Most of the year, I don’t get European Starlings in the yard, but winter snows bring all kinds of birds to the feeders. Starlings are actually kind of pretty if you take the time to look at them closely . . . but they can be a real pain when they latch onto the suet feeders. In my experience, most birds will sit on or next to a suet feeder and eat for a minute or even up to five. Starlings will settle on top of a suet cage and eat and eat and eat until the suet is gone. They won’t move, except maybe for a squirrel, so the other birds get nothing.
I’ve got a couple of strategies for deterring starlings from the suet. The first, I discovered last winter by accident. I noticed that when there is only an inch or two of suet left in the bottom of a suet cage that dangles by a chain, Starlings have more trouble settling in to eat it all. They seem to like to sit on top rather than cling and if they do cling, they don’t really want to hang upside down. They can still get to it but because they can’t really settle in and get comfortable, they don’t sit there nearly as long.
So I started cutting my purchased suet blocks into narrow thirds and only putting a third into the bottom of the dangling cage at a time. It’s not a complete fix, but I found it helped a lot.
I have since read another solution which is to peel off the thin plastic cover on purchased suet blocks but leave the slightly thicker plastic bottom and sides of the package. Then put the whole thing in the suet cage feeder.
If you then hang the suet cage on its side so that the exposed side faces down, starlings have a harder time getting to the suet. More agile birds like Downy Woodpeckers, wrens, titmouses, etc. can still eat fine. (I suspect they prefer the easier to eat suet cage mounted right up against a tree trunk, but if they can’t access it because of a greedy starling, that seems a bit moot.) There are starlings that can figure this out, but again, they can’t stay on for long periods of time so they are less likely to dominate the suet.
I offer suet all year long and have kept up the plastic layer in most of my suet feeders even when there are no starlings bothering them. In the warmer months, I’ve noticed that suet left out in the elements will get a layer of unappetizing green or black mold over the surface after a few consecutive days of warm muggy rain. The plastic tends to give the suet some protection from the wet and so I’ve found that the suet feeders with the plastic are less likely to mold.
I hadn’t seen a starling in the yard for almost a year, but with our east coast blizzard this past week, they suddenly arrived. I had gotten a few more suet cage feeders since last winter and hadn’t starling-proofed them, so the starlings quickly settled in on these. So yesterday I went to my local bird store (Mother Natures) and purchased several hooked chains (similar to the Homestead 33″ Bird Feeder Chain). I’ve been using them to dangle the remaining suet feeders with the plastic left on them.
I have several of regular-sized suet feeders (like the C&S EZ Fill Suet Basket) and two extra-large ones (like the Pine Tree 1451 Wire Feeder for Large Cake). Right now I’m putting purchased suet blocks in the regular-sized cage feeders. I have suet in one of the larger suet cages and a large nut block in the other. These two I wanted to hang from the arm of a bird feeding pole. It was a little tricky to figure out how to dangle these two large feeders from the same arm and still keep them positioned so that the starlings wouldn’t be able to settle on them.
My solution was to use flexible wire that I had in my craft stash to wire the wide edge of one feeder to a wide edge of another (as shown in the picture above.) Then I used chain and a hook to dangle them from the pole arm so that they hang in a kind of V-shape. (I had to fiddle with the hook placement until I got the right spot on each cage where they would hang the way I wanted them.) I kept the larger plastic packaging in these feeders too.
You might wonder what the birds think of all this. Well, first I must admit that my tinkering may be initially annoying to the birds (assuming that birds feel annoyed.) They get used to where things are and when you move a feeder, they tend to come to the old spot and look for it. If you haven’t moved it far though, they’ll usually find it quickly.
I’ve watched birds come to the plastic protected cages for the first time and they will usually first try to get to the suet from the top or sides. Most figure out that the bottom is accessible within about thirty seconds. The only time I’ve seen it take longer was a male Downy Woodpecker who was determined to get to the suet from the side regardless of the plastic in between. Being a woodpecker and used to pecking holes in things, he kept pounding on the side for a while before trying the bottom. Even now, I occasionally need to swap out the plastic if the sides get too ragged. (See the photo above.)
You might wonder too whether any of this is a deterrent to squirrels. Mostly not. Squirrels are very acrobatic and are willing to dangle. It’s possible that if the chain the feeder dangles from is long enough, it might thwart them. But in my experience, the only suet that has been completely free of squirrels is in the suet cage that dangles from the baffled pole arm. The squirrels haven’t figured out how to get up there . . . yet! Never bet against a squirrel that wants to eat!
2019 Update: The upside down suet in the plastic worked well for me for quite awhile. Eventually I decided to formalize things and switched up to using Birds Choice Upside Down Suet Feeders. These are excellent once birds figure them out. They keep the suet clean and dry and slow the starlings way down. Put them on a baffled pole and the squirrels can’t get them either.
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