There are 53 species of Cardinals from the family Cardinalidae, which include the unmistakable Northern Cardinal, and they are found exclusively in the Americas and the Caribbean.
The cardinal family also includes some buntings, grosbeaks, seedeaters and tanagers. Still, there is much debate over their true classification, and some are instead included in other families, such as the Old World family Emberizidae.
Cardinals are hugely diverse and differ widely in their food preferences, so what do cardinals eat?
Most species of cardinals are generally non-fussy omnivores and have a diverse diet of both insects and fruits, nuts, seeds and other plant matter. One of the most common species of cardinals, the Northern cardinal, consumes some 90% seeds, grains and fruits.
A male Northern Cardinal eating seeds
Contrastingly, some grosbeaks from the same family consume more than 60% insects, particularly beetles, whereas others feed almost solely on seeds - such is the diversity of the cardinal family!
Different species of cardinals have markedly different beaks, and these go some way of explaining why species of birds within the cardinal family have such varying diets. Cardinal diets also vary considerably depending on whether it’s the breeding season or non-breeding season.
Read on to discover more about why cardinal diets are so diverse and other facts about the foraging habits of these quirky and colourful birds.
Generally speaking, cardinals enjoy a wide-ranging omnivorous diet of small fruits, berries, seeds and nuts, as well as numerous small insects, arthropods and invertebrates - but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story!
Cardinals are both a family (Cardinalidae) and a genus within that family (Cardinalis). The genus Cardinalis contains three cardinals, including the well-known Northern cardinal. The most famous Northern cardinal is the Red Angry Bird from the Angry Birds game series.
The taxonomic groups of many other species within the cardinal family such as tanagers, seedeaters and grosbeaks have been shuffled, chopped and changed a lot within the past 20 or so years, with various birds being reassigned from other families.
Northern Cardinal eating berries from a tree
In simple terms, though, cardinals include all birds within the family - not just the small genus Cardinalis. Across the entire family, cardinal diets vary massively depending on the genus - there are 14 genera, and the clues for their diets are sometimes in the name:
The seedeaters, as you might guess, do indeed consume a diet rich in seeds, and their short, strong beaks are specialised for this. Ant tanagers primarily feed on insects foraged from the ground, including ants - though ants don’t usually make up the mainstay of their diet.
The cardinals have a primarily plant-based diet rich in seeds and fruit - the Northern cardinal’s diet is almost wholly composed of these foods. Chats are primarily insectivorous. Grosbeaks vary, with some preferring insects and others preferring seeds and fruit.
These feeding habits also vary between the breeding and non-breeding season, as many cardinals feed more heavily on fruits and seeds in the non-breeding season before gorging themselves on insects in the breeding season.
If you compare the slim, sharp beak of the chat to the thick, conical beak of the seedeater, you can see why they have distinctly different feeding behaviours.
Overall, most species within the cardinal family have a diverse diet that includes a mix of insects and berries, nuts and seeds.
Baby cardinals are fed high protein diets that consist mainly of soft insects like larvae, worms and caterpillars, as well as soft berries and other regurgitated foods.
Protein and fat are what baby cardinals (and other baby birds) need to quickly gain weight, and insects also benefit from being nice and soft.
Initially, most meals will be regurgitated into the mouths of the young, usually by the mother. Seeds and other plant matter will be introduced to the diet as and when the chicks are able to consume them.
Baby cardinals are fed by their parents for a good while after they leave the nest, sometimes for up to two months.
Cardinal feeding chicks in the nest
Whilst cardinals such as the Northern cardinal are non-migratory, other species within the family are migratory and head south during the winter to South and Central America or the Caribbean.
A cardinal's winter diet is usually more plant-based. Some species will change their diets dramatically, favouring seeds, fruits and berries over insects. Insects are harder to locate in winter - cardinals turn to accessible plant matter rather than hibernating insects.
For other species, such as many tanagers and ant tanagers, winter diets will not differ so much from summer diets.
Whilst some species of cardinals tend to favour plant foods and others favour insects, all species are still omnivorous.
Whilst cardinal diets are heavily preferential and differ widely across the family, they’re still generally able to consume most foods and won’t hesitate to venture outside of their usual feeding habits if they need to.
A female Cardinal perched on a branch during the winter
Cardinals eat practically any bug they can tackle, which includes anything other than larger arthropods like centipedes and larger arachnids like large spiders and scorpions.
Some species within the family are much more insectivorous than others, including tanagers and ant tanagers, some grosbeaks and chats.
Cardinals eat the following insects, arthropods and invertebrates:
Many small and medium-sized birds eat worms as they’re rich in protein and fats. Cardinals do eat worms, but some species tend to eat them less frequently than others, including the Northern cardinal.
The Dickcissel is another species within the cardinal family that rarely eats invertebrates like worms and instead eats almost solely seeds and plant foods.
Others, such as the Scarlet tanager and most ant tanagers, eat primarily insects and invertebrates, including worms.
Cardinal at a backyard bird feeder
Absolutely. The Northern cardinal is renowned for loving peanuts, and many other species from the family have adapted beaks that are well-capable of prying peanuts from their hulls. The seedeaters are also well-equipped for eating peanuts, courtesy of their strong conical beaks.
Fat and protein-rich suet is an excellent supplementary food for most birds during winter and makes a superb addition to any bird feeder or table. Wintering cardinals, particularly in North America, require a high-protein diet to get through the winter, and suet fits the bill perfectly.
A male and female Northern Cardinal eating from a suet feeder
The more insectivorous species of cardinals love mealworms. The more herbivorous species of cardinals may still eat mealworms if they need to - or if they fancy something different to their usual seed and fruit-rich diet.
Mealworms are an excellent food to feed birds during winter when their protein demands are at their highest and when insect abundance is at its lowest.
Sunflower seeds are a firm favourite of the Northern cardinal who will gorge themselves upon any seed-laden bird table.
Northern cardinals and other seed-eating cardinals have strong beaks that make them experts at cracking seeds and other hard-cased foods.
Cardinals love safflower seeds. Alongside sunflower seeds, safflower seeds are enjoyed by many-a cardinal, including the seed-loving Northern cardinal, Desert cardinal and their South American relatives, the Vermillion cardinals, as well as many other species from the cardinal family.
Cardinal foraging on the ground during winter
Acorns are pretty sizable, but many of the seed-eating specialists amongst the cardinal family could almost certainly peck and crack them open.
Cardinals enjoy berries that are small and manoeuvrable in their beaks, but will eat most fruits, including grapes, apples, elderberries and watermelon.
Fruits are favoured by Northern cardinals during the summer months, where they’re known to gain a bit of a sweet tooth.
Whilst this depends on the species of cardinals in question, especially if we’re referring to the entire cardinal family, which contains 53 species, practically all cardinals enjoy eating seeds.
Cardinals tend to mainly enjoy things like sunflower and safflower seeds, cracked corn, golden millet, red millet, peanuts and flax. All of these options are excellent choices and will provide great nutrition for these spectacular birds.
Many species of cardinals do also eat insects, so mealworms are a good shout as well. Fruits such as grapes and apples are enjoyed by most species of cardinals all year round.
A pair of Cardinals feeding on seeds from the ground
Cardinals will feed from pretty much any standard bird feeder, but scattering seeds and other foods on the ground as well as packing it into a feeder or distributing it across a bird table enables many different birds to feed simultaneously.
Many species of cardinals can be aggressive when feeding - you don’t want them to push other species of birds from your garden entirely!
Yes, most birds from the cardinal family do forage both insects and seeds from the ground as well as from trees, bushes and in flight. Tanagers are well-known for their ground feeding habits, as are buntings and seedeaters.
If you’re feeding birds from the cardinal family, make sure to scatter food on the ground in addition to using bird feeders.
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