Cardinal Bird Food Guide: From Seeds To Berries, Lay A Backyard Feast & Attract Cardinals

by Lindsay Pereira
Cardinal bird food

With its gorgeous crimson plumage and charming bird calls, Northern Cardinals are one of the most desired backyard visitors. Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or simply someone who appreciates nature’s beautiful creatures, you may be interested in attracting this stunning species. If so, you’ll surely be pleased to know that it’s quite easy to persuade Cardinals to come for a visit, and possibly even, set up a home in your garden haven. With a few simple additions to your green space, you’ll be seeing a lot more red feathers flying around in no time!

Do you live in a “Cardinal Zone?”

Also known colloquially as the common cardinal or redbird, these crimson lovelies are native to southern Canada, the eastern section of the U.S. (from Maine to Texas), Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. In 1929, Northern Cardinals were introduced to southern California and Hawaii.

Regardless of the region, these birds search out their preferred habitats, which are wetlands, shrublands, gardens, and woodlands.

Cardinal diet in the wild

When foraging in the wild, Cardinals typically feast on:

  • Fruit
  • Grains
  • Seeds
  • Elm tree blossoms and bark
  • Insects
  • Maple sap

As it is a ground feeder, it hops around to search for food, looking through shrubbery and trees for their favorite fare.

When choosing insects, Cardinals prefer:

  • Snails
  • Grasshoppers
  • Cicadas
  • Beetles

Additionally, they almost exclusively feed their young chicks small insects.

In the summertime, Cardinals display a preference for seeds that are either already husked or easily husked. However, during the scarcity of cold winter months, they’re much less selective.

Transform your backyard into a haven for Cardinals

As with all animals great or small, Cardinals need shelter, water and food to survive. Turn your backyard, garden or green space into a favorite habitat by meeting all of these necessities, keeping Cardinal preferences in mind. If you’re not quite sure where to start, check out our post on how to attract Cardinals to your yard.

Choose the right Cardinal bird food

Cardinal bird feeding from the feeder

First things first, if you want to attract a specific bird, you’ll need to supply them with their preferred edibles. Since Northern Cardinals have a robust and broad beak, they’re capable of eating hearty foods and large seeds. To attract crimson featured friends to your garden, yard or green space, lay out a buffet with these Cardinal favorites.

  • Safflower seeds
  • Black oil sunflower hearts and seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds, without the husk
  • White milo
  • Oats
  • Crushed nuts (particularly peanuts)
  • Coconut (ONLY fresh, NEVER desiccated)
  • Cracked corn
  • Millet
  • Berries
  • Fruit (dry or fresh) such as apple, pears, and oranges
  • Berries such as strawberries and blackberries

In winter months, offer small chunks of suet as it gives Cardinals a good source of energy. These red-feathered birds like to eat in the early morning or late evening, so make sure to check your feeders regularly and refill them when they’re low. Once they become accustomed to your regular supply of food and realize it’s not a one-time occurrence, Cardinals are likely to take up permanent residence.

Consider providing mealworms for happy backyard guests

A fantastic source of protein for these crimson lovelies are insects. While you may not be into the idea of capturing wriggly worms and other equally yucky bugs, you can purchase mealworms for your garden visitors. As they are jam-packed with moisture and protein, live mealworms make an outstanding Cardinal bird food.

Provide live mealworms in the spring, a period when Cardinal parents are frantically foraging for food to feed their hatchlings. Dried mealworms, however, are an equally healthy alternative. Though, they do need some prep work since they require soaking in water beforehand. Above all else, avoid using any mealworms that look discolored, they may carry fatal diseases like salmonella.

Fruit: a sure-fire way to make friends with birds!

Another nutritious diet staple is fruit. With its simple sugars and high-water content, fruit is energy-rich. Whether it’s leftover fruit from the kids, windfall fruit from trees on your property or treats you’ve bought with your featured friends in mind, Cardinals will love them! Here are a few well-known favorites:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Plums

Aside from removing the seeds, there’s no further preparation, and you can just lay the food out on the ground or a bird table to attract the birds’ attention. Are you a hardcore DIY fan? Then check out this super easy bird feeder made of craft stickers if you or the kids are feeling a little bit crafty!

Nuts are a favorite tasty treat

Feeding Cardinal birds to nuts and seeds

Cardinals, along with a myriad of other bird species, simply adore nuts, especially peanuts. They’re a favorite because they’re tasty, and they have a high protein and fat content, keeping our fine-featured friends satisfied and full-bellied for extended periods of time. Try these feathered friend high-fat favs:

  • Peanuts (roasted)
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews

For bird lovers who wish to lay out a nutty spread, it’s essential to ensure your bag is from a reputable supplier. As with all food, this is to guarantee that Cardinals (and all other animals that wish to partake in the meal) aren’t poisoned.

Above all else, avoid salted nuts since high amounts of sodium will harm the birds. Roasted peanuts are better than raw because raw peanuts contain a trypsin inhibitor which can be harmful for the birds if they eat too many peanuts. Lastly, skip putting out in-shell peanuts. Bird parents who are in a hurry to feed their younglings might inadvertently feed them shell pieces, which may choke chicks. To make it easier to consume, crush the nuts – it just solves a lot of problems!

Protein-rich seeds are an easy treat

Rich in unsaturated fats and proteins, are they any birds out there that don’t love seeds? While whole seeds give Cardinals a more natural sense of foraging, they do require a lot more effort to remove the husk. Instead, in late autumn through spring, feel free to out crushed seeds or sunflower hearts, making it less energy-consuming to eat in the colder months.

Here are some great seed ideas:

Another option that’s low-cost and requires zero prep work is to purchase Cardinal-friendly bird seed mixes. While there are many brands that sell generic mix versions with the promise of attracting every single bird known to man, Wagner’s Cardinal Blend is species-specific, works exceptionally well and has a long list of positive reviews.

Use an ideal type of feeder

Have you decided to purchase bird feeder? Offering food and seeds to your red-winged pals is a thoughtful idea, but you’ll also need to take the shape and size of the feeder into consideration. Since we’re discussing Cardinals in this article, you’ll obviously need to find a feeder that’s sturdy enough to support their weight.

Cardinals are full-breasted, broad birds. As such, they’ll need a good amount of space when visiting a feeder. To ensure there’s enough space, opt for feeders with built-in trays or platform perches to make it easier for your new Cardinal friends.

For more information on the right kind of feeder for Cardinals, check out our in-depth post on the best Cardinal bird feeders.

What kind of Cardinal bird food do you offer in your garden?

Let us know in the comments!

You may also like

Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.