The Best Birdseed for Cardinals – to Keep Them Coming Back!

Inside: Discover the best birdseed for cardinals and why. What good is food without a feeder to put it in? We cover that too.

Most wild animals are motivated by food and cardinals (northern cardinals) are no different. If you’re like most backyard birders and would love to see brilliant red cardinals flying around your yard, year-round, you’re smart to find out the best birdseed to offer.

I’ve been hosting cardinals in my yard for more than 20 years. I never tire of seeing the amazing red color of the male or the unique buffy/brown coloring of the female. It just never gets old. That’s why I specifically select birdseed I know will attract cardinals yet discourage other birds … more on that in a bit.

The Best Birdseed for Cardinals

The best birdseed for cardinals is birdseed they will love to eat. Here are their favorites:

  1. Black-Oil Sunflower Seed
  2. Safflower Seed
  3. Striped Sunflower Seed
  4. Birdseed Mix

Black-Oil Sunflower Seed

Black-oil sunflower seeds are one of the best birdseed for cardinals.

black oil sunflower seed for cardinals best birdseed for cardinals

They’re extremely healthy for cardinals and many other wild birds due to the high oil content. This is especially true in winter when food is scarce and energy needs are high.

The seed is meatier than regular sunflower seed, and much easier for birds to eat due to its softer outer shell. Although – the cardinal is naturally equipped with a large, vice-like beak and (spoiler alert) doesn’t have a problem with the hard outer shells of the striped sunflower seed.

As mentioned, many birds love to munch on black-oil sunflower seeds. This is good because you can buy a bulk bag of it and attract many birds. It’s not without drawbacks though. It also attracts birds you may not want in your yard (e.g. house sparrows, European starlings).


Safflower Seed

Safflower is a high-fat content food that cardinals and other wild birds need year-round.

safflower bird seed for cardinals best birdseed for cardinals

Safflower seeds have a thick shell which can be hard for some birds to crack open – but not cardinals! (I’ll get into why cardinals are suited for this type of birdseed when I discuss striped sunflower seed).

Unlike cardinals, many other birds find safflower difficult to consume due to its hard shell. This is one of the reasons I love offering safflower seed – it deters house sparrows and other types of birds that tend to take over the feeder area.

Many backyard birders also say squirrels don’t go for safflower seed. Another plus for safflower!


Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seeds are larger than the other seeds because they’re encased with a thick, heavy outer shell.

striped Sunflower seed for wild birds best birdseed for cardinals

Many birds are not equipped to crack open this type of seed but the cardinal is not one of them. This is one reason I love offering this seed – it entices cardinals but not other types of birds I may not want around (ahem – house sparrows).

As mentioned before, cardinals have a beak designed to crack open thick seeds like striped sunflower seeds.

female cardinal and painted bunting on feeder together on best bird feeder for cardinals
Compare the beaks of the female cardinal with the painted bunting. Big difference!

According to Adaptations, cardinals have what’s known as a “cracking” beak. The attributes of a cracking beak enable the bird to more easily crack open thick hulls. Here’s how it works:

  1. Cracking beaks are thicker and stronger than other styles of beaks.
  2. The edge of the lower beak fits into the grooves of the upper beak to place a vice-like grip on the seed.
  3. Using its tongue, the cardinal steers the seed into the grooves of the upper and lower beak.
  4. The bird closes its beak and the razor sharp edges crush the shell.
  5. The cardinal is then able to eat the tasty goodness inside.

Check out this video of a cardinal pair chowing down on a smorgasbord of seeds. Notice how they’re able to crack the sunflower seed.


Birdseed Mix

A mix of birdseed allows you to attract cardinals while offering a variety of foods they enjoy. A birdseed mix also enables you to see a variety of wild birds.

Mixed bird seed best birdseed for cardinals

Look for a mix that includes black oil sunflower seed, safflower seeds, and/or striped sunflower seeds. This further increases your chances of seeing Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal.

From a cost standpoint, be prepared to spend more on a birdseed mix.

The easy solution is to make your own mix. If you decide to go this route be sure to limit the amount of millet and/or corn to less than 25%.

Do Cardinals Eat Peanuts?

Yes! Cardinals love peanuts – shelled/hulled peanuts in particular.

hulled unsalted peanuts for cardinals

Peanuts are another high-fat food that serves cardinals well to keep their energy up. Just make sure the peanuts are unsalted and don’t contain any other additives like sugar, honey, etc.

Your best bet is to purchase peanuts specifically designed for wild birds.

Do Cardinals like Cracked Corn?

Yes, cardinals like cracked corn. Corn is a great way to supplement the cardinal’s diet and offers them protein and fiber which they need.

cracked corn for cardinals

Unlike birdseed, corn lacks fat so limit how much you offer the birds – especially in winter when high-fat food serves them best.

Do Cardinals Like Suet?

Yes, cardinals like suet. Suet is another great way to diversity the cardinal’s diet.

In the winter, their energy usage is extreme so it’s a terrific time to offer them suet.

Where to buy bird food for cardinals

Local feed stores and nature stores are great places to buy wild birdseed. They usually offer a variety of birdseed – including the ones cardinals love – and package them in bulk so you can stock up and save!

Buy Birdseed on Autoship

For convenience, you can also purchase birdseed online. I like to buy birdseed from Chewy.com and put it on autoship so I can order once and get it shipped regularly without thinking about it.

That way I never run out – and my shipment is FREE. (Chewy ships free for orders over $50).

What Kind of Feeder do Cardinals Prefer?

The truth is, cardinals are considered ground-feeders which means they like to forage for their food on the ground. That said, I prefer to keep birdseed off the ground to avoid any possibility of making my feathered friends sick. Birdseed on the ground can easily become moldy which can cause birds to become sick – or die!

The good news is cardinals will also eat from bird feeders. So, after you decided what type of birdseed or bird food you’d like to offer cardinals, next is finding the right feeder.

Yes, there is a “right” feeder for cardinals. The right feeder for cardinals enables them to comfortably perch and bend forward to eat the seed without twisting and contorting their bodies.

The exception is a tube feeder with a base attachment. (I discovered that Droll Yankee has an attachment for its classic tube feeder that functioned as the perfect cardinal perch. Oh, happy day!)

The truth is, most feeders aren’t suitable for cardinals. I talk all about it in my article The 3 Best Bird Feeders For Cardinals. Or, I can just share the cliff notes with you 🙂

Male cardinal eating from a platform feeder
Male cardinal enjoying a snack on a platform feeder. Photo by Stephanie Hines Strimple.

Platform style feeders are hands-down the best style feeder for cardinals.

They allow plenty of perching space for cardinals and you can offer them all of the bird food they love – birdseed, peanuts, cracked corn, and (chopped up) suet.

I like to chop suet into smaller pieces when I offer in the platform feeder.

Here are the top 3 platform feeders I recommend:

Best Overall

Woodlink Going Green Platform Feeder

Best for Keeping Food Dry

Droll Yankees Dorothy’s Cardinal Platform Feeder

Best Tube Feeder

Droll Yankees Classic Bird Feeder & Seed Tray

DIY Cardinal Bird Feeder

If you’re a crafty person, consider making a DIY bird feeder for cardinals.

Remember, not all feeders are suitable for this large songbird. Check out my article 10 DIY Cardinal Bird Feeders They’ll Actually Use for some inspiration!

Tips for feeding Birdseed to Cardinals

It’s important to keep your birdseed in a seal-tight container to keep it fresh, dry, and prevent rodents from jumping in and tracking disease into it. This is absolutely crucial.

In the early spring and summer, cardinals are busy mating, laying eggs, feeding their young, and raising their family. Since they primarily feed the babies insects, don’t be surprised if they don’t visit the bird feeders as much.

Cardinals have high energy needs in the fall and especially winter. During these times they’ll regularly visit the feeder – especially if you’re offering their favorite foods!

Since keeping warm zaps them of energy they need to continually replenish it. You can help by offering birdseed and bird food higher in fat. The table below illustrates the fat content of the cardinal’s favorite foods.

FoodFat Content*
Black-Oil Sunflower Seeds30% *
Safflower Seeds30% *
Peanuts (Hulled & Unsalted)45% *
Suet Cake25 – 95% (depending on contents)
Suet (Pure beef or pork fat)100%
Seed Mix10 – 50%
*Fat content derived from Kaytee brand of birdseed. Other brands may vary.

Next Steps

Cardinals are not very choosing about the birdseed they eat. You can offer them any of their 4 favorite birdseeds – black-oil sunflower seed, striped sunflower seed, safflower seed, or a birdseed mix.

If you’re trying to avoid attracting other types of birds, try just offering safflower seed or striped sunflower seed. Either way, cardinals will graciously accept your culinary offering and delight you with their presence.

Just remember to offer them food on a suitable feeder so they can comfortably enjoy their meals.

For more tips on how to attract cardinals to your yard, check out my article 7 Proven Ways to Attract Northern Cardinals to Your Yard – Guaranteed!

Happy Birding!

Photo of author

Tammy Poppie

More than 20 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her back yard (and repel others). In her free time, she can be found in nature kayaking, hiking, and biking always hoping to see a bird in the wild.