Backyard Birding

Bully birds are a nuisance, but you can take some simple steps to prevent them from dominating your feeders—and allow less aggressive avian visitors to enjoy your hospitality

08-01-2005 // George H. Harrison

European StarlingSOMETIMES it’s downright irritating to watch bully birds, such as blue jays, swoop down onto bird feeders, sending panicked goldfinches, juncos and chickadees flying. Or to watch as European starlings crowd a feeder so that smaller, less aggressive birds don’t have a chance to eat. Such bratty behavior has caused some people to throw in the towel and stop filling feeders altogether. But you don’t have to give up. Here are some easy ways to control the bullies so that other birds might enjoy your hospitality:

Go modern: New innovations in feeder construction can limit the size of the birds that are able to feed in your yard—and bully birds are generally larger than most of the more “desirable” feeder birds. Look for a rubber-coated mesh that surrounds traditional tube, suet and tray feeders. It allows smaller birds to pass through and enter the feeding chamber. Bullies, such as blackbirds, pigeons and crows, can’t squeeze through the mesh to reach the food. The downside is that desirable birds such as northern cardinals are also too large to enter the food chamber.

Take cover: Starlings are known for their love of suet cakes, and it is not unusual for them to eat a whole cake in a single day. To stymie starlings, hang your suet feeder under a domed squirrel baffle or buy a starling-proof suet feeder, which allows birds access to food only from beneath the feeder. Starlings are reluctant to go under any sort of cover.

Catch seeds: Many people find that foiling bully birds at feeders isn’t quite enough because they often eat the food that the other birds drop on the ground. To solve this problem, place a garbage can under a hanging feeder. The bullies are not likely to fly into the can to get the discarded seed.

Be selective: Selective feeding is yet another way to control the kinds of birds that eat at your feeders. Generally, bully birds do not like safflower or nyjer (thistle) seeds. By offering just those seeds—and not wild bird seed mixes—only finches, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and grosbeaks will come to the feeders to dine.

Aid acrobats: Bully species usually require a perch to hold onto while eating, but most finches and many other small feeder birds can eat without perching at food ports. Finches can cling to the sides of a tube feeder and eat all day long. Bullies can’t. Some commercial tube feeders have perches above the food ports, where the birds have to stretch downward to feed—something that bully birds can’t do either.

Use bottles: Thwart suet-eating bullies at a cagelike feeder by inserting a long perch that extends out both sides, placing a small soda bottle over each end. When a bully lands on a soda bottle, the weighty visitor rolls off the perch. Smaller birds are too light to roll off the bottles while feeding, or they can cling to the wire cage.

Offer alternatives: A male hummingbird is often aggressive and protective of a sugar-water feeder that he considers his own. Only “his females” and their young are allowed to feed undisturbed. All other hummers are chased away. The simple solution to this problem is to set up an additional sugar-water feeder on another side of your house, out of sight of the other male’s domain. He can’t guard a feeder that he can’t see.

Buy weights: Look for a bird feeder that has a weighted perch or treadle. When larger, heavier birds land on a treadle, it drops down over the bird food. (This device works against squirrels, too.) Lightweight birds can reach the food because the treadle does not drop down when they perch.

Hang mirrors: Birdhouses for woodpeckers, wood ducks and owls are often taken over by European starlings. To keep the foreigners at bay, place a small mirror on the back wall facing the entryway so that starlings see their own “scary” reflections when they land at the door. The mirror doesn’t seem to deter other birds.

Play music: Just when the strawberries and grapes are ready for picking, a variety of birds will descend on a garden patch to consume the fruit. One way to deter these critters is to set up a radio in the garden that plays loud music. It’ll scare even the boldest invaders.

Field Editor George H. Harrison is the author of more than a dozen books on backyard wildlife.

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