If you are feeding birds, it is probably because you like them. Otherwise why do it? While some backyard birdwatchers welcome all birds to their feeders, for many of us, there are birds that are less welcome. Some people don’t like House Finches. Some don’t like House Sparrows. Others draw the line at Brown-Headed Cowbirds. Red-Winged Blackbirds? European Starlings? Common Grackles? Your list may vary. What birds at your feeders do you consider nuisance birds?
The birds that bug me at my feeders are the larger, more aggressive ones that show up in force, particularly around bad weather events when I’m trying to provide food for the locals. For example, I don’t mind a Red-Winged Blackbird or two at the feeders, but when forty-five show up to clean out the feeders after a snowstorm, leaving nothing for the regulars, I’m not happy. It’s kind of like inviting your neighbors to a picnic and a whole bunch of people you’ve never met show up, fill all the chairs and eat all the food, leaving the neighbors with nothing but scraps.
Whatever your list, I think it is often possible to, if not eliminate their visits, at least reduce them. The trick is to figure out what the nuisance birds like and what they don’t like and try to set up your feeders accordingly. My approach to this is evolving over time but I have found four strategies that help.
1) Be Present: I have found that the the occasional flocks are often less tolerant of human activity and can be more easily startled off than local birds that hang out all the time and are more used to me. A huge flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Brown-Headed Cowbirds, and/or European Starlings has a lot of beaks to fill. When they arrive in larger numbers, you could go out and clap, jump up and down and make a fool of yourself to drive them off (been there, done that) or you can usually simply go outside and stand in the feeder area for three or four minutes. The bigger flocks have better things to do than wait you out and will often get impatient and move on after a few minutes.
By doing it calmly in this way, you are discouraging the flock birds but not freaking out regulars as much. When the weather is bad and the ground is covered in snow, the flock will probably circle back later if they don’t find another good spot to dine, so you will probably need to repeat the process. At a minimum, this strategy at least gives the regulars some windows of time to eat at the feeders.
2) Don’t Widely Broadcast Seed: Another strategy is to re-think how you offer food to the birds. One practice I’ve learned will often encourage a flock is to broadcast seed over wide areas. It’s particularly tempting to do this when snow covers the ground because there are so many birds wanting to eat. It’s quick. It’s easy. But it can bring in the flocks and some of those birds may not be birds you like.
Many birds prefer some space around them when they eat. I suspect this is at least partly because they need a bubble of wing-span space around them for landings and take offs. Watch birds eating on the ground. They’ll usually space themselves out and will poke at each other or move away if another bird infringes in their space. (See how the birds in the picture above are spaced?) So food spread far and wide on the ground is very tempting.
When I first got started feeding birds in a big way, it was a winter when the ground was almost always covered with snow. I broadcast seed all across my yard. The result was two competing flocks of birds, a mixed flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles and another flock of all the other birds. Only having a couple of feeders at that point, I found that spreading the seed far and wide accommodated both flocks, typically each in a different end of the spread seed.
There are some problems with doing this. First, I was encouraging the large flocks that drove me crazy because I was spreading food out, giving the flock lots of room to get comfortable. Second, when you do this with sunflower seeds, you WILL be sorry in the spring when you find your grass has died off in big bare patches and hundreds of tiny sunflower plants sprout up all over your yard. (Yep, been there, did that too.) Also, seed on the ground, especially in wet weather, can rot and mold. If birds eat compromised seed, they can get sick.
3) Reconsider White Proso Millet: There are many birds that like the small creamy colored seeds of white proso millet. In my yard, this seed is favored by Dark-Sided Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows and Mourning Doves, birds I’m OK with. It is also enjoyed by Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds, birds I’d like to discourage.
I’ve learned to be conservative with this seed. I don’t tend to buy mixed seed, instead buying bags of individual seed types. I do have a bag of white millet, but I don’t put this seed out until very late in the day – maybe an hour before sunset – when the nuisance birds have usually left for their roosts. The smaller birds have gotten used to me putting out a little of this seed at this time of day. The birds that like it do tend to eat on the ground, so I will throw a handful of this seed in a fairly small area, never more than I think will get eaten in that hour.
4) Selectively Block Access to the Food: If you have larger birds visiting perched feeders that you’d like to discourage, consider shortening the perches or adjust weight mechanisms if the feeder allows it. (The Squirrel Buster Plus is one feeder that allows this.) If European Starlings hogging the suet feeders is your problem, you can keep them off by the way you hang it and protecting it with plastic. Watch the birds that are coming to your yard. See what each type of bird eats and how they like to eat it. This may give you ideas on how to appeal to the birds you want and discourage the others.
And Then Chill A Little: It is hard to keep a determined flock of aggressive birds from food that they like. If you put food out in your yard, you only have so much control over who comes to try and eat it. All you can do is try to set things up to favor the birds you want to feed and discourage the ones you don’t want. If it doesn’t work completely, try not to let it raise your blood pressure. Spend a little time watching the nuisance birds through your binoculars. Some of them are really quite beautiful in their own right.
What birds bug you in your yard? What strategies have worked for you and what strategies have not?