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Coping with grackles

Common Grackle feeding in the fishing pond at the Forestry Farm in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, by mayhaga.
Common Grackle feeding in the fishing pond at the Forestry Farm in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, by mayhaga.

Common Grackles are big, they travel in big flocks, they have big appetites, and they can monopolize your birdfeeders. No wonder so many birdwatchers think of them as big bullies.

The birds occur over a large part of the eastern three-quarters of the United States and much of Canada. In general, they leave the northern and western part of their range in winter, but some may remain far north.

They are most apt to descend on feeders during their spring and fall migrations (March-April and September-October) or in areas where they regularly spend the winter.

If they show up in your yard, there’s no need to hyperventilate. The first line of defense is a good offense. Be prepared with the right feeders, the right food, and a game plan. Here are seven tips for dealing with grackles.

1. Don’t use tray feeders or feeders with platforms that allow grackles to land.

Use feeders that keep the birds from getting to the seed instead. (Since many of these feeders are also squirrel-proof, you’ll get two-for-one deterrent.)

Tube feeders surrounded by cages do the trick. They let small birds enter but not the larger grackles. Another good choice is a feeder with an adjustable, weight-activated perch. It will close when a heavy bird, like a grackle, lands on it. Check the label information to make sure the weight-activation mechanism can be fine-tuned to exclude grackles and not just squirrels.

The good news about tube feeders and weight-activated feeders is that they don’t repel chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches, cardinals, and other “desirable” birds. It is best to get such feeders up ahead of time, if possible, so the smaller birds can become accustomed to them before the big boys show up.

Four feeders to keep away larger birds and squirrels

2. Make your feeders unappealing by shortening or removing perches.

Many tube feeders have removable perches. A good number have perches you can shorten by cutting. Other models have metal rods that pass through the feeder under the feeding holes. We’ve discovered that if you tap the metal perches gently with a hammer, you may be able to remove them. You can then either leave them off or replace them with shorter dowels.

Chickadees and other small birds are acrobats. Clinging to a perchless portal is a standard part of their repertoire. Grackles don’t have the same abilities. They generally need larger landing places to get the seed.

Some feeders consist of a cylindrical plastic container covered by a dome that can be stepped up or down. Try lowering the dome to exclude larger birds, like grackles. You may need to experiment to see which height keeps out the larger birds but still lets the smaller chickadees and finches feed at will.

3. Use dedicated finch feeders that dispense thistle (nyjer) seed.

Designed to feed small birds with pointed bills, finch feeders have thin feeding ports that are too small for grackles and other birds with large bills. They have trouble extracting the seed.

Common Grackles, adult (left) and juvenile, by mayhaga.
Common Grackles, adult (left) and juvenile, by mayhaga.

4. Reduce the amount of seed that birds throw out by offering black-oil sunflower or hulled sunflower seed.

Seeds on the ground are an open invitation to grackles. Chickadees, tit­mice, nuthatches, and finches prefer sun­flower over mixes containing cracked corn and milo; they consume sunflower more wholly; and they don’t flick as much onto the ground. Of course, it is always good to keep the ground under your feeders raked clean of old seed as well.

5. Give safflower a try.

Grackles eat many kinds of seed, but safflower is said to be on their less-preferred list, so you might give it a try, especially since chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and other birds do like it. Of course, we’ve learned you should never say never when it comes to grackles – your birds may eat safflower!

6. Protect your suet.

Grackles can devour a suet cake quicker than a hummingbird can beat its wings. Protect yours in a holder surrounded with a cage, or use a feeder that hides the suet under a roof. The cake will be accessible only to birds that can hold on upside-down – chickadees, nut­hatches, and woodpeckers, but generally not grackles.

7. When all else fails, adjust your attitude.

After all, Common Grackles are native to North America, their plumage is iridescent and, as you can see at left, often beautiful, and they’re actually pretty interesting. For starters, they have dramatic communicative displays. Also, remember that they eat a wide variety of foods. About 30 percent of their diet is insects, including grubs that are troublesome for your lawn, and beetles and caterpillars that destroy your plants.

And if that doesn’t make you feel better, take comfort in the fact that time is on your side: If your yard is a grackle-migration stopover, just wait. The big bullies will be gone in a few weeks.

Lillian and Don Stokes are the authors of 30 books on nature and birdwatching subjects and the creators of the Stokes Birding Blog.

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