating habits.

Do Cardinals eat Suet?

Cardinals will eat suet, but it’s unlikely to be their first choice.

Suet feeders are quite popular with more aggressive birds like sparrows and woodpeckers. So cardinals will tend to avoid these if there are other birds around.

A berry scented suet cake with sunflower, safflower seeds and various nuts (like this one) will help attract cardinals.

You may find cardinals on a suet feeder first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Do cardinals eat Peanuts?

Yes, cardinals do like to eat peanuts from your feeders.

Cardinals will prefer to eat shelled peanuts. You might also have more success with crushing the peanuts too as some peanuts can be too large for them to handle.

A determined Cardinal may attempt to eat shelled peanuts but it can be quite a lot of work for them.

Do Cardinals Eat Oranges?

Cardinals will eat oranges if you offer them in your yard.

The good news is that oranges are a great source of vitamin c and water. Vitamin C rich foods are good for helping birds keep a healthy immune system.

You can easily offer up orange halves or slices to your cardinals on a ground feeder.

Cardinals tend to eat the juicy orange flesh, but don’t be surprises if they leave the orange peel untouched.

Do cardinals eat mealworms?

Yes, cardinals will eat mealworms if you offer them up at your feeders.

As mealworms are basically beetle larvae it natural for cardinals to eat this in the wild.

Mealworms are packed full of protein. Those extra nutrients can really help cardinals through the harsh winter months.

You can offer the mealworms up dried. However, some readers have more success with hydrating the mealworms first to plump them up.

Do cardinals eat Bread?

Cardinals will eat bread, but ideally, you should avoid feeding it to them.


Well bread is low on nutrients and will fill a carinal up without offering them much-needed energy or vitamins.

Offering up even a generic birdseed blend is better than offer bread to bird in your yard.

What do cardinals drink?

Cardinals drink water. They will find this at natural sources such as puddles, ponds, streams lakes and rivers.

They will also be attracted to your yard if you have a water feature like a birdbath.

Cardinals will also get water from their diet. That’s why eating a varied diet with juicy insects and vegetation is so good for them.

Final thoughts

So what do cardinals eat?

You now know that they eat a varied diet of seeds, grains, vegetation, fruits, berries, and insects.

Cardinals are not fussy eaters and will seasonal food that is local to them.

Offering a variety of food in your feeders is a sure way to attract cardinals to your yard. Opt for sunflower and safflower seeds with a bit of dried fruit and nuts thrown in.

Remember that cardinals will be scared off by other birds or animals that are attracted to the same food. This is common with peanuts and cracked corn in your feeders.

I hope you found this guide useful. Let me know in the comments below what food you’re using to attract the cardinals to your yard.

1 thought on “What Do Cardinals Eat?”

  1. I’ve noticed that peanuts are cardinals’ second favorite winter food after black oil sunflower seeds. Females, though they defer to males, will also go for peanuts first when the males are gone and some sunflower seeds are still left.
    Birds will eat millet, the white filler grain, only if absolutely nothing else is there. Also, pistachios are one of the least favorite for all the songbirds I feed.
    Lastly – when they get established at a feeding site, being early foragers, they retreat only in the face of the red-topped woodpecker (who of course is not a bully, but feared.) Evern blue jays keep their distance until the biggest male cardinals are done.
    Thanks for your informative site.


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