Today, I pass my troubles on to you. Now that bird-feeding season is going full blast, I am enjoying the avian abundance. But sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. I am referring to an excess of pigeons, house sparrows, starlings and blackbirds.
I am seldom plagued by this problem, but I hear from many people who are. In an effort to be helpful, I have read books, researched the Internet and asked my friends for potential solutions. I’ve been doing this for years. However, since I live in the woods away from these troublesome species, I’ve never experimented on my own feeders. Thus, I’ve decided to experiment on yours.
Finding the right mix of feed to use in your backyard makes a big difference. Many seed blends are designed to attract a wide variety of birds. In theory, that sounds good. In practice, you don’t have a wide variety of birds. You have a select group of chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches and other common Maine birds. Commercial mixes often contain seeds that appeal to southern and western birds. Maine birds will frequently pick the sunflower seeds out of the mix and drop the rest on the ground. At best, these seeds rot and potentially spread ill health among your feeder visitors. At worst, they attract undesirable birds and rodents.
Virtually every desirable Maine bird likes black oil sunflower seeds. Even woodpeckers will eat them. Goldfinches, pine siskins and redpolls are all fond of Nyjer, an imported thistle-like seed. I’d guess that using these two foods exclusively in your feeders will attract most common birds but discourage the undesirables. For a third choice, suet pleases many of our common birds without attracting nuisances.
Many seed mixes contain white millet. Finches, cardinals, sparrows and juncos find it appealing. However, so do house sparrows and blackbirds. If you’re getting too many of the undesirables, lay off the millet mixes for a while. The cardinals and finches will stick around, sustaining themselves on the sunflower seeds. Some seed mixes contain red or yellow millet. This is often just filler, ignored by most birds. You should ignore it, too.
Many mixes contain shelled and cracked corn. Cardinals and grosbeaks will eat it. Most of it will fall on the ground, attracting pigeons, doves, jays and house sparrows. Corn also becomes unhealthy for birds when it gets wet, which happens shortly after hitting the ground under a typical Maine feeder.
Never use canary seed outdoors. House sparrows and a few blackbirds love it. Nothing else does.
Blackbirds are typically a problem only in spring and fall, unless you live near a wetland. If they are devouring the sunflower seeds, try gradually switching to safflower seed for a while. Grackles don’t care for it, and the other songbirds likely won’t notice the difference. It has the additional advantage that squirrels don’t like it either.
Another way to change the mix of birds in your backyard is to adjust your mix of feeders. Platform feeders attract cardinals and grosbeaks, but they also attract more jays, blackbirds, pigeons, doves and house sparrows. If you don’t have cardinals or grosbeaks in your neighborhood, platforms may cause more problems than they’re worth.
Small, tubular feeders with short perches discourage larger birds who are unable to perch on them. Many feeders that are enclosed in wire mesh baskets are designed to keep out squirrels and larger birds. Chickadees and nuthatches pass through.
Here’s a trick to try for larger birds. Place a platform feeder some distance from the rest of the feeders and put some dry dog food in it. I’m told it is cheaper, sufficiently nutritious, and it keeps the pigeons, starlings, jay, and blackbirds away from the smaller birds.
Starlings and grackles will eat suet, but neither likes to hang upside down. Woodpeckers don’t mind a downward facing suet feeder at all.
When all else fails, stop using the feed or feeder that is causing the problem for a little while. Starlings, pigeons, grackles and house sparrows are likely to go elsewhere in search of greener pastures. Cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches are likely to reside in your neighborhood, so they will quickly return when the feeder returns. There is no need to discontinue the feeders that aren’t causing a problem, so your backyard can stay lively.
Now it’s your turn. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. Let me know what I got wrong. Give me a problem these solutions didn’t fix. We’re all in this fight together.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.