Are Starlings Taking Over Your Bird Feeders?
I was eating dinner outside in downtown St. Louis recently and observed a large flock of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), known as a murmuration, select a group of trees in a nearby park for their nightly roosting spot. This is the time of year that Starlings finish raising their families and start living a more communal lifestyle, which will persist until the next spring breeding season.
A popular topic with customers at the store last winter was how to keep flocks of Starlings from eating all the food put out for the other backyard birds. This is a problem I WISH I had – I know that sounds strange. Starlings are my favorite bird, because I rescued a nestling nearly six years ago and raised her and adopted another one two years later. My Starlings Attila and Pooky are my beloved pets (as I’m writing this I have one my arm and one on my shoulder) and because of them I’ve done lot of reading about Starlings. I like to observe wild ones whenever I get the chance to see how their behavior and vocalizations are like or unlike my tame pair.
Unfortunately if a flock of Starlings descends in my yard, if I go to the window to watch them they immediately take off. So that is my first idea about how to keep Starlings away from your feeders – try putting the feeders within view of a window where there is human activity. Some birds are more tolerant of people, for example on my deck Carolina Wrens, Robins and Song Sparrows will not only tolerate me looking at them through the window but will sometimes accept my presence with them on the deck as well.
Another idea is to serve food that Starlings don’t like – that is difficult to do, since they eat almost anything. They cannot open the shells of sunflower seeds, so you might try feeding sunflower seeds with the shells on.
Another tactic I’ve seen recommended on other web sites is to remove perches on your feeders so that other birds can access the seeds but Starlings cannot because they say Starlings need a perch. Based on my own observations, I’m skeptical about this, but who knows, it might work on small feeders. I’ve seen Starlings cling to surfaces with no perch just fine, they even spread their short tails out like a woodpecker does to use as a prop, but the absence of a perch on a small tube feeder where there is not enough room to prop the tail might deter them. Another idea is to smear suet on a pine cone and hang it, allowing small clinging birds to access the suet but making it difficult for the Starlings. Others recommend putting wire mesh around the feeder that allows small birds in but excludes Starlings. That should work but of course will exclude all larger birds.
A squirrel baffle over a feeder is said to deter Starlings because they don’t like going under a cover. This I can believe – my two Starlings hate it when I pass a hand or arm over them, so I try not to do that. I also don’t cover their cage at night because it frightens them. They are also said not to like feeding while hanging upside down, so any feeder that makes the bird feed this way will probably not be attractive to them.
If you like Starlings but just wish they would give the other birds a chance too, you might also try providing a separate feeding area that appeals to Starlings more than other birds. A platform feeder stocked with cat food is perfect for Starlings. You could augment the cat food with vegetable and culinary herb scraps left over from your cooking if you have any, my two Starlings love vegetables, greens and herbs, both cooked and raw. Just leave out the avocados, onions and garlic – they are toxic to birds. There is a risk in this strategy, Starling flocks can be big enough to take over ALL the feeders if they are in the area – also you’ll get other animals – but it might be worth trying as a temporary measure to give your other backyard birds a break. If this type of feeder accidentally attracts crows and ravens, that can be a good thing, they will help drive off predatory hawks and falcons with their mobbing behavior.
You don’t have to rely only on feeders to attract birds. I’m not allowed to put out bird food where I live, so I provide a water feature that gives the birds filtered, and in the winter heated water for drinking and bathing. This attracts quite a few birds. I also have a lot of bird-attracting plants in my garden and when I’m able I leave the seed-heads standing all winter to provide food. Rose of Sharon, Purple Coneflower and Korean Hyssop seem to be particularly attractive to small birds such as finches. Woody plants like the Rose of Sharon will support the Starlings’ weight while feeding but many of the herbaceous plants won’t so the smaller birds can get a good chance at the seed. Starlings are imported to our continent – a greater proportion of native plants in your yard may bring an increase in native birds to give the starlings some competition. Areas of leaf litter also attract birds for invertebrate foraging – this is worth trying if you have an area of your yard that you don’t mind leaving in a more natural state. You can even include a dust bath area if you want to, since Starlings adore water baths and some other birds would rather have a dust bath.
Starlings have been doing what they do for 20 million years, and stopping them will not be easy. If it makes you feel any better, the fact that there are Starlings in the vicinity means that you will have fewer lawn grubs, tent caterpillars, Japanese beetles, stink bugs and other insect pests. Starlings are perfect eating machines for lawn grubs – their beaks have more force in the opening than the closing, and are suited for prying in the dirt and grass and exposing invertebrate prey – watch this great video to see this action from an insect’s point of view!
It might prove more productive to enjoy Starlings rather than try to fight them. Whichever way you want to go, it’s helpful to understand more about them. I recommend the following resources for learning more about Starlings.
Baby Bird Rescue 2014 – My attempt to save starling nestlings, and an account of how I developed an interest in starlings.