Nuisance Birds at Feeders

Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Nancie

European Starlings Arrive at the Feeders
European Starlings Can Be a Nuisance On Feeders

If you are feeding birds, it is probably because you like them. Otherwise why do it? While some backyard birdwatchers welcome all birds to their feeders, for many of us, some birds are less welcome. Nuisance birds on feeders can drive a bird watcher a little crazy.

What Are Nuisance Birds?

Some people don’t like House Finches. Some don’t like House Sparrows. Others draw the line at Brown-Headed Cowbirds. Red-Winged Blackbirds? European Starlings? Common Grackles? Your list may vary. What birds at your feeders do you consider nuisance birds?

Red-Winged Blackbirds and a European Starling
Sometimes a Few is Fine, but a Flock of them is Too Much

The birds that bug me at my feeders and that I call nuisance birds are the larger, more aggressive ones that show up in force, especially in bad weather when I’m trying to provide for the locals. For example, I don’t mind a Red-Winged Blackbird or two at the feeders normally. But when forty-five show up to clean out the feeders after a snowstorm, leaving nothing for the regulars, I’m not happy. It’s kind of like inviting your neighbors to a picnic and a whole bunch of people you’ve never met show up, fill all the chairs and eat all the food, leaving the neighbors with nothing but scraps.

Whatever your list, I think it is often possible to, if not eliminate their visits, at least reduce them. The trick is to figure out what the nuisance birds like and what they don’t like. Then try to set up your feeders accordingly. My approach to this is evolving, but I have found four strategies that help.

Mostly Red-Winged Blackbirds Taking Over the Feeder in the Snow can be a nuisance
Mostly Red-Winged Blackbirds Taking Over the Feeder in the Snow

1) Be Present Near Feeders

Big roving flocks are often less tolerant of human activity. They are often more easily startled off than the local birds who are more used to me.

A huge flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Brown-Headed Cowbirds, and/or European Starlings has a lot of beaks to fill. When they arrive in mass, you could go out and clap, jump up and down and make a fool of yourself to drive them off. Been there, done that.

Or simply go outside and stand in the feeder area for three or four minutes. Big flocks have better things to do than wait you out. They often get impatient and move on after a few minutes. By doing it calmly, you discourage the flock birds without freaking out the regulars as much.

When the weather is bad and/or the ground is covered in snow, the flock will probably circle back later if they don’t find another good dining spot. So you will probably need to repeat it, but this strategy at least gives the regulars windows of time to eat.

Mixed Flock of Birds Eating Seed Broadcast over Snow
Mixed Flock of Birds Eating Seed Broadcast over Snow

2) Don’t Widely Broadcast Seed

Another strategy is to re-think how you offer food. One practice I’ve learned will often encourage a flock is to broadcast seed over wide areas. It’s particularly tempting to do this when snow covers the ground because there are so many birds wanting to eat. It’s quick. It’s easy. But it can bring in the flocks and some of those birds may not be birds you like.

Birds Need Space

Birds typically prefer space around them when they eat. I suspect this is at least partly because they need wing-span space around them for landings and take offs. Watch birds eating on the ground. They usually space themselves out. They will poke at each other or move away if another bird infringes in their space. (See how the birds in the picture above are spaced?) So food spread far and wide on the ground is very tempting for large flocks.

When I first got started feeding birds in a big way, it was a winter when the ground was almost always covered with snow. I broadcast seed all across my yard. The result was two competing flocks of birds. One was a mixed flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles. The second group was all the other birds. Only having a couple of feeders at that point, I found that spreading the seed far and wide accommodated both flocks, typically each in a different end of the spread seed.

Broadcasting Too Much Seed

There are problems with doing this. First, I was encouraging the large nuisance flocks that drove me crazy because I was spreading food out, giving the flock lots of room to get comfortable. Second, when you do this with sunflower seeds, you WILL be sorry in the spring when you find your grass has died off in big bare patches and hundreds of tiny sunflower plants sprout up all over your yard. (Yep, been there, did that too.) Also, seed on the ground, especially in wet weather, can rot and mold. If birds eat compromised seed, they can get sick.

Handful of White Proso Millet
Handful of White Proso Millet

3) Reconsider White Proso Millet

There are many birds that like the small creamy colored seeds of white proso millet. In my yard, this seed is favored by Dark-Sided Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows and Mourning Doves, all birds I’m OK with. It is also enjoyed by Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds, birds I’d like to discourage.

I Put Out A Little Millet for Birds Like the Dark-Eyed Juncos
I Put Out A Little Millet for Birds Like the Dark-Eyed Juncos

I prefer to use millet rather than sunflower seed on the ground because sunflower seed shells make a mess and kill the grass. Instead I offer millet to ground feeding birds. But I’ve learned to be conservative with this seed.

I don’t buy mixed seed, and instead buy bags of individual seed types. When the big flocks of nuisance birds are around, I try to put millet out very late in the day – maybe an hour before sunset.

By that time the nuisance birds have usually left for their roosts. The smaller birds have gotten used to me putting out a little of this seed at this time of day. The birds that like it tend to eat on the ground. I will throw a few handfuls in a fairly small area, never more than I think will get eaten in that hour or so. (If there is some left early the next morning, that’s usually ok as the nuisance birds often arrive a little later.)

Suet Feeders
Suet Feeders with Protective Plastic to Discourage Starlings

4) Selectively Block Feeder Access

If you have larger birds you’d like to discourage on your feeders, consider shortening or even removing feeder perches. Or adjust weight mechanisms if the feeder allows it. (The Squirrel Buster Plus is one feeder that allows this.) Cage feeders like The Nuttery Globe Feeder or Woodlink Cage Feeder can also keep large birds out.

If your problem is European Starlings or Common Grackles hogging a suet feeder, you can limit them by the way you hang it and protecting it with plastic. Or switch to upside-side down suet feeders.

Watch the birds that are coming to your yard. See what each type of bird eats and how they like to eat it. This may give you ideas on how to appeal to the birds you want and discourage the others.

And Then Chill A Little

It is hard to keep a determined flock of aggressive birds from food that they like. If you put food out in your yard, you only have so much control over who comes to try and eat it. All you can do is try to set things up to favor the birds you want to feed and discourage the ones you don’t want.

If it doesn’t work completely, try not to let it raise your blood pressure. Spend a little time watching the nuisance birds through your binoculars. Some of them are really quite beautiful in their own right.

What birds bug you in your yard? What birds are on your “nuisance birds” list? What strategies have worked for you and what strategies have not?

Also See: Common Grackles vs The Nuttery Globe Seed Feeder

Nancie


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8 thoughts on “Nuisance Birds at Feeders

  1. I am a relatively new birder and just learned about Brown-Headed Cowbirds. To discourage them, I replaced the sunflower seeds and nut blends in my feeders with whole peanuts, safflower seeds and thistle. The past few days have seen them get the idea that there is no food they like in the feeders any longer. My question is: after they move on to find other food sources, can I return to putting the delicious nut blends back in the feeders? Will the cowbirds forget about my yard now that they have found a better food source?

    1. Hi Todd,
      Yes, I think that you will be able to switch back. The question really is when. I’ve found that sometimes you need to wait a week or two to be sure that a bird species that is annoying you has really moved on before switching seed back. If they are still somewhere in the area, they may still circle back to your feeder just to check and see if things have changed again. Also, if the cowbird moms have already deposited their eggs in any of the nests of other local bird species near by, my understanding is that they will be back to check on them. So they may still be around.

      That said, in my own personal experience, cowbirds usually are not permanent visitors at my feeders here in central Maryland. They usually come through with the mixed flocks in winter and early spring but then aren’t at the feeders as much when it gets warmer. Parts of the US have been having an unusual cold snap this early May, so that may be one reason you might see them at feeders right now if it cold where you are. Usually once it is warm and there are insects to find, they don’t come to my feeders anymore.

      It’s a judgement call on when to try to go back to the other seed/nuts. If it is still cold where you are, you might want to wait a few more days before trying again. If it is warm where you are (in the 50s or higher) and/or when you are ready to give it a try, my suggestion would be to start by adding a small amount of the sunflower or nut blend back into ONE feeder. See what happens. If they immediately return, then you know you need to wait longer. If they don’t, try expanding it to other feeders.

      Another thing to consider is the type(s) of feeders you have. In my yard, the cowbirds tend to eat on the ground or at platform feeders. They don’t tend to go for the tube style feeders and I’ve never had one get into a cage style feeder. I can’t promise they never go to these feeders, just that I haven’t seen it in my yard, possibly because there are platform feeders they prefer. But if you happen to have both types, try adding the sunflower or nut blend back to a single tube feeder first.

      I’ve found that feeding birds requires a lot of experimentation. The annoying problem birds can make you crazy if you let them. Thinking about it as a puzzle to be solved helps. : )

      Good luck!
      Nancie

  2. Thanks, Nancie! This was helpful. It was a pleasure for me to watch the cowbirds get frustrated at the feeders. They thought the whole peanuts were seeds and tried to crack them open using the feeder posts! However my wife felt bad for them. I’m going to wait a few days after no more of them are spotted in the yard before I re-introduce the prior foods. I appreciate your insight.

  3. It’s funny that people have such differing experiences. I’ve had a flock of cowbirds come in this year, which I’m really unhappy about and I’m kind of surprised because I live in the middle of a forest! So many things I’ve read about the brown-headed cowbirds are the opposite of what I’m experiencing. They’re obsessed with my tube feeder which is where the millet is. It’s a little tricky for them to eat out of but doesn’t seem to be a problem for eight of them to sit on it and chow down. And if I take the millet and sunflower seeds away, they go after my other seed and insect/nut block. So now I’ve taken everything away and I’m just hoping they’ll clean up all the seed they’ve thrown on the ground and then leave. Then hopefully I can get some of my beautiful grosbeaks, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, and everything else back. I was terribly excited about getting a few Lazuli Buntings a few days ago but the cowbirds drove them off. I’m so sad about this.

    1. Hi April,

      Wow! That is very different than my experience with these birds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them on a tube feeder. It could be because I have several platform feeders so they gravitate there where it is easier for them and avoid the tube feeders. BUT, one thing I have learned about birds in general is that while they might usually behave a certain way, they can surprise you. If they are hungry enough, they will eat seed they supposedly won’t eat and try feeders they usually avoid.

      In my yard, from my experience, they do like millet a lot. They like sunflower too, but I usually have that only in cage feeders they can’t get into or tube feeders they don’t like, so they tend to stick with millet if I have that out. I’ve seen them poking around for short periods on the safflower in the platform feeders but I don’t think they are particularly fond of it. It sounds like they want your millet badly enough that they are willing to work harder for it than they might otherwise.

      I do have a backwards kind of thought. I’m honestly not sure if this is a good idea or not. But one thing you might try is toss a little millet on the ground in an easily visible place but away from the tube feeder. Then fill the tube feeder with something else. The idea would be to see if they will go for the easy seed on the ground and then let the other birds use the tube feeder. The obvious downside would be that it might encourage them to stay around longer than if you just do what you are doing and taking in all the feeders for a little while. And if there are a LOT of them, they might take over both the ground and the tube feeder. It might be worth a small experiment. Or not.

      You might also experiment with different seed. I’ve found that Dark-Eyed Juncos and some sparrows (including White-Throated, Song, Fox & Chipping) will eat nyjer seed if you toss some on the ground. The annoying mixed flock birds don’t seem interested in it. So you might try that if you happen to have any nyjer and want to try and continue feeding those birds while you are waiting for the cowbirds to leave.

      Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks eat safflower seed in my yard. So will cardinals, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees, House Finches and Mourning Doves. You might try putting that in the tube feeder. The nuthatches and woodpeckers probably won’t be thrilled though. Even for the birds that eat it, it is an acquired taste. For that reason, if you haven’t offered safflower before, I would start with a small amount.

      If it is still cold where you are right now, you may find that the cowbirds leave your feeders when it gets warmer and there are more bugs to be found. Fingers crossed! Keep in mind too that the best way to get nuisance birds to leave is to be present in the yard. Make a nuisance of yourself and that can encourage them to leave too.

      Good luck! I hope the buntings return for you!
      Nancie

    1. Hi Jenna,
      Yes. House Sparrows are not native birds. They can be a real problem, taking over feeders. I don’t usually see them much in my yard, but a few years ago, I had a flock settle in the yard. It took some doing to get them to leave. You need different strategies for House Sparrows than grackles and starlings. I have some separate posts about getting House Sparrows to leave.

      Nancie

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