Unexpected Birds in Caged Bird Feeders

Last Updated on March 25, 2024 by Nancie

Gray Catbirds On and In a caged Feeder

What birds can you expect in a caged bird feeder and what unexpected birds might also use the feeder? You probably purchased the feeder to attract smaller birds that fit through the cage’s wire grid while blocking aggressive larger birds. But you might be surprised at some of the visitors.

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Woodlink Caged Seed Feeder
Woodlink Feeder

Caged Bird Feeders I Use

I have two types of caged bird feeders in my yard. The first are four Woodlink Squirrel-Proof Seed Feeders. (See above photo.) Each is made of a plastic tube feeder surrounded by a metal cage. The second are two Erva Starling-Proof feeders. (See below photo.) These more drum-shaped feeders can be purchased with various inner feeder options but again are surrounded by a metal cage. I fill the Woodlink feeders with sunflower chips. One of my Erva feeder houses an inner suet cage and the other holds a bowl of dried mealworms.

Erva Starling-Proof Suet Feeder

The goal of a caged feeder is to allow in smaller birds while blocking aggressive larger birds like European Starlings and Common Grackles. So you might purchase this type of feeder if you like to feed various finches like House Finches, American Goldfinches or Pine Siskins for example. Other small birds that easily pop in and out of caged feeders in my yard are Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Pine Warblers and Tufted Titmouses. American Bluebirds can also learn to slip inside the Erva feeders to get mealworms.

But what other less expected birds might you find using these feeders? Here are a few more less typical birds that eat from these feeders in my yard.

Gray Catbird and Downy Woodpecker On and In a Caged Suet Feeder

Downy Woodpeckers in Caged Feeders

I had Woodlink caged feeders in the yard for several years before Downy Woodpeckers started hopping inside to eat sunflower chips. Downys are fairly small as woodpeckers go. They are just small enough that they can slip between the metal wires to get inside. Once they learned the trick, they became regulars on the Woodlink feeders. I’ve noticed over the years that once one bird figures something out, their fellows tend to learn the trick too.

Once they figured out how to get into Woodlink feeders for sunflower, getting inside a caged suet feeder shouldn’t have been a surprise. I have several upside-down suet feeders in my yard as well as one Erva Starling-Proof Suet Feeder. My expectation when I purchased the Erva feeder was that the woodpeckers would use the upside-down feeders. I thought the Erva feeder would be a place for small birds like chickadees and wrens to grab a bite of suet. And this did happen. But I also found that the Downy Woodpeckers were just as happy to go inside the Erva caged feeder as to hang on the upside-down feeder. They might even use the Erva feeder a bit more.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker Pulling Seed From Outside a Caged Feeder

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and Caged Feeders

A Red-Bellied Woodpecker is quite a bit larger than a Downy. It is too big to fit inside the cage of a Woodlink caged feeder. But that doesn’t stop Red-Bellies in my yard from regularly eating sunflower chips from this caged feeder. Instead of going inside the cage, the Red-Bellies hang on the side of the feeder. Reaching through the metal grid with their head and long beak and long tongue, they can pull sunflower seed out of the feeder ports. (Look carefully at the photo above. This bird is using his tongue to grab the seed.)

Gray Catbird in Caged Suet Feeder

Gray Catbirds in Caged Feeders

I was recently surprised when another slightly larger bird figured out how to get into the Erva caged feeder to get suet: a Gray Catbird. We don’t usually see catbirds hanging around in the yard for long. They usually just show up for a couple days when they first arrive in the area in the spring.

In the past, catbirds have mostly been interested in the suet feeders when they arrive. Catbirds aren’t great at the whole hanging upside-down thing and mostly were reduced to picking up suet scraps underneath. So they usually would not stay long.

A couple years ago, one of the three catbirds that arrived in the spring figured out how to get inside the caged Erva suet feeder. This particular bird was small enough or clever enough to get inside the feeder, eat and slip back out again easily. The other two catbirds hovered on the outside of the cage and couldn’t seem to duplicate the trick. I’m not sure if it is a matter of size or just physical skill.

Chipping Sparrows Eating Suet

Chipping Sparrows in Caged Feeders

A couple springs ago, I was surprised by a different spring arrival that popped into the Erva caged suet feeder. Usually the tiny Chipping Sparrows show up in the spring and eat seed. Like most sparrows, they seem to prefer to eat on the ground, but they are a bit more flexible than some and will also eat from feeders.

In past years, when I only had upside-down suet feeders, I never saw a Chipping Sparrow eating suet. Hanging upside-down isn’t the way a sparrow eats. So it never occurred to me that they ate suet. But once I added the caged suet feeder, that gave them a way to get to the suet.

When they first arrived in the spring, they were in and out of the caged feeder quite a bit. But after a few days they stopped. My guess is that they were interested in the suet for quick energy after their journey and it became less necessary once they were more settled in.

European Starling Hanging Onto a Caged Feeder

Birds That Can’t Get Into Caged Feeders

You might wonder if the aggressive birds that I hoped to keep out have figured out the caged feeders. They have not. Even after years of persistent attempts, European Starlings have never been able to get into either the Woodlink or Erva caged feeders. The surrounding cages are also far enough out from the food that they can’t reach their beaks inside to get it. They hang on the side of the cage and try their best to get at the food. Sometimes if another bird has spilled the food on the Erva feeder’s floor near the cage they might get a scrap or two, but that is it.

The same is true of attempts by Common Grackles. They will try hanging on the side to get at the food, but they are also blocked out as well. They instead hang around underneath the Woodlink caged feeders and wait for the finches to drop pieces of sunflower chips down to them.

Carolina Wren Eating Dried Mealworms

What Birds Do You See in Your Caged Feeders?

The food you put into a feeder will also impact which birds use the feeder. So for example if you fill it with peanuts instead of sunflower seed, you might find different birds that work to get inside. For example, finches rarely go into the Erva caged feeders in my yard because they aren’t particularly interested in the suet or dried mealworms. Put sunflower chips in the feeder and they hop right inside.

Do you have caged feeders in your yard? What food do you put inside them and what birds have you seen eat from them? Your comment below would be most welcome!

2024 Update: This winter I’ve started seeing the occasional Dark-Eyed Junco popping into the caged mealworm feeder! I haven’t been spreading quite as much seed on the ground for the sparrows this winter and I’ve noticed that, while they still seem to prefer feeding on the ground, at least some of them are now more willing to check out feeders, especially open platform feeders and the caged mealworm feeder.


Also Check out:

My Seed Choice: What Do Backyard Birds Eat post.

FeederWatch’s Preferences of Common Feeder Birds Interactive Page.

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15 thoughts on “Unexpected Birds in Caged Bird Feeders

  1. Our redbellied woodpeckers twist around on the spring loaded seed feeder to reach seed on the other side, and can get their heads inside the top of the caged suet feeder to use those long beaks. I have seen both males and females do this. Downies are inside our suet cage daily, year round and I also have groups of various sparrows in it.

    1. Hi Brenda,
      Wow! Birds, like a lot of wild creatures, are definitely problem solvers.
      Thanks for sharing!

  2. The redbellied woodpeckers in my neighborhood have figured out how to perch on the side of the hopper feeder with a weight-activated perch and pick out the peanuts.

  3. Our House Sparrows actually became the most frequent guests at our upside-down suet feeder! It was funny to see them do it but they wouldn’t stop. We also have a thistle feeder and they were the biggest guests at that, too. I think they are amazingly adaptable. The House Finches preferred our Safflower to the thistle.

    1. Hi Jim,
      It’s always interesting when birds do things that they are not “supposed” to be doing. You are right that they can be amazingly adaptable. It’s kinda “where there is a will there is a way” sometimes. Or maybe it’s just that if you are hungry, you are willing to try something different.

  4. Nancie —

    Very timely article!

    How do cardinals fare with the cages? We have a wild birds unltd squirrel buster (the cheaper one that can’t be adjusted) and the starlings and grackles are eating more than a college kid home for break. We’ve considered switching from the no mess blend, which seems to have something for everyone to safflower seeds, which we hear the undesirables don’t like, but we’re hesitant to provide a narrow menu and to possibly attract fewer types of birds. We’re in the northern VA suburbs.


    1. Hi Greg,
      In my yard, the cardinals like the platform and hopper feeders and one very large tube feeder. I think they are just a bit too big to fit in through the mesh of caged feeders. They mostly haven’t shown interest in the cage feeders over the years although there are a couple of cardinals this year that have been trying to get into one of the Erva caged feeders to get to the dried mealworms. I think they saw the catbird get into one of these and are thinking they would give it a try too. They have not succeeded and I would be surprised if they can do it, although they may be able to get some spilled mealworms on the cage feeder floor.

      Switching to safflower is worth a try. It can work, depending on your starlings and grackles. In my yard, I tried switching to safflower years ago when they got too aggressive in the spring and it worked well and they left. But as the years went on, they learned to eat safflower too. They still seem to like safflower LESS, but they will eat it readily. So it may depend on whether the particular starlings and grackles in your yard have been exposed to safflower before. If they have, they may stick around. If they haven’t learned to eat it, they may move on. My suggestion would be to start with a small bag of safflower to try and see how it goes.

      Safflower is a seed that quite a lot of birds can learn to eat, although not all. In my yard, it is eaten by Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Mourning Dove, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Gray Catbird, Carolina Wren, House Finch, Red-Winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, European Starling. (I’m probably forgetting some.)

      The starlings tend to make a huge mess when they get into a platform or hopper feeder full of safflower, sweeping seed out; I suspect they might be looking for broken open pieces or maybe they are hoping to uncover something more interesting underneath. They will eat safflower in a pinch, but they don’t seem thrilled with it.

      The American Goldfinches almost never are in the safflower feeders, although I’ve been surprised to see one apparently eating it maybe two times over the years. And the woodpeckers don’t show much interest in the safflower typically. Still, safflower is eaten by a lot of birds.

      What I do most of the time is put safflower in the easier to get into feeders — the platform, hopper and un-caged tube feeders. I put sunflower chips into the caged tube feeders. That way, at least the smaller birds can get the sunflower that they especially like, without the aggressive birds driving them away and eating it all.

      Hope this is helpful. Good luck!

  5. We tried the Erva caged worm feeder and although it kept out the Starlings and Blue Jays, one of two of the American Red Squirrels that frequent our yard had a field day! We tried everything to foil him but the feeder was in jumping distance from every tree; he’d land on top and crawl inside. Every morning he was either sitting in there gorging himself or he’d already been and gone, leaving an empty bowl. We switched back to the simple hanging blue worm tray; for whatever reason, the raiding squirrel was not drawn to the tray and, by then, the leaves had filled in and the starlings and blue jays had already moved on. Now the cardinals get to eat worms again too! (HOSP never showed interest in the dried worms, winter or spring.)

    We only had our suet feeder up in the winter and while the HOSP figured it out, it wasn’t their preference. They only came when the other neighborhood feeders were empty, I think. But it was a hit with Downies and Red Bellies and Northern Flickers and Red Heads and even Pileateds!! The juncos would grab the scraps on the ground.

    Finally, we have a Squirrel Buster tube feeder with white striped and black oil sunflower seeds only (in shell) and it gets House Finches, gold finches, song sparrows, red bellies (infrequent), cardinals, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches. Switching from the general millet blend to strict sunflower blend successfully drove away the HOSP – but also, sadly, the Carolina wrens. They don’t even come for the worms anymore.

    1. Hi Midwest Chick,
      That sounds incredibly frustrating! Living here in grey squirrel territory, I had not realized how very much smaller your red squirrels are than the greys. This particular feeder is designed to be “starling proof” but in my experience, most caged feeders aren’t completely squirrel proof. Even our bigger grey squirrels can jump on a cage feeder to tip food onto the ground where they can get it. (But the greys are too large to fit through the cage openings.)

      I put caged feeders on a pole baffled protected with a barrel baffle and well away from any trees. If I had to hang one in a tree, I’d use one of Erva’s extra big hanging baffles over it to prevent them from jumping down onto the top. But even there, you would need to position the feeder itself so that the squirrel couldn’t jump from another branch or other surface directly to the feeder itself, avoiding the baffle.

      It’s interesting that the Carolina Wrens went away. In my yard they mostly eat the dried mealworms and sunflower chips and some suet. I wonder if you mixed some sunflower chips into the blend, whether they would be happier. Although the house sparrows might go for that too. It’s always a balance trying to work out making the birds you’d like to see happy while discouraging the ones you’d rather not see.

      Thanks for sharing,

    1. Hi Tom,
      Yes. In my experience, the size of the openings on caged feeders block out cardinals as well as most other larger birds. (Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are an exception. Their long beaks and tongues can retrieve suet and sunflower chips out of the caged feeders I use.) I think of the caged feeders as more of a spot for smaller birds to eat. In my yard, I put out safflower in separate open platform feeders for the cardinals.


  6. Very informative site. I subscribed. What I didn’t see mentioned was Cowbirds. Unless tht’s another name for Cat birds. They have dark brown hood then mostly black. They are Bully birds. I’m in sw Michigan. Do these caged feeders 1 1/2 inch squares keep them out?

    1. Hi Fred,
      I’m not a fan of cowbirds either (Brown-Headed Cowbirds.) I do very much like Gray Catbirds though. I have never seen a cowbird get into any of my caged feeders but I couldn’t promise that they couldn’t get into one. These two types of birds are similarly sized, so it’s always possible that one (possibly a smaller one) might try going inside a cage. I just have never seen them do it. I don’t get cowbirds a lot in my yard and usually chase them off when I do see them. The times I’ve seen them, they’ve been on open platform feeders or feeding on the ground.

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