Bully Birds in the Backyard Garden

There is nothing that garners more hatred than bullies – the all-too real boogeyman that continues to haunt many a school courtyard, inflicting all manners of sadism. Supernatural revenge, wrought by Wednesday Addams via piranhas in the boy’s pool, has proved mightily satisfying. 

And just like in the animal world, there are bullies that bluster and threaten at backyard feeders. From the showy blue jay to the unfortunate looking cowbird, bully birds have a tendency to be aggressive, squashing the competition by terrorizing weaker birds and overtaking bird feeders. 

While piranhas are sadly out of the question when dealing with bully birds, there are a few tactics that you can try to stop them from raiding your garden. 

Bully birds will often hijack birdfeeders intended for more docile, desirable species. A reductive approach will pinpoint this tendency as an innate part of their DNA – just as a pig will scavenge for rat carcasses amidst a miasma of dirt.

Regardless, their actions are unwarranted, and different bully birds call for different approaches. 

For example, some gardeners have come to regard blue jays as less of a menace than other bully birds and have chosen to leave a designated feeding spot for these songbirds. As with bullies in real life, there are weaknesses in their armor that you can punch holes in, and once you recognize this vulnerability, you’ll be able to exploit them to your advantage. 

Blue Jays

Bold, brash, and handsome, the Blue Jay is the all-American devil, cementing its position as a rambunctious songbird, but it's rakish good looks come with a price.

The Blue Jay’s ambivalent nature is revealed when Atticus Finch, the esteemed lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, encourages his children to shoot at Blue Jays with reckless abandon, but tells them that “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” 

Furthermore, they have been labeled as a "thief" due to their reputation for pilfering the eggs of other songbirds, though studies dismiss this as an uncommon occurrence. The majority of their diet comprises of insects and nuts, and they have a fondness for acorns (they are credited with the spread of oak trees during the last glacial ice age.)

The best way to deal with Blue Jays is to provide them a separate feeder of their own, stocked with peanuts and sunflower seeds. And please, do not shoot at them, as per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. 

Brown-headed cowbirds

Perhaps the cowbird’s thuggish nature can be best attributed to the term “cuckoo’s nest.” Like the predatory cuckoo, the cowbird is a vicious creature, engaging in brood parasitism by depositing its own eggs in another species’ nest.

To heighten its sinister nature, some scientists have proposed the “mafia hypothesis” – these avian bullies have been known to engage in mob behavior that punishes the host nest for kicking out its eggs. 

A few tactics to deter cowbirds include: 

  • Use feeders meant for smaller birds, such as these with shortened perches or smaller ports.
  • Avoid cheap seed mixes and offer a mix of safflower, suet, or nectar.
  • Clean up any spillage. 

Grackles and blackbirds

Blackbirds, pigeons, and crows fall into the nuisance category and are usually less of a long-term problem. Grackles are a type of blackbird with a lanky, lean build and iridescent plumage. Prolific ground feeders, they will stir up the air with their noisy chatter, often flocking with starlings and other blackbirds. They tend to dive after scraps, so make sure to clean up the surrounding area. Sunflower and safflower seeds (particularly the striped sunflower) have tougher shells that are harder for blackbirds to crack open, so consider switching to these options. 

Sparrows and starlings

Sparrows and starlings are diminutive birds that derive their strength from numbers – they’re considered invasive species that have been known to overrun feeders. Both will tolerate Nyjer seed though they prefer sunflower seeds.

Installing a Nyjer tube feeder will ensure that they are unable to squeeze through. Conduct a war of attrition by removing your feeders for a couple of weeks, then reintroducing them. 

Strategies to get rid of bully birds

Offer food bully birds don’t like: Bully birds aren’t discriminatory in their tastes and will feast on most generic brand mixes, which includes a combination of corn, millet, wheat and sunflower seeds. Deter bully birds with high-quality mixes that contain Nyjer seed (thistle) and safflower. 

Let the right ones in: An entirely new birdfeeder with structural modifications might be needed to keep bully birds at bay. Bird feeders with mesh cages that only allow smaller birds to get to the food, or those with shortened perches can foil the antics of the less acrobatic. There are also specialized bird feeders reserved for certain bird species, such as finches. Weight-activated feeders, originally designed to deter squirrels, can also combat unwanted birds.

Clean up spilled seeds: Bully birds tend to flock in droves to feast on the seeds cast off by other birds. To solve this, place a seed catcher or trash can underneath the bird feeder to catch any stray seeds. Keep your area clean by sweeping away any seeds that fall to the ground.

Supplicate them with dual feeders: A common strategy political elites use is co-option: if you can’t beat them, get them to join you. A second bird feeder, placed far away from your routine ones, can result in a mutually autonomous agreement without jeopardizing your yard. This will give bully birds and songbirds their own separate space to feed. Place some in relatively sheltered areas so that bully birds cannot locate them. 

Scare off the bullies: Starlings are easily spooked by their own reflection – a mirror placed on the back wall of the birdhouse can frighten them away. Alternatively, although it sounds silly, boisterous music and wind chimes can repel birds from landing on your lawn. Sound repellents with specific frequencies modulated to induce fear, often coupled with predatory bird calls or signals of distress, can also be used to scare off certain birds. 



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