What Do Cardinals Eat?
When most people speak colloquially about cardinals, they’re referring to one specific type of cardinal: the northern cardinal. Known for its distinctive and colorful red plumage, the northern cardinal can be further broken down into 19 different subspecies. Only the males are red, and the biggest distinguishing factor between northern cardinal subspecies is differences in coloring on the faces of females. Despite having a population that stretches from Canada to Guatemala, different northern cardinal subspecies tend to have similar diets.
That largely comes down to the fact that cardinals aren’t picky eaters. They have some of the most diverse appetites of any bird species. An omnivore, the typical northern cardinal will eat a diet that consists of roughly 70% vegetable matter and 30% animal matter. Animal prey of the cardinal includes practically any insect that’s small enough to eat. This can vary by habitat but commonly consists of beetles, butterflies, crickets, and flies. They’re also known to snack on both centipedes and worms. Nuts, seeds, and grain constitute a bulk of this omnivore’s diet, but they’re hardly picky eaters.
Cardinals have been exhibited feeding on over three dozen different types of weed seeds as well as most edible nuts, grains, and fruit that can be found in their habitat. If it’s edible and small enough to be swallowed, chances are that a cardinal will devour it.
What do cardinals eat in the winter?
Cardinals are non-migratory birds who mate for life. And since the majority of cardinals live quite a distance north from the Equator, that means that winters tend to be cold months prone to food scarcity. As the mating season ends and the weather becomes colder, these birds will become less territorial and expand their reach to seek out more food sources. It’s a difficult time, and only 60% of adult cardinals survive the winter. That’s in part due to a lack of food and in part, because a cardinal’s bright plumage is especially noticeable to predators in the snow.
Cardinals are a prevalent sight around bird feeders, and birdseed dispensed by humans can mean the difference between life and death in particularly hostile winters. Birdbaths also offer an opportunity to hydrate — a task that’s supplemented by the water they get from fruits and insects. Once an abundant food source has been found, cardinals will often gather together in flocks to protect it. They’ll also often roost together to maintain body heat in the frigid evenings. Once food becomes more plentiful, these birds will typically become more territorial again.
Throughout the year, cardinals eat a diet that includes:
- Crop seeds (sunflower, corn, squash)
- Weed seeds (39 known varieties)
- Grains (barley, oat, wheat)
- Fruits (wild and human-provided)
- Tree nuts
- Small spiders
- Insects (katydids, flies, crickets)
- Invertebrates (worms, centipedes, caterpillars)
- Flowering plants and nectar
How Do Cardinals Hunt For Food?
Cardinals are omnivores who are selective in their food choice when possible but willing to adapt when the situation demands. Throughout most of the year, cardinals will strictly maintain territory as mating pairs, and the male will serve as the primary provider for both the mother and the chicks. They forage for potential food on the ground, using their sharp hooked beaks to pluck up seeds, sprouts, insects, and other animal prey. Cardinals have a preference for seeds that are easy to the hull and particularly seeds that are high in fat and protein. Cardinals will also sometimes scoop insect prey out of the air in flight.
Insects and invertebrates become a greater part of their diet during the peak of mating season, and meat also constitutes the bulk of the diet for chicks who need that extra boost of protein to grow.
As their habitats often overlap with suburban settlements, human gardens often form a significant part of a cardinal’s diet. Control over territory that overlaps gardens is often heated — and many individuals have taken to putting out birdseed specifically to attract cardinals. One of the most effective choices for birdseed is safflower seeds, as they’re a popular meal for cardinals but are often overlooked by squirrels and other bird species. Birds have been known to munch on garden fruits, but they generally serve a symbiotic relationship with humans. Their relentless feeding practices help germinate seeds and fruit, and they play a pivotal role in reducing populations of insects and invertebrates.
Cardinals are also some of the most voracious songbirds around and are often seen feeding on gardens from dawn until dusk.
What Animals Eat Cardinals?
Males of the species do most of the foraging, and their bright coats combined with the fact that they do their foraging on the ground make them an obvious target for predators of every stripe. Cardinal populations stretch from Canada into Central America, and that means that the predator’s cardinal’s face is often situational. On the ground, reptiles like milk snakes, garter snakes, and king snakes are common threats. But the biggest danger to cardinals — and many other songbirds — is an invasive species. Domestic cats will kill even when food isn’t a necessity, and that can decimate bird populations quickly. But they aren’t the only mammals that prey on the cardinal. Domestic dogs can also be a threat as well as obvious wild threats like foxes and smaller animals like squirrels and chipmunks.
Since they face so many threats from the ground and wear a target on their back, cardinals will typically keep an eye out for brush and trees they can escape to if a threat arises while foraging. But just because they’re on high doesn’t mean that they’re free from being preyed on. Different species of hawk, owl, and eagle will all prey on an adult cardinal if given the chance. Cardinal chicks and eggs are particularly vulnerable to predators — and even smaller species like crows and blue jays are known to feed on them.
Next Up: What Do Woodchucks Eat?
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Rob Palmer Photography/Shutterstock.com
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