What to feed a baby cardinal bird

What Do Cardinals Eat? How to Attract Cardinals

Feed cardinals by learning what cardinals like to eat. Offer their favorite seeds and berries, and grow native plants and shrubs for shelter.

The Best Ways to Attract Cardinals

Courtesy Stephanie SchickCardinals frequently visit bird feeders

If you want to attract redbirds, you need to know, what do cardinals eat? 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?Courtesy Clinton MeeseMale 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

Courtesy Nanci NataleCardinal 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.

What Do Baby Cardinals Eat?

Courtesy Tina BurrowsA 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.

Do Northern cardinals mate for life?

Plant Evergreens to Attract Cardinals

Courtesy Ronald WashingtonIn 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 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 snowy tree. Try arborvitae, juniper and spruce. 

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

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How to Care for Wild Cardinal Baby Birds

By Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen | Updated September 26, 2017

Things You'll Need

  • Margarine tub or basket

  • Box

  • Heat lamp or pad

  • Shredded newspaper

  • Rolled up cloth

  • Baby bird mash

  • Eyedropper / Tweezers

  • Large outdoor enclosure

Every year, wildlife rehabilitation facilities are presented with hundreds of baby cardinals. Some are accidentally "birdnapped" by people who assume a baby bird on the ground needs their help. Others are mishandled by well-meaning people who have no idea how to properly care for a baby cardinal. If you find a baby bird, be certain it needs your help before interfering. Then, find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you are a vet or rehabilitator, or there are none in your area and you must care for the bird yourself, be prepared for the hard work ahead of you.

Determine if the Baby Cardinal Needs Help

Observe whether the bird is fuzzy or feathered. If the bird is feathered, it is a fledgling and is on the ground learning to fly. The parents are still caring for it. Leave it alone, or if it is in a place where humans, dogs or cats pose a threat, move it to a low tree branch nearby.

If the bird is fuzzy, but the parents are around, try to return the baby to its nest or construct a new nest out of a margarine tub (with holes for drainage) or a basket and some grass. Hang the new nest in a shady spot in a tree near the old nest and observe.

Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area if the parents are dead, missing or have rejected the baby. Until you can get the bird to the rehabilitator, keep it in a quiet, warm place. Do not try to feed the bird.

If You Must Raise a Baby Cardinal

Place the baby cardinal in a box filled with shredded newspaper and/or rolled up cloth to simulate a nest. Keeping the baby on a flat surface may cause a muscular deformity called "splay legs." Change the bedding daily.

Keep the baby warm. Provide a heat lamp several feet away from the baby's box, or a heating pad set on low underneath the baby's box.

Make a mash of three-quarters dry dog or cat food soaked in water overnight in the refrigerator. The other fourth of the mash should be made up of soft fruits (berries and seedless grapes) and a grain mixture for baby birds such as Kaytee Exact Hand-Feeding Formula for Baby Parrots. Add a vitamin such as Vionate. For very small babies, food should be prepared in a blender as a warm puree and fed from an eye dropper. Larger nestlings or fledglings need solid food that is crumbled or cut to size, fed with tweezers

Feed the mash to the bird at room temperature. Feed the baby bird every 15 minutes to 30 minutes from morning to night, or as often as it gapes (opens its mouth for food).

Move the bird to a larger cage or enclosure when it is feathered, but still indoors and in a warm area.

Place solid foods and tree branches in the bird's enclosure for the bird to investigate. Offer foods that are as close as possible to what the bird will find to eat in your area. Adult cardinals feed on seeds, grains, berries and insects. When the bird begins to eat on its own, cut down on hand feeding.

Move the bird to an outdoor enclosure once it is self-feeding. At this point, the bird should be eating a diet as close as possible to what it will find to eat in the wild. The cardinal needs to get used to the sights and sounds of the outdoors.

Perform a soft release when the bird is self-feeding and no longer begging for food. This means that you should open the cage door so the bird can leave when it is ready, but will still have the ability to return to its cage for food and water. Once you have not seen the bird for a few days, assume it has successfully made the transition to the wild.

  • It is not true that a mother bird will not accept a baby once a human touches it. Birds have a very poor sense of smell.


  • Never feed a baby bird milk of any kind or bread.

    Avoid contact with the bird beyond what it necessary to feed and clean its enclosure. An imprinted bird will not survive in the wild.

    It is illegal to attempt to keep a wild cardinal as a pet.


  • "The Complete Care of Orphaned or Abandoned Baby Animals; C.E. and Jackie Spaulding; 1980
  • "Principles of Wildlife Rehabilitation; NWRA; 2008

Photo Credits

Virginian cardinal

Virginian or red cardinal is a small but very colorful songbird. Her appearance and beautiful voice have made her a popular pet.
Habitat. Lives in North and Central America. It was introduced to Hawaii and Bermuda, as well as to California.

Cardinal lives in the southern part of the United States of America, and is also found in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize. This species was artificially settled in Bermuda and Hawaii, as well as on the California Peninsula. The bird inhabits parks and gardens; it can be seen both in shrubbery and near cultivated fields. The cardinal avoids dense forests and large open spaces; most often it inhabits the area near natural flowing reservoirs.

Species: Cardinal virginian (red) - Cardinalis cardinalis.
Family: Oatmeal.
Order: Sparrows.
Class: Birds.
Subtype: Vertebrates.

The red cardinal is a monogamous bird. A lone male tries to attract the attention of females with his song. Adult individuals that make up a pair not only live together throughout the spring until the end of the nesting period, but often do not separate for several years. The mating season lasts from March to September, and birds during this time, as a rule, have time to give birth to two broods. The female makes the first clutch in March, and the second - in May or early June. The female is also involved in the construction of the nest, located in dense thickets at a height of 30 cm to 4.5 m above the ground. In a structure woven of grass and twigs, sharply tapering downwards, she lays from two to five eggs. Hatching begins after the laying of the last egg, and their incubation period is 12-14 days. All this time, the male supplies the partner with food. For the first two days after hatching, the mother stays in the nest and warms the offspring, and then begins to fly with her husband to hunt and forage. Both adult birds regularly clean the nest, removing waste from it.

Cardinal leads a sedentary life. In winter, birds gather in small flocks, whose members search for food and smell together. With the beginning of the nesting period, a pair of cardinals occupies the home territory, driving away other applicants from its borders by singing. This feathered bird is active during the day, and the live is most actively looking for in the morning and afternoon. The basis of the diet (up to 95%) are plants - more precisely, seeds, vegetables and fragments of flowers. The cardinal finds food mainly on the branches of shrubs, although it often collects fallen seeds on the ground, and from time to time it catches insects and larvae. In the spring, young shoots are also eaten. Between themselves, these birds communicate with voice and postures: for example, an alarm signal is accompanied by a flapping of the tail and a fluffy crest. Both males and females of the cardinal can sing. Representatives of this species have many natural enemies among snakes, birds and mammals: for example, individuals living in cities, as well as their nests, are constantly threatened by cats and dogs.

Do you know?

  • The red cardinal has a pronounced sexual dimorphism. Individuals noticeably differ not only in plumage color, but also in size: the male cardinal is larger than the female.
  • In winter, birds living in the city often find howling dimorphism. Individuals noticeably differ in food in man-made feeders.
  • Only about two thirds of cardinal chicks reach the age of sexual maturity and can start procreation. During the first year of life, many young animals become victims of various predators.
  • Over the past two centuries, the world population of cardinals has increased and today it is approximately 100 million individuals. The main reason for this was the activity of North American settlers, who created land in large areas with favorable conditions for the habitat of these birds. In addition, the cardinals brought to California, Bermuda and Hawaii took root well and gave numerous offspring.
  • The maximum age recorded by ornithologists of the virgin cardinal was 15 years 9months.

Virginian cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis.
Body length: 20-23 cm.
Weight: 42-48 g.
Number of eggs: 2-5.
Incubation period: 12-14 days.
Sexual maturity: 1 year.
Food: fruits, seeds, insects.
Lifespan: 10-11 years.

Cardinal structure.
Tuft. A small head crowned with a tuft of red feathers.
Beak. The short and wide beak of the bird is red.
Eyes. Dark round eyes set on the sides of the head close to the beak.
Mask. There is a mask of black feathers around the beak and below, on the neck.
Plumage. Red feathers cover the whole body. On the back and wings, the shade is darker, as if they are covered with a brown coating.
Body. The body is small, rounded.
Legs. Thin legs end in four toes.
Tail. The long, regular tail feathers are distinguished by an intense, bright red color.

Related species.
The oatmeal family includes many species of birds that live in both the Old and New Worlds. Close relatives of the virgin cardinal are found mainly in those regions of Central and South America where a tropical climate reigns. Close relatives of cardinals are buntings, the males of which are distinguished by very colorful plumage.

Cardinals | Encyclopedia of animals | Encyclopedia of Animals

Everyone knows that the word cardinal means Catholic dignity, but it turns out that interesting birds are also hidden under this name. Cardinals are a family of birds of the Passerine order, numbering 42 species, of which the red (Virgin) cardinal is the most famous. Among passerine birds, finches and buntings are closest to cardinals.

Male red or virgin cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

Cardinals are medium-sized birds (among passerines), up to 20 cm long, weighing 40-45 g. Their beak is short and strong, which indicates a relationship with finches. The wings are of medium length, the legs are thin, with tenacious claws, the tail is elongated. In the plumage of cardinals there are bright colors - red, blue, orange.

Painted Bunting Cardinal (Passerina ciris).

It was the scarlet coloration of the most famous species - the virginian cardinal - that gave the name to the whole family. Cardinals are characterized by sexual dimorphism, that is, the difference in appearance between males and females. Bright coloration is the prerogative of males, while females are painted in patronizing greenish and brown tones. Many species have a small crest on their heads, which enhances the resemblance of cardinals to waxwings, although these birds are not related to them.

Red cardinal female.

All types of cardinals live exclusively in the New World, where they are found at almost all latitudes - from Canada and the Rocky Mountains in the north to the south of South America. They live in forests, bushes, swamps, do not avoid the proximity of human habitation and can be found in gardens.

Red cardinal in the spring garden.

Cardinals are sedentary birds with a pronounced territoriality, they not only occupy permanent sites, but also actively protect them from the invasion of their neighbors. Birds live in pairs and remain faithful to their partner all their lives. Cardinals are songbirds. In the forest, they often perform their simple song. The songs of cardinals perform a triple function: they serve to indicate the occupied territory, are used for communication between birds of the same pair, and signal danger. In all cases, different sets of sounds are used. It is characteristic that both males and females sing among cardinals, joint songs are not uncommon during the mating season.

Male green spiza (Chlorophanes spiza), an atypical cardinal species.

Cardinals feed on all kinds of seeds, berries, grains of cereals. At the same time, insects - grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, and snails - make up a significant proportion in their diet. They feed their chicks mainly on insects, as they need a lot of protein to grow. Cardinals willingly approach human habitation (especially in winter) in search of food, they visit farms and fields during the harvest, they willingly take food from hanging feeders.

The female red cardinal eats sunflower seeds, the favorite food of these birds.

During the mating season, the male sings especially intensively, sometimes he feeds the female before mating. Then the female builds a cup-shaped nest from small twigs and blades of grass and lays 3-4 speckled eggs.

Cardinal nest with masonry.

The female builds a nest and incubates the clutch alone, but the male sometimes brings her food and briefly replaces her on the nest. The incubation period lasts 12-13 days. After the chicks hatch, the male is actively involved in rearing the offspring. The chicks fledge after 10-11 days and stay near the nest for some time begging for food from their parents. Cardinals often make 3-4 clutches per season, and the male can rear the brood alone while the female incubates the next clutch.

The cardinal feeds the chicks.

It is interesting that the indigo bunting cardinal sometimes raises troupial chicks with their chicks, which throw their eggs into their nests (like cuckoos).

Indigo bunting cardinal (Passerina cyanea).

In nature, hawks, shrikes, owls prey on cardinals, their nests can be destroyed by snakes, squirrels, chipmunks. A significant part of the chicks die in the first year of life, but adult birds can live up to 12 years in the wild and up to 25 in captivity. Cardinals belong to the so-called background bird species, that is, they are widespread everywhere. In connection with the expansion of agricultural territories, the food resources of cardinals are increasing and these birds are not threatened with extinction. Due to their bright colors and beautiful singing, cardinals are often kept as indoor songbirds. In captivity, they get along well and have earned the love of people. The most recognizable and popular species, the red cardinal, is so popular that it has become a symbol of several states in the United States.

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