Bully blackbirds and backyard feeders

Gretchen Steele Feeding Cowbirds 0204

It’s February and almost time for the Great Backyard Bird Count, so my bird feeders are full. I can easily waste most of a cold winter day watching the colorful songbird activity around the various feeding stations that I have scattered around the backyard. Heck, I even have feeders right outside my office window to distract me from the tasks at hand frequently.

But boy – yesterday, the invasion of the bully blackbirds arrived. The “bully blackbirds” are the bane of every winter backyard bird feeder – giant flocks of cowbirds, grackles, red wing blackbirds. I generally lump them all together and call them “blackbirds” rather than single them out species by species. My deck and backyard erupted into a scene fit for a  bad science fiction movie. Old arthritic Yella Dog got quite the workout. That gimpy old lab wasn’t having any of the mess and noise on HIS  deck by golly. Out the pet door, he went – in full-on get out of my territory mode. The birds would scatter. But he’d no more settle in on his blanket by the fire than the hundreds (thousands? millions?) of blackbirds would descend once again on HIS  deck. Back out the pet door in a blaze of howling fire and fury, he’d go. Yella Dog smugly scattered them out to the tree line and fence row and trotted back in looking quite pleased with his handiwork, only to repeat the process all over again in about 15 minutes.

One of the most frustrating sights was seeing so many parasitic cowbirds in the mix. Cowbirds are detrimental to so many of our beloved native birds. At least 61 species of Illinois-nesting birds are parasitized by cowbirds. These birds are not our friends.

These blackbirds can rip through every feeder and every scrap of seed at the speed of sound. Not to mention they bully around the smaller songbirds, leave an unholy mess, and in general try one’s patience to the point of breaking. It breaks the bank account, too, if you try to keep up your usual feeding of winter birds when they have taken up residence.

Thankfully I usually don’t have much trouble from these marauding bands of bullies. I feed different types of food in various spots, use feeders that help deter them, and honestly, until we get a good winter storm, they seem pretty content to stay out roaming the fields and fence rows and thankfully leave me alone.

Unfortunately for many backyard birdwatchers and feeders, that isn’t the case, and they can be pretty frustrating. If you are troubled by bully blackbirds wrecking your bird watching and feeding fun, here are some tips to deter them.

Select the proper feeder type

Feeder type plays a large part in helping to deter the bullies. They love hopper and especially platform feeders, but tube feeders and suet feeders that require them to hang upside down don’t work well for them. You can also put a cage or screen around your mixed seed feeders so only smaller birds can get to the food.

Beware “Economy” and “Wild Bird” seed mixes

Best seed choices to deter the bully blackbirds include safflower, nyjer/thistle seed, and gray striped sunflower seeds versus the black oil. Feed just plain suet without any added seeds, nuts, or fruits. This type of suet is still appealing to woodpeckers and our other suet-eating friends, but the blackbirds find it unattractive. Avoid mixes containing milo – blackbirds love milo!

Scare them Away

Scaring off blackbirds can be primarily an effort in frustration and futility. (see Yella Dog’s lack of success)  Often, they just return when the offending noise and commotion are gone. Your neighbors however,  may not be enthused about a blasting air horn or a few random gunshots. You can try marching out, clapping your hands loudly,  and venting some frustration. Alternately you can position yourself as a guard and hang out near the feeders to keep them away. Some folks swear that the clapping and a shout or two work wonders. The applause and shouting method tends to work better in more urban settings, it seems.

If you are interested in a more in-depth look at ways to rid yourself of the bully blackbirds, be sure to check out my column Southern Standpoint in the next print or digital issue of Illinois Outdoor News.

Categories: — — Illinois – Gretchen Steele

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