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What Do Cardinals Eat in the Winter?
The northern cardinal is a special sight at any time of year, but their red feathers pop even more against the white snow. If you’ve seen one on a cold day, you probably wondered: what do cardinals eat in the winter?
Since cardinals are non-migratory birds, they will stay in an area year-round as long as they can find enough to eat. If you had any visit over the summer, you can entice them to stay by making sure they have plenty of their favorite winter foods available. Luckily, they aren’t too picky! Cardinals primarily eat seeds, grains, fruit, nuts, and suet in the winter.
Seeds – A Cardinal’s First Winter Food Choice
Cardinals enjoy black oil sunflower, safflower, milo, squash, and many different types of weed seeds. Sunflower seeds are a high-calorie cardinal favorite, and many other birds will flock to a feeder with them as well.
If you’d like to offer food to cardinals specifically, try safflower seeds. Cardinals are big fans of safflower, but most other birds (and even pests like squirrels and chipmunks) are less interested in them, leaving plenty for your cardinal friends.
You can also give cardinals the best of both worlds by offering a special cardinal bird food blend.
Cardinals like to eat oats, barley, and buckwheat. Cracked corn is another good cardinal food – just make sure wild turkeys don’t get to it first!
Like most birds, cardinals enjoy berries of all varieties and even larger fruit, like crabapples. You can offer them fresh or dried fruit, like raisins, cherries, grapes, apples, plums, or blueberries.
Give cardinals a natural source of food and shelter by planting trees like sumac, hackberry, and dogwood in your yard.
Cardinals like to eat crushed peanuts, and their high caloric content makes them an excellent food to offer in the winter.
Cardinals benefit from the high fat content in suet, but they can’t readily eat from typical hanging suet feeders. Consider using something more accessible for them, like suet nuggets.
Insects make up most of a cardinal’s diet in the spring and summer, but often the birds can’t find them in the winter. You can give them a boost by offering live or dried mealworms. Dried mealworms are much easier, since they can’t escape the feeder!
While not necessarily a food, cardinals need water every day for drinking and bathing. A heated bird bath can offer lifesaving water to cardinals and many other birds on the coldest days of winter, especially if you don’t live near an area with naturally running water. Keep it clean and full, and the birds will thank you.
Feeder and Location
Cardinals need a large, sturdy feeder to sit on when they eat, since they’re too large for most tube feeders and prefer to eat facing forward. They naturally feed on the ground, so you can also spread food directly onto the snow or bare dirt for them. Of course, on the ground, it’s more likely to be taken by other creatures first! (For feeder options for cardinals and many others, check out the best bird feeders post).
The second, and perhaps most important factor of all, is feeder placement. Due to their bright red color, cardinals are even more susceptible to predators. This means they like to have as much coverage from brush and vegetation as possible. Setting up your feeder near trees and bushes will encourage cardinals to visit.
If you want to see one, keep an eye out at dawn and dusk – those are the most common times they feed, although you can find them at any time of day if you keep watch. Keep the feeder well-stocked, and they’re likely to become regulars.
That’s What Cardinals Eat in the Winter!
Like most birds who remain in the northeast during winter, cardinals require a great deal of food to stay alive. It’s estimated that only around 60% of cardinals make it through each winter. Providing some calorie-dense options, like sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet can be an excellent way to both attract and help save these beautiful birds. Enjoy your cardinals!
Want to learn more? Find out what other birds eat in the winter.