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Large mixed “blackbird” flocks are the bane of backyard birdwatchers in late winter and early spring. Appearing in mass, groups of Common Grackles, European Starlings, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds can take over feeders and push other birds out. But this year, for many reasons, the blackbird flocks are not as much of a problem in my yard. Some of this is because of things I’ve done to set up my feeders and some is beyond my control.
1) Switch IMMEDIATELY to Safflower to Deter Mixed Flocks
Safflower is not magical but it is one part of the strategy to keep the mixed blackbird flocks away. In my yard, Red-Winged Blackbirds will readily eat safflower and European Starlings will run their beaks through platform feeders to find broken safflower to eat. Even Common Grackles will reluctantly eat it if they are hungry enough, but they are not fans.
So why bother with safflower? The big mixed flocks have a lot of bird bellies to feed and to my eye, the bigger, bolder grackles may be leaders in these mixed groups. If they can’t find food they like in your yard, they may move on to find it elsewhere. Yes, they may leave some of the other birds behind at your feeders, but at least you don’t have the whole mob there.
Why switch to safflower immediately? In some past years, I made the mistake of not switching to safflower quickly enough. Pairs of grackles decided to nest in the yard, at least partially because they liked the sunflower seed they found at first. Once committed to the territory, those pairs didn’t leave, even when I switched to safflower. The lesson I learned was to switch out my open feeders to safflower right away so the grackles don’t get comfortable.
2) Nutra-Saff in Some Feeders is Uninteresting to the Flocks
But some of the flock birds do readily eat safflower and Northern Cardinals are still pushed out by Red-Winged Blackbirds and European Starlings on the platform feeders. So how do I deal with that? I’ve been experimenting with Nutra-Saff, a version of safflower. In my yard, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and Mourning Doves eat it almost as readily as they eat regular safflower. I’ve also seen Tufted Titmouses, Carolina Wrens and Carolina Chickadees eat it. I’m not saying that it is a favorite, but they do eat it.
What about the mixed flock birds? I’ve never seen a grackle eat Nutra-Saff. Starlings will eat just about anything but don’t seem enthusiastic about Nutra-Saff. I have also seen two Brown-Headed Cowbirds eat it.
Red-Winged Blackbirds will eat Nutra-Saff but if I put regular safflower in two platform feeders and Nutra-Saff in the other two platform feeders, the Red-Winged Blackbirds stay on the safflower-filled feeders, leaving the Nutra-Saff feeders open for other birds. So even with a half dozen Red-Winged Blackbirds hanging around, I still have cardinals.
Important Note: If you have never tried Nutra-Saff in your yard, start with a SMALL bag of it to see if birds in your yard will eat it before investing in a lot of it. Also, keep in mind that what birds eat can evolve a little bit. It is possible that flock birds in your yard may be more open to eating this seed than the ones visiting my yard. Again, start with a little bit a see how it works in your yard!
3) Cage Feeders Only for Sunflower Blocks Out Larger Flock Birds
I do still offer sunflower hearts/chips, but when the big mixed blackbird flocks are around, I ONLY offer it in tube feeders with a cage around it. (I have three Woodlink cage feeders and one Nuttery Globe cage feeder.)
This part of the strategy carves out a space for smaller birds like American Goldfinches, House Finches, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmouses. This year, I’ve even seen Downy Woodpeckers get into the cage feeders to grab some sunflower. Unfortunately I’ve also watched a White-Breasted Nuthatch try it but go away frustrated.
The mixed flock birds can’t fit through the cage openings, so they are blocked out. When they first arrive, they will sometimes try to hang on the side of the cage to see if they can get seed out, but usually give up quickly.
This year, I noticed that Red-Winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles kept this up on the one Nuttery Globe cage feeder I have. When I investigated, I realized that a crust of sunflower hearts had built up on the narrow solid rim “floor” of the feeder. The grackles and blackbirds would hang on the side of the cage globe and pick at this seed, keeping other small birds away. Once I cleaned this off, these birds were left to poke around for fallen seed under the feeder and the smaller birds were able to get back to the feeder.
4) Nyjer For Some Sparrows is Uninteresting to the Flocks
I have also changed my millet habits. In past years, I often would broadcast white proso millet over the ground for sparrows. This year, I have used very little millet because millet spread on the ground appeals to nuisance blackbird flocks as well.
This year, I have instead scattered nyjer seed in a limited area for sparrows. The nuisance blackbird flocks have been completely uninterested it. Normally this seed is something you would put in nyjer tube feeders for American Goldfinches. Spread on the ground, it also appeals to Dark-Eyed Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows and House Finches.
5) Pure 100% Suet in Some Feeders Maybe Less Interesting to Flocks?
So far, the grackles and starlings have hardly been on the suet feeders, which is really unusual. I think there are a couple reasons. The first might be that while our weather has been unusually warm, it is probably a little too early for them to be feeding babies. I have noticed though that the few times I have seen a starling or grackle on a suet feeder, it has been on the regular suet blocks and not on the 100% suet blocks.
100% suet can only be used in cold weather because it melts, so I need to be careful as temperatures warm past about 70 degrees, but so far it doesn’t seem interesting to annoying grackles and starlings. The Downy Woodpeckers and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers seem to like it though. This is an experiment in progress, so I’ll let you know how this goes.
6) Warmer Temperatures and Grackles Tend to Leave
One big difference that is beyond my control is outside temperatures. I’ve noticed in the past that grackles tend to hang out on the feeders on cold days but once the temperature gets around 50 degrees, they tend to disappear. So in late winter, when it is usually cold all day, they hang out all day. In early spring, they often hang out in the morning and then leave as the day warms up in the afternoon. This winter was weirdly warm here in the Mid-Atlantic so we’ve seen mostly warmer temperatures and so fewer grackles on my feeders.
One strategy I’ve also played with is topping off my feeders in late afternoon instead of early in the morning. That way they are nice and full when it is warmer and annoying flock birds have left. The regular birds (especially the cardinals) then aren’t stuck with just picked over seed when the flock moves on.
7) Cooper’s Hawks Go After the Blackbird Flocks Too
Another thing I can’t control is winged predators. With so many feeders in my yard that attract a lot of birds, Cooper’s Hawks periodically spend time hunting the feeders.
One day I was sitting outside near my back door. There was a group of half a dozen or so grackles poking around on the ground looking for scraps under the farthest cage feeder. (They weren’t poking around the nearer feeders because I was there.) All of a sudden, those birds rose up, along with at least forty other grackles that were settled into the trees in my far side yard. They all surged into the sky and curved off and out of the yard. A Cooper’s Hawk had flown their way and that one bird spooked the whole flock. I didn’t see the flock again that day.
8) Being Present in the Yard Deters the Flock Birds
I still find that being present in the yard is the best deterrent for flocks. If I walk out and spend a few minutes standing in the feeder area, the invading flock moves off. Walking toward them and clapping a time or two will usually encourage grackles and mixed flocks to leave for awhile. Once I go back inside or sit quietly outside, the regular birds that are used to me, come back to the feeders.
9) Patience . . . Mostly
The most important thing in any fight with the mixed blackbird flocks is to realize that it doesn’t last forever. Once the weather warms, they mostly move on and leave the feeders alone . . . until next year!
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