People play favorites at the bird feeder

Not every visitor at the bird feeder is equally welcome. From the outset, our choice of feeders and seeds privileges some species over others. But if you find yourself tapping on the window and shouting profanity at the feeders, the first question to ask is why particular species draw your ire. If you don’t know your reasons for bird bias, you won’t be able to pick the right solution.

Economics is often cited as the justification for blackbird rage. Common grackles and red-winged blackbirds arrive by the hundreds and can clean out a feeder in hours. If cost-cutting is the reason you don’t like blackbirds, you can purchase cheaper seed (lower quality or larger bags) or set a budget and a refill schedule and stick to it, letting the birds go elsewhere once the feeders are empty.

A more ecological justification for preferring certain birds over others is that abundant species don’t need our help. While luring birds to the feeder is undoubtedly good for the homeowner, we also like to think it’s good for the birds, too. In fact, it is, because a recent study found that most feeder-loving species have increasing populations.

But do blackbirds need our help as much as tufted titmice? From a population perspective, red-winged blackbirds and common grackles are declining severely, having dropped by 30 percent and 60 percent since the 1960s, respectively. While there are still approximately 100 million of each left, these species are both collapsing. Titmice, on the other hand, are increasing nationwide, but there are only 7 million of them due to restricted geographic range, so each glimpse at our feeder is a treat. If you are feeding birds to help populations, then providing more seed, more kinds of feeders, and native vegetation is the answer. Blackbirds are one of the few feeder loving bird groups that actually need our help.

A third justification could be called nationalism. People tend to prefer native species more than foreigners. House sparrows, starlings and pigeons are European immigrants brought here by boat centuries ago. House finches and brown-headed cowbirds are native but have invaded our region with human help. All of these immigrants compete with our native bird populations at the feeder. However, their impact on native species birds has been greatly exaggerated, with studies showing that most live in urban spaces now uninhabitable by natives, and historical declines of purple finches and bluebirds probably stem from other causes. To eliminate pigeons, keep food off the ground and use sunflower seed with shells. Starlings prefer suet cakes and baked goods, and will not eat pure suet free of fillers such as nuts and peanut butter. Generally, expensive seed without millet or cracked corn that is kept off of the ground will eliminate non-natives.

Finally, you may not like certain birds because of the way their personalities and looks. Hummingbirds are fun. Cardinals are pretty. Bluebirds are nice. Chickadees are industrious. By contrast, blackbirds have beady eyes and skittish ways. Starlings are aggressive and surly. Blue jays are dishonest and loud. You have every right to feed only the birds you like, but you should figure out why you feel the way you do towards them, and then visit the experts at your local Wild Birds Unlimited or Backyard Birder store to discuss how to eliminate specific species.

Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary. Send email todacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit williamsburgbirdclub.org.

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