In this article, we take a closer look at the feeding habits of baby red cardinal birds. Adult cardinals are versatile feeders, with short, sturdy, striking red/orange beaks. So what do baby cardinals eat?
Baby cardinals typically eat insects that their mothers bring to them. Food is given directly to the nestlings or sometimes regurgitated by the adult. Common bugs that baby cardinals eat are grasshoppers, beetles, kaydids, and leafhoppers.
The dietary requirements of the young cardinal are more carnivorous in nature than adult birds. The adults bypass their usual seeds to search almost exclusively for small insects and baby spiders to feed their chicks. When the fledglings leave the nest, they also seem to prefer a diet of seeds, though dad might still stuff their mouths full of insects from time to time.
Cardinals are also happy to eat cracked corn, peanuts, and berries from a hanging bird feeder. Mainly granivorous birds, cardinals show a sweet tooth when berries are in season and the versatility to prey on small insects, spiders, and invertebrates.
Small chunks of suet on a bird feeder are also a welcome source of fat through the harsh winter months. Let’s dive into more detail on what baby cardinals eat.
Identifying the Northern Cardinal
Adult cardinals have a body length of approx 8″-9″ and a wingspan of 9″-12″ with an average weight of 1.5 oz. The male (on the right) are a mix of bright reds, pinks, and russets. The female (on the left) is not as bright, with more earthy tones of gray, tan, brown, and reddish-brown on the wings.
The males display a distinctive crest, in a vivid red color that lies flat or can be raised to extend vertically from the front of their heads. Used as a communicative aid in territorial displays and courtship, the red crest’s similarity to the caps worn by Roman Catholic Cardinals is what earned the Northern Cardinal its name.
Author Note: Females also have a crest, though more understated than the male. The females can raise their crests as the males can, but they are less active in communication and don’t stand quite as proud.
Both males and females have markings that extend down the neck and above the beak to surround the eyes in the cardinal’s quintessential roguish mask. Again the male’s coloration is more vivid, showing a stark contrast of his black mask against the bright red. The mask of the female bird is generally lighter gray or brown and not as well defined.
Males and females also share the short, powerful, conical beak, perfect for getting through the tough husks of their preferred seeds. The beak of both genders is orange, but as you’d expect, the male’s is a bit brighter with a slightly redder tone.
Male cardinals obtain their red color plumage from carotenoids in their diet. Through their varied diet of berries and seeds containing carotenoids of different colors, some birds, including the cardinal, metabolize these different colors into the color for the species.
Although extremely rare, northern cardinals have been documented to appear in a bright yellow color too. It is believed that this is a genetic mutation that stops the birds’ normal metabolization of carotenoids into the bright red that the cardinal is so well known for.
Cardinals are social birds that flock together throughout winter for security and warmth, and their flocks can include birds of other species too. Historically found in the southeast of the U.S., the cardinal’s common range has expanded north through the U.S. and into Canada.
It is believed that their broad diet allows them to thrive in sub-urban areas, mainly due to people welcoming the songbirds to their gardens with bird feeders.
Part of the adult male’s numerous duties while rearing the young is to teach them to sing. Over time these songs are updated with different harmonies and maybe, like the game telephone, other lyrics.
With the spread of these little songbirds, so has the variety of their so much so that it is clearly different from location to location, almost like a regional dialect.
However, the short, metallic warning calls of the cardinal are similar across the country and provide a reliable early warning that is understood by many species. Somewhat uncommonly, the female birds also sing. Theirs is a similar but different song to the males, and they do not sing nearly as often.
Cardinals are non-migratory birds, and in early spring, the flocks begin to break into pairs. Mating season is less sociable, and males mark their territory with song, meeting interlopers with aggression. They will remain in the same region where they hatched, to mate and nest again.
Both male and female birds share the responsibility of building the nest, which can take as little as three or as many as nine days to complete. Cardinals make a new nest for each clutch of eggs and can lay as many as four clutches in the summer.
As part of the late courtship, a male cardinal will often advertise his ability to provide for his family by bringing seed to the female before work on the nest has even started. He will continue to cement their relationship and augment his mate’s diet, bringing her food (which looks like kissing) as well as nest building supplies.
It is the female bird that starts building the nest, and as such, it is believed that she decides on the location of the nest, but the male may have some input, of which we are unaware. The female is the engineer of the nest and deals with the majority of the construction work.
The male is the logistics manager; he collects the bulk of the required building materials and dietary supplements for the female, who then finds the best place to utilize his provisions.
Laying and Incubating
After laying her 1 – 5 eggs, a female cardinal remains upon the nest to incubate for about a fortnight, when they begin to hatch at 11 – 13 days. During this time, the female will not leave the nest at all, providing constant warmth and protection to ensure the most significant number of eggs mature to healthy hatchlings.
Author Note: While the female incubates the eggs, she is totally reliant on her mate to feed her. With the female unable to fend for herself, the male cardinal comes into his own, making good on his early promises to provide for his mate.
Cardinals are vocal birds and communicate through song. Researchers believe female cardinals have developed a call that specifically tells her mate – “Bring food, the babies and I are hungry.”
What Baby Cardinals Eat
Once the eggs hatch, the male will continue to collect food for the chicks and for the female as well. The female will also intermittently leave the hatchlings to feed herself and even collect food for the young.
When collecting food for the young, it seems as if cardinals forgo their preferred seed-based diet. This may be due to seeking out the higher protein offered by small insects and baby spiders, or maybe just taking advantage of easy picking from the season’s bounty.
Once the fledglings are able to fly, the adults continue to feed them while at the same time teaching them to fend for themselves. Mother birds can start to exert pressure on the fledglings to leave the nest from as little as ten days, but the caring male birds have been seen feeding young as much as 56 days old.
The caring paternal instincts of the male red cardinal is incredible. Not only do the males collect most of the building material for the nest, but they also sustain mother birds throughout incubation and early hatching. Males then continue to feed their young, sometimes for a month or more, after the mother’s patience has worn thin.
If it is an early hatching, fathers may continue to care for a previous brood while the female starts constructing a new nest for the next clutch of eggs. Even in this instance, the male will continue to feed his mate and bring her building supplies, all the while caring for the previous fledglings.
The most incredible of these paternal instincts are displayed when the male cardinal feeds young birds of other species. Males have been documented placing food in the mouths of various different species, including young sparrows, cowbirds, and even hungry Koi fish.
Male cardinals are very alert to threats to the nest and patrol their territories relentlessly. Due to their vigilance against threats from the ground, cardinals are hunted almost exclusively by other birds such as falcons, hawks, eagles, shrikes, and owls.
Young birds and eggs can fall foul of a number of opportunistic hunters too, and these include snakes, blue jays, crows, cats, chipmunks, and squirrels.
The northern cardinal has been a favorite in the US for a long time. Kept as pets for their lively melodies, the songbirds were often found caged until 1918, when its sale as a caged bird was banned. The cardinal is so popular that it has been named the state bird of no less than seven states and is the mascot of several sports teams throughout the country.
It is no surprise that the cardinal is such a hit, with its bright colors and varied song, but another reason it is so well-loved is due to the caring nature of the male. Cardinal fathers seem to have a pathological need to feed not only their mates and young but pretty much anything with an open mouth.
Author Note: So if you have nesting cardinals near your home, don’t yawn while gardening unless you’d like a mouth full of baby spiders! We hope you found this article on what baby cardinals eat informative and useful.
Fly high friends!
Usually the Northern Cardinal starts nesting and laying eggs as early as late February and they will continue until mid-April, which allows time for a second nest.
Cardinals will lay between 1-5 eggs and there is a high rate of failure. This may be why they nest a second time.
It isn’t rare at all. The male is just much brighter and unmissable. The female is more likely to blend into foliage. She will also be around less during breeding time.
One theory is so that they blend in more and are less likely to attract attention from predators during breeding. The male is likely to be more vivid so he is more attractive to the female. The interesting thing is that the male has to eat certain berries to get the carotenoids to make him red. So the male and female must have slightly different diets.