What Do Cardinals Eat? How to Attract Cardinals

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Attract cardinals by learning what cardinals eat, and where cardinals nest. Offer seeds and berries and grow shrubs for shelter.

The Best Ways to Attract Cardinals

cardinal at a hopper feederCourtesy Stephanie Schick
Cardinals frequently visit bird feeders

If you want to attract redbirds, you need to know, what do cardinals eat and where do they nest? Cardinals aren’t picky about food or how you offer it. They are frequent backyard visitors. For a surefire way to attract cardinals, fill a cardinal bird feeder with black oil sunflower seeds. But ambitious gardeners shouldn’t stop there, because the right plants bring in these ruby red beauties and other songbirds, too. The key is to focus on the trifecta of providing food, cover and places for cardinals to nest and raise young, says Gary Ritchison, an ornithologist at Eastern Kentucky University and writer of the Wild Bird Guide: Northern Cardinal. A deep dive into the life of these birds unveils clues to help you attract cardinals. 

Check out fascinating cardinal bird facts.

What Seeds Do Cardinals Eat?

cardinals on a seed bird feederCourtesy Clinton Meese
Male and female cardinal eating seed from a bird feeder

Feeders full of sunflower seeds or safflower seeds are a surefire way to keep cardinals happy. The shape and structure of a northern cardinal’s bill reveals the birds’ food preference. The downward curve, typical of seed-eating birds, allows them to crack open or crush seeds. Cardinals also have larger jaw muscles than many other songbirds, which means they can eat bigger seeds. When selecting plants to attract cardinals, look for some with medium-sized seeds as well as a mixture of seasonality. Seed-bearing plants to try include Purple Majesty millet, nasturtium, purple coneflower, safflower, sunflower and sweet pea.

Don’t miss these simply stunning bird photos of cardinals.

Cardinals Eat Berries

cardinals eat berriesCourtesy Nanci Natale
Cardinal in a winterberry bush

Although seeds are a favorite food, northern cardinals also eat a lot of berries. As nonmigratory birds, they seek a variety of foods as availability changes throughout the year. “They’re pretty adaptive,” Gary says. “They have to be, as a resident bird.” But as they consume fruits, studies suggest, cardinals still are after the seeds, often discarding much of the fruit pulp. For that reason, fruits with larger seeds may be more attractive. Look for berry bushes with a range of fruiting times and, since cardinals forage low to the ground, dwarf shrubs. To attract cardinals, try sumac, dogwood, hackberry, northern bayberry and serviceberry.

If you see a cardinal, here’s what it means.

Where Do Cardinals Nest?

cardinal nest and eggsCourtesy Leisa Duff
Cardinal nest with eggs and baby birds

Female cardinals lay three to four whitish-gray bird eggs with brown speckles in a nest of twigs and grasses hidden in a dense tree or shrub. For cardinal nests, concealment is key: The showy birds look for the camouflage of dense shrubs and trees. Compared to other birds, their nests are low, only 4 to 8 feet off the ground. Northern cardinals are territorial during breeding and the male cardinal bird dad stays near the nest. To see cardinals year-round in your yard, host a nesting pair. For their first nests in April or May, cardinals often choose the protection of evergreens. Pairs raise several broods a year and select different sites, so planting a mix of small, dense trees and shrubs is ideal. Some cover trees and plants to try are box elder, eastern red cedar, nannyberry, and shrub roses. Wild grapevine is a good addition, too, because cardinals use its bark for nesting material.

Do northern cardinals mate for life?

What Do Baby Cardinals Eat?

baby cardinals eatingCourtesy Tina Burrows
Female cardinal feeds a caterpillar to a nestling

For much of the year, 75 percent of the food that northern cardinals eat is plant material, but at the height of summer breeding season, cardinals supplement their diet with insects. They also will go after bugs to feed their nestlings. In fact, cardinal parents feed their young almost exclusively with insects, which provide the protein that nestlings need to grow muscle. When very young, baby cardinals eat soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars. To attract cardinals and help the weary parents, your garden should include butterfly host plants such as dill, fennel, hollyhock, mustard greens and snapdragon.

Don’t miss these cute and heartwarming baby cardinal photos.

Plant Evergreens to Attract Cardinals

Cardinals seek cover in evergreen treesCourtesy Ronald Washington
In winter, cardinals seek cover in evergreen trees.

Though Northern cardinals forage on open ground, the birds need a place to retreat quickly to safety. In summer, cardinals use the same dense shrubs that provide nesting sites, but in winter, they escape to evergreens. During cold weather, cardinals form flocks that move around in search of food. Yards that offer plentiful food and cover have the best chance of creating that picture-perfect vision of red cardinals dotting a snow-covered evergreen. Try arborvitae, juniper and spruce. 

Next, find out what a cardinal’s call sounds like.

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Heather Lamb
Heather Lamb is a writer and gardener from Columbia, Missouri.