Late winter to very early spring can be a stressful time of year for the backyard bird watcher. You put out the regular foods in the regular bird feeders for your regular birds . . . and a noisy aggressive mob of Common Grackles, Brown-Headed Cowbirds, Red-Winged Blackbirds and European Starlings show up. They take over the feeders, push the other birds out and eat a huge amount of seed. What can you do about it? Here are some options:
1) Some people take their feeders down until the flocks go away. If you don’t want to feed the hoard, this is the way to be 100% effective. Put the feeders back up when the weather warms up. For myself, I can’t do it because I don’t like leaving my regular birds without this up-until-then reliable food source at a time of year when native foods tend to be scarcer.
2) Feed the birds as usual but go outside when the flocks descend. Be present. Don’t scream and shout. Just stand in the feeder area for a few minutes. Usually the flocks are not super patient (they have a lot of mouths to feed after all) so if you stand there for a few minutes, they are likely to move on. If they haven’t, then try clapping loudly a few times. They will probably move off, except for the starlings which are incredibly tenacious. If it is cold, especially if there is a late snow, the flock will probably be back again after awhile. If you do this repeatedly, there is a chance they won’t return the next day. Or they will. If they haven’t found an alternative food source in those periods when you’ve sent them on their way, they’ll be back to your feeders. Rinse and repeat.
3) If you are offering mixed seed that contains millet, milo and corn that these flocks especially like, stop. Also when the flocks are active, try to avoid broadcasting seed on the ground; it is attractive for feeding a large flock. If you want to continue to offer these types of seed, at least contain it so they don’t have a wide area in which to spread out to eat, making it that much more attractive to them.
4) Try switching seed. It is possible that the visiting flock may not like/be familiar with safflower seed. Try swapping out safflower for sunflower and other seed. This worked in my yard for several years for Common Grackles until this year when they decided that safflower, although bitter, was food and they were hungry so let’s eat! Red-Winged Blackbirds and European Starlings eat it in my yard too now. (Note: If your regulars have never had safflower, they may balk at it too at first.)
5) Try a different style feeder. Open platform feeders are wonderful for many types of birds (including Northern Cardinals and Mourning Doves who both love them), but they are also especially welcoming to the big mixed flocks this time of year because they can accommodate so many birds and fit their preferred feeding style. Hopper feeders can also be fine feeders, but this time of year, the starlings are likely to use their beaks to sweep the seed out of the tray onto the ground for the squirrels to eat, emptying out the feeders quickly.
European Starlings seem to have more trouble getting seed out of deep narrow tube feeder ports, so they might be less of a pest on them. The ones in my yard are mostly on the platform feeders rather than the tube feeders. (They liked the hopper feeders too and kept dumping out the seed until I tweaked those feeders.) The Brown-Headed Cowbirds in my yard always seem to be on the ground or in the platform feeders; I don’t think I’ve seen them on the tube feeders . . . which doesn’t mean they won’t, if that is the only option.
Common Grackles and Red-Winged Blackbirds are usually fine with tube feeders though. BUT, you might try shortening or removing the perches temporarily if your feeder allows that. This might make it harder for bigger birds, while many of the smaller birds can use shorter ports or cling more easily. I took the perches off a Squirrel Buster Classic feeder and the grackles will occasionally visit it, but can’t stay long because they have trouble hanging on for long.
If the starlings and grackles are eating all your suet and won’t let other birds have a chance, consider using an upside-down suet feeder. These birds will learn to dangle to grab a bite but they can’t keep it up long enough to dominate the feeder and eat it all.
Even better for the smallest birds though is a cage-style feeder. The openings between the bars only allow smaller birds through. I have three cage feeders that are popular for American Goldfinches, House Finches, Purple Finches, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Pine Warblers, Carolina Wrens and Carolina Chickadees. The larger flock birds can’t get in, but neither can larger birds like Northern Cardinals. Larger birds may try to dangle on these feeders briefly to try and nab a seed but if the seed ports are far enough away from the cage surface, they shouldn’t be able to get in and will usually give up fairly quickly.
6) Repeat to yourself over and over again: “This too shall pass” when the nuisance birds are driving you crazy. This period is usually just a few weeks long. Once the weather warms up a bit, the bugs will be more active and those birds are likely to be much less present at your feeders.
How are your feeders doing this spring? Are the flocks driving you crazy?
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