Do Cardinals Eat Pine Cones? (Which birds eat pine cones?)

Cardinals are common backyard birds in North America that gladly come to eat at your bird feeder. They eat smaller seeds, nuts, and even suet and fruit.

You might also have trees in your yard that the cardinal enjoys sitting in, and it can eat the seeds of some trees when they ripen in fall. But what about pine trees – can they access their seeds before they fall out by themselves?

No, Northern Cardinals cannot eat pine cones, nor can they access the pine seeds inside. Their beak is simply not designed to open unripe pine cones. As soon as the pine cones are ripe, the seeds will fall out and the cardinal can eat them by then.

In fact, most backyard birds cannot easily open an unripe pinecone to access its seeds. The only North American birds that are skilled and well equipped enough to do so are the Crossbills.

Crossbills like the American crossbill or the Red Crossbill have indeed been named for their unusual bill shape and ability to open pine cones by moving their upper and lower bill parts in crossing scissor motions in order to slowly pick open each scale of the pine cone!

The crossbills have unusual bills that have evolved to open challenging objects like pine cones!

Cardinals on the other hand have bills that resemble those of finches, which makes them very good at chewing with a strong force. This enables cardinals to break hard seeds and insect shells, but the cardinals bill is not a good tool for opening the scales of pine cones!

The bill of cardinals is more of a triangular shape rather than the long scissor-like shape of the crossbill.
Photo credit: Mick Thompson on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Cardinals much prefer softer and smaller foods such as grass seeds, berries, and insects!

But What can the Northern Cardinal eat?

The Northern Cardinal diet consists mainly of seeds and fruits whereas the young receive mostly insects from their parents.

The Northern Cardinal feeds on many different seeds at bird feeders, but feeders with corn, oats, safflower, and especially sunflower seeds seem to be especially popular with the Northern Cardinal.

The preferred foods of Northern Cardinals in the wild include:

  • crickets
  • buckwheat
  • flies
  • moths
  • spiders
  • centipedes
  • cicadas
  • beetles
  • grass
  • butterflies
  • Other seeds
  • sumac
  • mulberries
  • hackberry
  • blackberry
  • wild grape

So, now that you know that about Cardinals – maybe you want to know some more about this exciting bird?

Family: Cardinalids

Origin: Southeastern US.

Diet in the wild: Insects, seeds, berries, flowers.

Feeder type preferences:

Feeder food preferences:

Endangered: No. 

The Northern Cardinal is a common and very popular backyard bird seen throughout North America. Depending on where you live, you may give the Northern Cardinal nicknames such as: the red cardinal, common cardinal, redbird, or simply cardinal. Its many names exemplify its representation of the wider cardinal family, Cardinalidae, which includes several other common birds such as the Dickcissel, some grosbeaks, and the buntings.

How and where to spot the Northern Cardinal in the US?

The Northern Cardinal is native to the Southeastern United States, where it is the official state bird of several states: West Virginia, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Furthermore, several institutions, including sports teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Cardinals use it as their mascot.

At the national level, the population is stable over time and the majority of observations of the Northern Cardinal have been made in the Eastern parts of the US.

Many Cardinalids are strongly colored, making them easy to spot at the bird feeder. Especially the brightly blue Indigo Bunting and the multicolored Painted Bunting are amazing examples of this colorful family.

The male Northern Cardinal is easy to recognize as it is the only bright red bird seen all year round in the Northern parts of the US.

Map showing the likelihood of observing the Northern Cardinal in all states of North America.
The stronger the red color, the higher the chance that you will see the Northern Cardinal in your backyard.

The female is predominantly brown and less brightly colored which may lead to confusion with other Cardinalids, for example, its Pyrrhuloxia, Summer Tanager, or Hepatic Tanager cousins.

These cardinals, however, are more widespread in the southwestern states and northern Mexico where the Northern Cardinal is less common.

Red birds in North America

Red birds are easy to spot due to their strong colors, and most people notice them easily at bird feeders. If you live in North America and observe a flock of red birds, they are likely to be Northern cardinals! These little birds are known for their bright colors and are most often the birds people think of when asked to imagine a red bird in the US.

The Northern Cardinal is indeed the most common bright red bird in North America. But there are also other red birds in North America, such as the House Finch or the less common Purple Finch and you may even spot the (male) Summer Tanager or Scarlet Tanager (or some of the other Tanagers mentioned above) if you are lucky!

In the Eastern US, you are mostly correct in assuming the Norhern Cardinal is the most common bright red visitor!

All Cardinalids are highly vocal, and the Northern Cardinal comes across as exceptionally noisy, boasting a loud metallic voice with which it sounds the characteristic “tik-tik” call or a softer slurred whistle.

Whereas some cardinals are brightly colored throughout their entire body, the Pyrrhuloxia, which has a parrot-like bill and is considered the Southwest’s equivalent of the Northern Cardinal, is gray with crimson red patches throughout its body.

Habitat and mating of the Northern Cardinal

It prefers relatively moist habitats, such as deciduous woodlands, scrublands, desert washes, and backyards. Their breeding season is March-August where the male is particularly aggressive and repels any intruder. He is so aggressive that he will occasionally confront his own reflection in windows and various shiny surfaces.

The nest of the Northern Cardinal is somewhat flimsy with thin barks, grasses, and leaves. However, it is also “single-use” as they do not usually use the nest again in the coming year. The female lays 2-4 turquoise brown-spotted eggs per nest, an effort which it may repeat up to four times per year!