Most of the year, European Starlings don’t spend a lot of time in our yard, but when it gets cold and snowy, the big mixed flocks are more likely to descend on the feeders: European Starlings, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles arrive in large groups that displace our regular birds. I’m okay with a few random Red-Winged Blackbirds and even the occasional Common Grackle, but European Starlings do not fill me with joy. Even a few of them can be a disruptive addition to the yard. They hog the feeders, blocking other birds from the food, eat more than their share, and make a mess!
This week, with both snow and cold in the area, the starlings have unfortunately arrived. I deter the big flocks just by walking outside and standing there for a couple minutes, but there are a handful of tenacious starlings that have been hanging around lately and I swear, they are the messiest eaters out there! Their sloppy eating habits are wasting a lot of seed and keeping other birds from the feeders, so something needs to be done.
Whenever I see what I believe to be a problem at the feeders, my first step (okay, maybe after a few choice swear words) is to take a breath and simply watch what is going on. I’ve learned that if you don’t understand the mechanisms of what is happening, it makes it harder to make the right changes. Thinking of it as a puzzle to be solved, understanding the pieces and thinking it through first works much better.
European Starlings are notorious for hogging and devouring suet in feeders. They can sit on a regular suet feeder for hours until the suet is gone. I swapped out all my suet feeders with upside-down style feeders several years ago and while starlings will occasionally do a quick cling to the underside to grab a fast bite, they can’t seem to hang on long enough to eat the entire contents of a suet feeder. So they don’t tend to keep at it for very long, and so for the most part, that is no longer a problem in my yard.
The recent Starlings have instead been making a huge mess by dumping safflower seed on the ground, mostly from two hopper style feeders. Watching them was like watching a steady heavy rain of seed falling down from these feeders onto the ground. And before very long, the feeders are empty. Yes, there are birds that will eat food off the ground, but so do the squirrels and large amounts of seed on the ground can get wet and rot if it isn’t eaten quickly.
I don’t think European Starlings are particular fans of safflower seed (seeming to like suet and hulled sunflower seed much better.) But they don’t seem to be fond of pulling sunflower hearts out of the ports of the Squirrel-Buster Feeders and can’t get to the seed in the caged feeders at all. So in my yard, the safflower seed is the only real choice they have. People may tell you that starlings don’t eat safflower, but I find wild creatures are sometimes more open-minded than we give them credit for if they are hungry enough. I’ve learned to keep a bit of skepticism when I read that x bird doesn’t eat x type of seed. Sometimes it is true. Sometimes it’s not as absolute a rule as you might have been told.
I actually have read that because of their beaks, European Starlings have trouble eating the heavy-shelled stripped sunflower seeds. This makes me wonder if they might also have some trouble with the heavy-shelled safflower seeds. But they do seem to be eating it. I think.
Watching them at the feeders, they seem to be spending a LOT of their time scissoring their long beaks wide open, throwing seed around and less time actually . . . eating. This makes me wonder if they are actually searching through the thick layer of seed for something more palatable – maybe broken bits of safflower seed that some other bird has already opened for them? Or maybe looking for the smaller millet seed that they can eat and that I have occasionally put in at least one of these feeders?
By design, both of the hopper feeders are uncovered, which starlings seem to like and it is just too easy for them to sweep large amounts of seed off of the hopper platforms onto the ground (where they then ignore it.)
SO. My strategy:
1) I took down the small hopper feeder hanging from one of the shepherd’s hook poles. There is currently no point in constantly re-filling that feeder, because the starlings just dump it all out on the ground within a short time.
So, I have temporarily replaced it with a small hanging tray feeder that I had in reserve in the garage. I put a disk baffle over it to give it a little protection from rain and snow and filled it with fresh safflower.
The other hopper feeder is a very old larger metal one mounted on a pole. That one I think I’m just going to let go empty for now.
2) The second piece of my plan was to empty seed from the two open platform feeders (one a hanging feeder and one mounted on a pole) into a bag to reserve for another time. Then I cleaned the two feeders (always a good idea after winter storms anyway) and put fresh safflower into the feeders. This way I got rid of any broken bits or stray millet that might be encouraging the starling behavior. It is now definitely pure fresh safflower seed.
BUT, I didn’t put as much seed in the feeders. I had noticed that there was less wasted seed under these two platform feeders than the hopper feeders because, I think, the sides of the trays help keep most the scattered seed from raining down onto the ground. Keeping the level of the seed low should reduce that a bit more. I’ll need to re-fill the feeders a little more often, but I suspect there will be less waste, so I should come out ahead.
This does not of course actually remove the starlings from the yard. To do that, I’d probably have to remove the platform feeders and hopper feeders completely for awhile. But those are favorites of the Northern Cardinals and House Finches and Mourning Doves and used by many of the other birds too, so I’m not willing to do that. This way though, I’m at least limiting the mess and seed waste. And once the starlings find other food sources that they like better, they will likely move on.
So that’s the plan. Sometimes I tweak things and it takes care of the problem first try. Sometimes it takes a few tries. Whenever you make a change, you need to pause, watch again and see if what you did made the change you wanted. If not, you try something else. So we’ll see, but so far, I think it is working. The starlings are still hanging around but there is not a huge pile of safflower seed on the ground this morning. Yes!
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