Aside from squirrels and chipmunks, grackles and starlings, or bully birds, are the next least welcome at bird feeders.
First, let's talk about starlings.
If you've ever managed to watch Downton Abbey I guarantee you you have heard this European birdsong as part of the soundscape of this charming series. The sound suits the series. The starlings belong in that scenery. Thats why they're called European Starlings.
In 1890 and 91, the starlings were introduced by an unwitting group who longed for North America to have all the birds Shakespeare ever mentioned in his writings. A total of 100 starlings were released by that group in Central Park in New York City and their surplanting to North America was unfortunately a resounding success. With a current number in excess of 200+ million they have become a nuisance bird across multiple levels. They compete for food and nesting resources, they flock in the thousands to become dangerous at airports, they decimate crops, and if you're "lucky" enough to have them at your feeders, you know your seed costs just ramped up and the birds that you actually want to see aren't likely going to come by.
Grackles however, are indigenous to North America and are meant to be here. However, they haven't the most endearing personalities as they tend to dominate in number, and bully away the songbirds most want to see at their feeders. They're rude in that they scuffle through your seed, taking what they want and discarding to the ground what they don't and make an awful mess.
And when both birds combine in one area? The mess? OMG the poop they produce!
In moving to our new location I was trying to find a charming location for our rainbow bench so people could sit and watch the feeders. Since we are surrounded by cedar that lines the property, we became inundated with grackles and starlings (more starlings than grackles) and finding a spot for the bench where it wasn't covered with bird poop hourly became a huge challenge. My initial hope for under the magnolia trees were quickly dashed as it was clearly in the path for the birds in releasing their new digested meals from our bird feeders. The bench has found a home now on our seed porch, out of the line of fire. Not near as charming, but ever so much cleaner on the whole!
So how do you control these bully birds at your feeders?
1. Food. Remove the food that they love and replace with food they don't. For starlings, if you have them on their own, moving to striped sunflower birdseed can help. Starlings don't have the beak power to crack these larger sunflower kernels open. Black oil sunflower seed in the shell can be tricky for them too, but it seems that the starlings are starting to adapt to this smaller sunflower kernal and can pop them open. Safflower is also helpful if you have both starling and grackles. Neither like the taste of safflower. Nyjer also tends to be too small for them to be bothered with.
2. Caged feeders. Most caged feeders will prevent these larger bully birds from accessing your seed and suet. Some will just make them work a heck of a lot harder. Just ask us which ones work best or check out our selection here.
3. Some people like the brome Squirrel Buster Feeders for keeping out grackles and starlings. Weights in the form of washers need to be added to make this work, and in my mind seems to be more work than is worth it. By the time you've sussed the appropriate weight to keep out the bully birds, you've also prevented blue jays and potentially other birds with similar weights to not bother coming by.
4. We do have upside down suet feeders that are good at keeping your starlings out, but there is the odd starling that seems to be able to figure them out. But if you've got 20 starlings and only 1 manages the upside down feeder I would call that more or less a success!
Overall what I've come to learn is that sometimes, bird feeding is a strategic operation depending on the time of year. Some bird feeders are best used when these guys show up, and save others for the winter season when the majority of the grackles are gone. It really just adds another layer of fun to what you're doing to attract the birds you do want to see.
And sometimes, you just need to settle for what the universe has planned for you in your backyard. Bird feeding in your yard should be soothing and grounding and FUN for you and your family. If you've got some nuisance birds in your backyard, sometimes the fun is just in watching their behaviours with each other as they wrestle each other to the ground in a territorial aerial battle. It can really be quite entertaining! Personalities do shine and stand out and watching them bird brain their way around your obstacles to eating is a fascinating way to spend some time.