Beset By Blackbirds

Red-winged Blackbirds_LAH_8265_filteredWe had a wonderful white Christmas, and the landscape is blanketed in a couple of inches of snow. But with highs below freezing and a predicted low of 10°F tonight, I was naturally concerned about the birds. Early in the morning I bundled up and ventured out to fill my feeders. I added a block of suet to my suet cage, topped off the mesh nyjer feeder, and carried a huge scoop of black oil sunflower seeds to my platform feeder. I assumed the abundant juncos, finches, nuthatches, and chickadees would keep the snow cleared enough to feed. And, for a while, they did.

Not a redpoll.

Not Common Redpolls.

I was happily scanning finches, still hoping to see one of the irruptive Common Redpolls in my yard, when the feeder suddenly emptied. “Predator!” I thought, looking around for a hungry Sharpie or Cooper’s Hawk. Instead, an enormous flock of Red-winged Blackbirds filled my binoculars. Within seconds, the feeder was crammed wing-to-wing with hungry blackbirds. They battled for space in the nearby scrub oak, filled the branches of the overhead Ponderosa Pine, and carpeted the white snow under the feeder.

Red-winged Blackbirds_LAH_8291_filteredThe smaller birds didn’t stand a chance. There was only room on the feeder for a small percentage of the blackbirds. Smaller, less aggressive species were rudely shoved out of the way.

In desperation, a dozen of the juncos headed for the nyjer seed—not their favorite, but an available food source in the freezing, snowy weather. I quickly filled an old plant saucer with millet and carried it out to the patio, sheltering it under our picnic table.

Red-winged Blackbirds_LAH_8260_filteredThe blackbirds didn’t stay long… just long enough to empty the feeder. I realized that they’d downed at least half a gallon of expensive seed in approximately five minutes. Grrrr!

I’m surprised that we have them in the neighborhood in the first place. I don’t have a pond, and neither do our neighbors. How they found my buffet in the middle of acres of dry land is beyond me. But wherever they came from, now that they know where my feeders are, I’m sure they’ll be back.

Of course, Red-winged Blackbirds are native birds, and they need their stomachs filled every bit as much as the other, more personable songbirds. I don’t begrudge them a living. It’s just that I can’t afford to feed over fifty of them—they’re too greedy!

House Finch_LAH_8455Staring at my seedless feeder, I wracked my brain for a solution. Maybe, I thought, they’re too big to fit through 1-inch chicken wire. I retrieved my jacket and boots and headed back outside. Yup, my memory was right—we had some tail end lengths of chicken wire in the shed. I bent the wire into a crude box shape and wrapped it around the feeder. Then I poured several more cups of seed on the platform. Would it work?

I didn’t have long to wait. The little birds were grabbing seed before I had gone more than a few steps. They were hungry! (See the male House Finch inside the cage?)

Red-winged Blackbirds_LAH_8456Inside and warm again, I watched from my window for the return of the red-wings. Sure enough, within minutes, the horde was back. No, they didn’t fit though the wire, but they were able to use their beaks to reach in through the sides and grab seeds. At least it slowed them down a bit. When they finally got frustrated and left, there was a tiny pile of uneaten seed in the middle of the tray. The finches, nuthatches, and chickadees made short work of that.

For now, I’m stuck offering white millet on the platform, while putting the sunflower seed in a different feeder that’s harder (but not impossible) for the blackbirds to access. The doves and juncos like the millet, and the other birds are slowly figuring out that dinner has moved.

Meanwhile… maybe if I bend the sides of the wire cage away from the edges of the platform… maybe if I make a wire-covered wooden frame… maybe if I can get my husband’s engineer brain working on the problem…. Or maybe someone out there in internet-land has posted a way to exclude blackbirds from a platform feeder. If I figure it out, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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