Keeping undesirable birds away from feeders is one of the greatest frustrations to any backyard bird enthusiast. This article outlines several solutions to the problem, including food, products, and methods. No brand names are mentioned.
“How do I keep blackbirds from stealing all the food?” This is one of the most common questions from backyard bird enthusiasts, frustrated by the amount of money they see gobbled up in seed on a daily basis. Some birds are aggressive enough to rob bird nests, eating the eggs and nestlings. Witnessing these tactics is enough to make the average backyard bird watcher feel disillusioned, and wonder if feeding birds does more harm than good.
The answer is no; feeding birds is beneficial to many species and is a relaxing hobby for everyone who watches. It’s a reciprocal relationship that is worth working through the problems, such as nuisance birds. There is a solution for every bird feeder’s budget. The following tips are for birds that most people don’t care to feed, the non-native invasive birds (house sparrows and starlings), and the bullies (blackbirds, grackles, cow birds, and jays).
Blackbirds, sparrows, and grackles love milo, cracked com, millet, and other grains best. They will eat black oil sunflower seed, the most popular food choice for the greatest variety of birds, if nothing else is offered. Some bird enthusiasts offer food from the kitchen, like bread and fruit scraps, all of which are appreciated by bully birds.
If feeding time is getting out of hand and your favored birds are suffering, it’s okay to take a short break from feeding. Unless you have severe winter weather, the birds will find other sources. That’s what you want initially — send a clear message to bully birds that the Free Diner is now closed.
Whether or not you decide to stop feeding, a different food offering is in order. Try striped sunflower seed, which has a tougher shell to crack than black oil sunflower — a hurdle for most bully birds, but easy-peasy for many nice birds, like cardinals and chickadees. Also consider offering safflower, which tastes slightly bitter, and is undesirable for blackbirds, house sparrows, and even squirrels. Like striped sunflower, safflower has the added advantage of a tough shell, and you can continue to enjoy a variety of polite, enjoyable birds. Nyjer seed, well loved by finches and other small birds, is usually left untouched by blackbirds and squirrels. (Nyjer seed should be offered in special finch feeders; it may blow away in fly-through or tray style feeders.)
If you’ve never offered safflower, add it gradually to your current blend — but make sure it is a blend that doesn’t contain unwanted birds’ favorite foods. Cheaper blends use fillers like milo —which only blackbirds prefer — to your detriment. By mixing safflower with something your favorite birds already eat, you give them time to sample and adjust. However, this strategy has a drawback — the bully birds will pick through and throw out what they don’t want.
In some cases, it is best to switch cold-turkey to one or several of the above seeds. As you cut back on the unwanted birds’ favorite foods and increase these others, you should notice a peaceful change in your backyard.
Some bird feeders are designed to meet the needs of a species, or same-sized birds. Similarly, because birds prefer to eat in specific locations, feeders are also designed to be placed at the level preferred by the birds they cater to. Platform feeders, for instance, are low table like open feeders for birds who prefer to feed on or near the ground. Cardinals, doves, and all of the bully birds prefer platform feeders. You don’t have to exclude cardinals from your yard, but if bully birds are a problem, it’s a good idea to find a feeder they won’t use.
- Tube Feeders with shortened perches — The shorter perches are workable for the small birds, not the larger ones. Look for a tube feeder that allows you to adjust the length, especially if it is designed to hold a seed mix, not just Nyjer.
- Upside down Tube feeders — Bump up the challenge for bigger birds with this feeder that forces birds to hang upside down on the perches to access the holes.
- Upside down suet feeders— Like the above tube feeder, this suet feeder forces the bird to have specific skills. Clinging is what wood peckers, chickadees, and nuthatches do best. Blackbirds can’t hang on to reach the suet, though it’s among their favorite foods.
- Cage Feeders — Designed to protect the seed from pesky squirrels and large birds, these feeders give small birds sole access, while also allowing them to hang out on the frame.
- Adjustable dome feeders — Made of clear, sturdy plastic, adjustable dome feeders can be closed just enough to allow only small birds in (up to the size of a cardinal or grosbeak), while larger birds can only pine for the inside treats.
It is acceptable and ethical to remove the nests of non-native species (house sparrows and starlings) from birdhouses in order to make way for a native species. These birds will aggressively fight for prime nesting spots, and will also take over nests of any other native species. They throw out eggs and nestlings, if they have to. House sparrows and Starlings will even kill adult birds in order to take the nest, sometimes building their own over the former occupant’s dead body. While house sparrows compete with small birds, starlings are bold enough to chase away larger nesting birds. Blue jays, blackbirds, cow birds, and grackles are all known to make eggs and nestlings a part of their diet. You can help protect the population of desirable birds with appropriate nest boxes.
Prevent bad birds from moving in by purchasing or making nest boxes with holes no larger than 11/8 inches, and use a metal entrance protector to prevent woodpeckers from enlarging the hole (allowing bully birds to later take over that nest). You can add further protection from predators by adding a predator guard — a 1” thick block of wood positioned over the opening with the same size hole (or an adaptor to make the entrance hole smaller). A deep nest box will make the distance even farther from the searching beaks and stretching paws of small bird predators.
Sometimes more active measures are necessary if bully birds are a Serious threat in your yard. Purple martins and bluebirds in particular suffer from the fierce competition of aggressive birds. Because they need the same size opening as sparrows (1 1/2”), their nest boxes need monitoring and human intervention. If you can’t justify cleaning out a starling or sparrow nest, don’t put up a birdhouse. Trapping and humanely euthanizing these non-native species is legal in most states. Others feel better about sterilizing and replacing sparrow or starling eggs, which at least slows down their reproduction rate, and keeps them preoccupied from terrorizing nests of their neighbors.
Native birds really do need your help. Although the above tips are to further your enjoyment of feeding backyard birds, your efforts to exclude bully birds, especially non-native invasive species, can help beneficial birds thrive. Whether you choose a different seed, vary feeding methods, or support a nesting pair, it’s not hard to make the world of nature a more beautiful place.
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