How To Keep Unwanted Birds Away From Your Feeder

This article provides tips for keeping undesirable birds like starlings, crows, sparrows, and cowbirds away from your bird feeders.

If you're a nature lover, bird watching may be the hobby for you. You can start easily enough by setting up a small bird feeder in your backyard, filling it with grain, and watching to see who comes to visit. These items are available in any hardware store and in most grocery stores, and often cost less than $20. Fortunately for the hobbyist, even the most modest of feeders can attract sparrows, wrens, chickadees and finches by the score, punctuated by an occasional cardinal, dove, or raucous blue jay.

Unfortunately, your feeder may attract a few pests as well. The audaciousness of squirrels is well known -- they're more than willing to chew your feeder apart to get at the goodies. And then there are the chowhounds of the bird world: crows, cowbirds, house sparrows, starlings, grackles, and their ilk, who never pass up the opportunity to introduce themselves to a new food source. These feathered bandits may take it upon themselves to descend upon your feeder and rob you blind. Some birders don't mind, since birdfeed is cheap, but others would rather dispense with the pests so that more attractive and sociable birds will frequent their feeders. This article outlines ways to accomplish the latter strategy.

Just as one person's trash may be another's treasure, one birder's pet may be another's pest. Some folks think that the sleek, glossy grackles so common in the southern U.S. are quite attractive -- as long as they keep their mouths shut. Others, including some government agencies, consider them to be undesirable, and are willing to kill them to keep their numbers down. This guide won't go that far, but it will tell you how to discourage specific types of birds.

GENERAL GUIDELINES

A few common sense tactics will keep entire varieties of birds away from your feeder. For example, if you want large birds to stay away, don't use ground feeders. Instead, use small, hanging feeders with tiny perches, suitable for finches, sparrows, and wrens. Screens with spaces too small for a large bird's head will keep out the enterprising few who try anyway. If you prefer large birds to small birds, put your feeders on or near the ground in open areas and place "scarecrow" figurines of predatory birds, such as hawks and owls, around your garden. So-called "scary" or "terror" eyes will keep many small birds away. Figurines or cut-outs of cats may work as well -- and so will real cats, if you're of a mind to try that. If you'd like to keep sociable nesting birds like martins, sparrows, or starlings from camping in your yard for months at a time, don't provide them with housing, and make sure your eaves stay clear of their nests.

SPECIES-SPECIFIC TACTICS

If you'd prefer to avoid specific types or species of birds, try these tips.

Blackbirds

Although "blackbird" is often used as a generic term for any bird that is dark in color (i.e., everything from grackles to starlings), there are some species, like the redwing blackbird, with the term as part of their official names. In some cases, particularly while migrating, they congregate in large flocks. So how do you get rid of them? Take away their favorite food, cracked corn, and avoid using ground feeders until they give up and go away. If you feed your birds suet, try a bottom-feed feeder -- birds must hand upside down to get the food, and blackbirds hate that.

Crows and Ravens

The family of corvids, which includes both crows and ravens, is characterized by some of the most intelligent creatures in the entire bird spectrum. They're bold, and tend to be excellent problem solvers. You can try to keep them away avoiding ground feeders and by using small hanging feeders intended for songbirds, but don't be surprised if they (like your squirrels) find a way to get at the food anyway. Screens allowing only the smallest birds in may help, and taking away the cracked corn may keep them from reappearing.

Doves and Pigeons

Most doves and pigeons, being large birds, can't easily handle the smaller feeders made for finch and sparrow-sized birds. Indeed, it's rare to see them at a hanging feeder at all. You can keep them away by avoiding the use of ground feeders and by cleaning up any spilled grain. You can also discourage doves and pigeons by not using any mixed feeds.

Finches

Most people like finches, but they can become a nuisance in large quantities. To discourage them, remove the perches from your feeders -- finches can't cling very well.



Grackles and Cowbirds

With their iridescent black feathers and piercing yellow eyes, grackles can be visually striking, much more so than the drab brown cowbirds they like to hang out with. Their rusty-hinge calls, however, can be very annoying. To get rid of them, try the guidelines mentioned for crows and ravens.

Jays

Some people find jays to be fascinating and funny; others think they're obnoxious. If you'd like to keep them away from your feeders, follow the guidelines for crows and ravens. If you feed suet, try a bottom feeder; like blackbirds, jays don't like hanging upside down.

Sparrows

If you're not careful, sparrows can take over your feeder, creating undesirable "sparrow slums." They'll drive off your other birds and leave a big mess. House sparrows and English sparrows are especially bad about this. To discourage their visits, you can remove the cracked corn from your feeder, stop serving millet, and quit using feed mixes entirely. Many songbirds love black oil sunflower seeds, for example, and will not miss the mixes.

Starlings

Late in the nineteenth century, a businessman with questionable judgment decided it would be nice to import into North America every species of bird ever mentioned by Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Shakespeare mentioned starlings at some point. Less than one hundred pairs were released in New York's Central Park in the 1890s, and quickly multiplied into flocks large enough to darken the sun. Today, they're everywhere. You probably won't be able to get rid of them easily, but you can use several tactics to control their numbers. One way is to remove the perches from your feeders; they can't cling well. In addition, they simply won't eat from a bottom-feed suet feeder, because they don't like hanging upside down. Finally, "scarecrow" figurines, especially cats, may deter them.

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION: THOSE ANNOYING SQUIRRELS

Although undesirable birds are a real problem at many feeders, squirrels are often the number one pests. In their opinion, anything out there is fair game, whether it be corncob or birdseed. If those lovable tree rats are taking apart your feeders to get at the food inside, there are a number of things you can try, singly or in combination.

1. Instead of trying to get rid of them, try placating them instead. Put out a few squirrel feeders and hope they'll stick to those. They probably won't, but you can try.

2. Hang your feeders in areas that are hard for a squirrel to get to, or too fragile to hold their weight.

3. Make sure your feeder is at least 10 feet away from the nearest tree, fence, pole, or house. Squirrels can leap tremendous distances.

4. Place your feeder at the top of a pole, and equip the pole with a baffle to keep the rodents away.

5. Coat the pole with a slippery substance, such as petroleum jelly or cooking oil. Eventually, the squirrels will stop trying to climb it. An organic material is recommended, as squirrels tend to be clean animals and will ingest the material while cleaning themselves.

6. Put screens around the feeder with holes too big for the squirrels to get through.

7. Mix cayenne pepper in with your seed mix. The birds won't notice, but the squirrels will!

8. Load your feeder with safflower seed, which squirrels don't like.

If one thing doesn't work, try something else; you may eventually hit on a solution. However, you may not. Like corvids, squirrels are problem-solvers, and often keep trying til they succeed.

Whatever the case, good luck and happy birding!

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