Saturday, March 14, 2020

What do Northern Cardinals like to eat?

Northern Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds found in the eastern and southwestern United States. They are found in deciduous woodlands, riparian corridors, and deserts. In all regions they seek dense tangles and vines.

Cardinals are especially fond of suburban yards. Both the bright red males and olive brown females have a crest and large conical red bills. These bills are perfect for eating larger seeds at backyard feeders such as sunflower and safflower seeds that cardinals really like. Keep reading to learn what else that Northern Cardinals like to eat and how to attract them.

This page is a supplement to my overview page on attracting Northern Cardinals. That page leads to other more in-depth pages answering questions like Where do cardinals live? Where do they nest? How do you identify them?

Male Northern Cardinal at metal hummingbird feeder
Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Diet and natural foods

Northern Cardinals eat insects in spring and summer. They eat a wide variety of insects. Beetles, spiders, termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, cutworms, are just some of the arthropods that cardinals eat.

Northern Cardinals will eat many kinds of wild fruits and berries when they are ripe, summer through winter.

In winter, cardinals eat primarily seeds, including grass and weed seeds. They will eat tree nuts. They also eat waste grains such as rice, corn, and oats.

 In spring, cardinals also eat flower blossoms and buds of elm trees and other plants.

Wayne Peterson of the Massachusetts Audubon Society discusses what cardinals eat in this short video.

Northern Cardinals at the backyard feeder

Foods to attract Northern Cardinals

The colorful Northern Cardinals are easy to attract to your bird feeders. They really like suburban backyards that contain broadleaf trees, scattered conifers, and denser bushes and vines.

Cardinals like sunflowers. Since they have a larger stronger bill, they aren't as picky as some smaller sparrows and finches. They love black oil sunflower seeds, but also the larger eat striped sunflowers with their heavier shells.

Another seed that Northern Cardinals like are safflower seeds. Many birds that eat sunflower seeds will also eat safflower seeds. Given the choice, though, studies show that black oil sunflower seeds are preferred by all birds over safflower seeds. Nevertheless, cardinals find safflower seeds a close second. Thus, you can find "Cardinal Mix" bird seed that is a combination of sunflower and safflower seeds. Here's one:

The cardinal mix above contains black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. It also contains white proso millet--a favorite of most backyard seed eating birds--and cracked corn. Cardinals like cracked corn, more so than many other backyard birds.

Some backyard bird feeding enthusiasts put out safflower seeds only in a separate feeder for cardinals. This is because squirrels generally don't like safflower!

Of course, you can put out fruits and berries for cardinals, too. Apples slices are one fruit mentioned specifically that cardinals will eat.

Crushed peanuts are also mentioned by some as eaten by cardinals. Also suet, but small shreds rather than blocks. I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps because many suet feeders are hard for cardinals to perch on? They do need a solid shelf on which to stand and feed.

What is the best bird feeder for Northern Cardinals?

Northern Cardinals naturally like to feed on the ground. Thus they like platform feeders and hopper feeders with ample ledges or trays to stand on. [See my article on different types of bird feeders.]

A platform feeder with safflower seeds spread out will allow cardinals to feed and will not attract squirrels! These can be placed quite low to the ground. In fact, you may scatter some safflower on the ground if you know you will be having cardinals visit.

If you feed a seed mix, or primarily sunflowers, you'll want to add squirrel baffles to your bird feeder pole or use a "squirrel-proof" feeder. That is, if you have squirrels in your yard.

The window bird feeder from Amazon below has excellent reviews. It allows for close-up views of cardinals and other birds. Once you have birds feeding regularly in your yard they will more quickly find and approach a window feeder. Once they are accustomed to seeing you through the window, they will gradually become less wary and flighty.

The squirrel resistant bird feeder from Amazon in the middle below has an adjustable trigger that closes the feeding ports when heavy squirrels (or Starlings) land on the perch. The feeder is rather large, so doesn't have to be refilled as frequently. It will need a sturdy mounting pole, though.

The fly-thru platform feeder from Amazon below has a screen bottom to help keep bird seed dry and rain will drain through. Cardinals will really like this feeder. so will sparrows, towhees, and other ground-feeding birds. Unfortunately, starlings, blackbirds, and jays may find this too easy to steal food from. So this might be a good feeder to stay with simply safflower, which other birds might not eat as readily.

Feeding and foraging behavior

Northern Cardinals normally feed on the ground. They hop along, searching for food. Sometimes they scratch at the ground or kick over leaves. They usually don't venture far from cover.

They will feed on the ground as described above, under your feeder, looking for any spilled seeds. But they will also fly up to your feeder if it is a platform or has a wide enough tray on it to feed comfortably.

In the feeder they usually sit still and "chew" their food. They manipulate the seed in their bill and crack it open. Then they use their tongue to remove the seed. They swallow the seed kernel and let the inedible shells fall out of their mouths. Other smaller nuthatches and chickadees will grab a single seed and fly off to pound it open on a convenient tree branch. Not so the cardinal. The cardinal will just sit there in the feeder and eat one seed after another, as will sparrows and finches.

In the spring and summer you may only have singleton cardinals and pairs coming to your feeder. During this time the pair can be highly territorial and drive off other cardinals. After the breeding season the young-of-the-year may hang around the feeders for a while. But the parents may drive them off as they raise another brood immediately after.

In winter, though, Northern Cardinals can form large friendly flocks of up to 50 birds! Do you have enough seed for that?!!! Perhaps you won't have that many birds at once, unless you live in the center of their range in the southern Midwest or northern Southeast.

Are you thinking that there are cardinals around but they just aren't coming to your feeder? Try looking again at dawn and dusk. Northern Cardinals will often be the first birds at your feeder in the morning. They may be the last birds to feed at night. This may be happening before sunrise and after sunset, but not in full darkness. They may be coming to your feeder when you're not expecting and not looking!


Northern Cardinals love water! They both bathe and drink from bird baths. Dripping water, misters, or fountains really add to the appeal of bird baths for all birds, including cardinals.

Cardinals are larger than some other backyard feeder birds. So they will be at home in a larger and deeper bird bath. They may use the larger decorative baths that some of the smaller birds avoid.

Here is a larger clay one offered by Amazon. Best of all, it has a cardinal decoration on it!

Of course, being a ground feeder, cardinals would just as readily use a clay saucer on the ground.

Return to the overview page on attracting Northern Cardinals.


  1. I have just discovered your posts. They are fascinating, so informative, and very helpful. Thank you so much from Western Pennsylvania.


January 2023: Thank you so much for visiting! I am working on a YouTube channel on birds and bird watching. Check it out here:


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