Stop Bully Birds at the Feeders

Keep Bird Feeders for Small Birds Only

House Sparrows
Flocks of small birds like sparrows can be bullies at the feeders. Photo © Jeff Kubina/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

Bullying isn't limited to school playgrounds – bully birds can be persistent pests at bird feeders. But what bird species are likely to become bullies, and how can you prevent them from harassing other backyard birds? If you want to keep bird feeders for small birds only, or hope to attract only certain bird species to your yard, discouraging bullies may be the first step.

Bully Bird Species

Bullies in the backyard will vary, but some species are more aggressive than others and more likely to usurp feeder space and crowd out other visitors.

Birds that are highly social and feed in flocks are most likely to be bullies, and larger, more aggressive species can also become feeder bullies.

Bird species more likely to have bullying behaviors include:

Just one or two of these birds at your feeders does not mean you have a bully problem. When the flocks grow and the feeders are crowded with the same species, however, other birds will have difficulty feeding and the bullies can take over completely.

How Bully Birds Act

No bird is intentionally cruel, but bully bird species are naturally more aggressive and territorial about their feeding areas, protecting food sources exclusively for their own use. Larger bully species may cache food or store it in their crop, so they will spend more time at feeders and will take more food so it is not available to other feeder birds.

Smaller bully birds, such as house sparrows, often feed in flocks and can crowd out other birds so more species cannot access the seed. Some bully birds will even guard a feeder they perceive as theirs and will attack or chase away any other birds that try to feed. While none of these behaviors are deliberately malicious, the result is that one bird or one type of bird will usurp the feeder and prevent other desirable backyard birds from feeding.

This diminishes the enjoyment backyard birders may get from attracting many species and can decrease backyard diversity altogether.

Preventing Bully Birds

Backyard birders plagued with bully birds can take different steps to discourage poor behavior and reserve feeders for more species to use. To minimize the effects of bully birds at the feeders, try…

  • Cage Feeders: Caged bird feeders that include wire mesh keep larger birds away from the feeding ports, such as the Squirrel-Proof Selective bird feeder from Duncraft. While many of these feeders are designed to discourage squirrels, the same designs can be effective at discouraging larger bully birds. Adding coated wire around existing bird feeders can also exclude bully birds while allowing smaller birds to feed in peace.
  • Weight-Activated Feeders: Another type of feeder initially designed to exclude squirrels is one with a weight-activated perch. When a large bird or squirrel lands on the perch, it closes the feeding ports, preventing them from accessing the seed, but smaller birds are light enough to feed easily. This type of feeder can be effective against larger bully birds or flocks of bullies that may overcrowd a feeder.
  • Shorten Perches: Large bully birds need perches to balance at the feeder, but smaller birds can often hover long enough to take a seed without needing a perch. Removing perches from tube feeders can minimize how many bully birds can use the feeder. Similarly, removing trays or nets that catch seed at the bottom of feeders will remove perching space for larger bullies.
  • Underneath Feeders: Bully birds such as blackbirds, grackles and starlings can usurp a suet feeder and will quickly empty it, often consuming an entire suet cake in a day. This leaves no food available for other suet-eating birds such as woodpeckers, but changing the feeder's design can effectively exclude bullies. Choosing an underneath feeder design that requires birds to cling from the feeder's bottom, such as the Eco-Strong Upside Down Suet Feeder, will virtually eliminate bully intrusions. At the same time, smaller birds are happy to cling upside down to access the suet.
  • Avoid Ground Feeding: Many bully birds are attracted to easy feeding areas such as ground feeding stations or large tray or hopper feeders. Removing those easy access feeding locations will minimize the food available to bullies, and they are likely to move along to more accessible food sources.
  • Offer Specialized Foods: Bully birds are most attracted to inexpensive foods such as cracked corn, millet, milo, wheat, bread and sunflower seeds. Switching to more specialized foods such as safflower seeds for cardinals, Nyjer for finches, jelly for orioles and fruits for songbirds will still provide a bountiful buffet for backyard birds without encouraging bullies to empty every feeder.
  • Keep Feeders Clean: Seeds scattered below feeders are an open invitation for bully birds, and regular cleaning of feeding areas and seed trays can remove that excess seed. Furthermore, clean feeders are less likely to transmit diseases to flocks of birds, and because many bullies feed in large flocks, they can be more susceptible to those diseases. Cleaning feeders helps protect the birds' health so diseases are not transmitted to other backyard birds.
  • Provide an Easy Area: If you don't want to completely discourage bully birds but want them to feed in harmony with other backyard birds, offering an area where bullies are welcome can help balance the needs of all your guests. Create a ground or tray feeding station with their favorite foods and they may leave other feeders alone in favor of an easy meal.
  • Tame Hummingbird Aggression: While hummingbirds are not typical bully birds at most backyard feeders, one territorial hummingbird can easily be a bully toward other hummingbirds. Taking steps to discourage hummingbird aggression can ensure that even these tiny birds don't turn into big bullies.

Even while you take steps to discourage bully birds at your feeders, remember that none of a bully's actions are deliberately malicious; their behavior is only meant to help them survive. By taking simple steps to discourage bully birds, it is possible to safely urge them to move along, letting you enjoy a wider range of backyard birds that will appreciate the buffet you provide.