European Starlings: Messy Eaters!

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European Starling
European Starling

Most of the year, European Starlings don’t spend a lot of time in our yard. But when it snows, the big mixed flocks are 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. But the worst part is the mess the starlings make.

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 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!

A handful of tenacious starlings has been hanging around lately. I swear, they are the messiest eaters out there! Their sloppy eating habits waste a lot of seed and keep other birds from the feeders. Something needs to be done.

European Starling at a Platform Feeder
European Starling

Watching Bad Behavior

Whenever I have a problem at the feeders, my first step (okay, maybe after a few choice swear words) is to take a breath and watch what is going on. Don’t just randomly try things. 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 Starling at Suet Feeder
European Starling at Suet Feeder

Suet & European Starlings

European Starlings are notorious for hogging and devouring suet. 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. While starlings occasionally cling to the underside to grab a fast bite, they can’t hang on very long. This means they don’t stay for long stretches of time and can’t eat it all. So for the most part, that is no longer a big problem in my yard.

Safflower Seed on the Ground
Safflower Seed on the Ground

Starlings Spilling Seed

The recent Starlings were instead making a huge mess by dumping safflower seed on the ground. They were doing this mostly on the two hopper style feeders.

It 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 eat food off the ground, but so do squirrels. And seed on the ground can get wet and rot if it isn’t eaten quickly.

Starlings and Safflower

People may tell you that starlings don’t eat safflower. But 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 don’t think European Starlings are particular fans of safflower. (They like suet and hulled sunflower seed much better.) But they seem to have trouble pulling sunflower hearts out the Squirrel-Buster Plus’s ports. And they 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.

Blurry picture of European Starling with Wide Open Beak
European Starling with Wide Open Beak

I have read that because of their beak design, European Starlings have trouble eating heavy-shelled stripped sunflower seeds.  This makes me wonder if they might also have some trouble with the heavy-shelled safflower seeds. But they eat it in my yard.

Watching them, they seem to spend a LOT of time scissoring their long beaks wide open and throwing seed around. This made me wonder if they are searching through the seed for something more palatable. Maybe broken bits of safflower seed that some other bird has already opened for them?

Strategies For Messy Starlings

SO. My strategy: 

Small Hopper Style Feeder on Shepherd's Hook Pole
Small Hopper Style Feeder on Shepherd’s Hook Pole

1) Take Down Hopper Feeder

There was no point in constantly re-filling the small hopper feeder when starlings just dump it all on the ground. So I took it down temporarily.

Two Hanging Platform Feeders (One Large & One Small)
Two Hanging Platform Feeders (One Large & One Small)

I temporarily replaced it with a small hanging tray feeder I had in reserve in the garage. The disk baffles over them aren’t really needed since there is a baffle on the pole itself, but they provide some rain/snow protection.

Metal Hopper Style Feeder on a Pole
Metal Hopper Style Feeder on a Pole

The other hopper feeder is a very old larger metal one mounted on a pole. I let that one go empty temporarily.

European Starling on Hanging Platform Feeder
European Starling on Hanging Platform Feeder

2) Use Less Seed in Platform Feeders

The second piece of my plan was to empty seed from the two open platform feeders. Then I cleaned the two feeders (always a good idea after winter storms) and filled them with fresh safflower. This got rid of any broken bits that might be encouraging the starling behavior. It is now definitely pure fresh safflower seed.

BUT, I didn’t re-fill them with as much seed. I noticed that there was less wasted seed under the platform feeders than the hopper feeders. I think this is because the platform sides help keep most the tossed seed from raining down onto the ground.

Keeping the level of the seed low should reduce that a bit more. This means I need to re-fill the feeders a little more often, but with less waste, I should come out ahead.

European Starling in Hanging Platform Feeder
European Starling in Hanging Platform Feeder

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 Northern Cardinals, House Finches and Mourning Doves and used by many of the other birds too. So I’m not willing to do that.

But this does limits the mess and seed waste. And once the starlings find other food sources that they like better, they should move on.

3) Add Screens to the Feeders

Sometimes I tweak things and it takes care of the problem on the first try. Sometimes it takes a few tries. Whenever you make a change, pause, watch and see if what you did fixed things. If not, try something else.

Not using the hopper feeders and using less seed in the platforms helped a lot. The starlings still hung around but they stopped dumping seed on the ground.

Then I had an idea. I figured out how to tweak my hopper and platform feeders to prevent starlings from dumping the seed. By adding a screen, I could slow the starlings down and eliminate the mess. My hopper feeder is out of the garage and in use again!

Nancie

Learn More About European Starlings:

Sialis Starling Page

All About Birds Starling Page

Learn More About Maryland Birds

See my post on Central Maryland Backyard Birds.


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