Look out for these backyard bullies

Some birds don’t play nice, and they often drive other birds away from feeders and even out of their nests


|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Just like there are bullies in the schoolyard, there are bullies at our backyard bird feeders and out in nature.

These so-called bully birds aren’t intentionally being mean to other birds; it’s simply in their nature. Bully birds are more territorial and more aggressive than other birds, so they are often successful at driving away the competition, according to The Spruce. Either that or they visit in such large groups that there’s no room for any other birds.

If you’re tired of bully birds driving all the others away, consider buying feeders specifically for the birds you want to attract, the Canadian Wildlife Federation suggests. You can also offer food that particular birds are known to eat. For example, cardinals like safflower seed, while many other birds do not. And many finches prefer tiny nyjer seeds, which many other birds don’t eat.

If bully birds continue to wreak havoc around your feeders, you may consider giving in and establishing a place in your yard to feed them, the Canadian Wildlife Federation suggests. Pick a spot far removed from your feeders and use it as a place to feed bully birds foods they like, such as corn, millet and sunflowers seeds. Use other types of seed and food in your other feeders to hopefully keep the bullies away.

Red-winged blackbirds

A red-winged blackbird with its mouth open.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Perhaps no bird has a reputation for being a bully as much as the red-winged blackbird, and deservedly so. If you spend a lot of time outdoors in late spring or early summer, you’ve no doubt been squawked at by a male red-winged blackbird defending its territory. And “pick on someone your own size” means nothing to these birds, because they aren’t afraid to take on intruders who are much bigger or much smaller than them. Even humans and horses aren’t safe from their threatening behavior.

Defending their territory is big business for male red-winged blackbirds, accounting for as much as a quarter of their time during daylight hours, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you find yourself under attack, it’s best to move quickly through or away from the area they are defending.

Like other blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds can be a problem at feeders too, aggressively crowding out other birds. If you’re trying to keep them away, avoid using a seed mix, which more easily attracts nuisance bully birds than the birds you want to see at your feeder, Cornell Lab reports. You might also consider stocking your feeder with striped sunflower seed and safflower seed, neither of which are as easy for them to eat because of their thick shells.


Blue Jays

A blue jay with its mouth open on a branch.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Blue jays get a lot of attention because of their bright blue color, but they can be a bit of a bully around other birds. In fact, many avid birders aren’t a big fan of blue jays because of their bullying antics.

Blue jays are very territorial and aggressive, and they are known to force other birds away from feeders, according to New Hampshire PBS. They also sometimes eat eggs and even nestlings from other birds’ nests. The jays can also be quite noisy, loudly calling to drive other birds away, and because they are highly intelligent, they can easily outsmart other birds at your feeders.

If blue jays are driving all your other backyard birds away, consider designating a spot in your yard for them, stocking it with their favorite foods, namely peanuts and sunflower seeds, Birds & Blooms suggests. If you want to leave these foods out for other birds as well, use a caged feeder for the other birds and try a hopper feeder for the jays.

House sparrows

Closeup of two house sparrows.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

You don’t have to be big to be a bully, and house sparrows are proof of this. These small birds aren’t native to the United States, having been introduced here in the 1800s. Today, however, they are widespread across nearly all of North America and are one of the most common birds we see, according to the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.

You can find house sparrows just about anywhere there are houses — or any other building for that matter. Many people consider them a nuisance because they compete with native species for food and other resources and often push native bird species out of their nesting boxes and cavities.

If house sparrows have taken over your yard and feeders and are leaving other birds with nothing much to feast on, try swapping out what you are leaving out with foods the sparrows aren’t fond of, Cornell Lab’s FeederWatch advises. Options include nyjer seed feeders, which may be too small for the sparrows to use, or suet without embedded seeds. While many birds will eat the suet, it’s the seeds in the suet the sparrows are after. If all else fails, take all your feeders down for a week or two then reintroduce them one at a time.

If house sparrows have taken over your nesting boxes and any natural nesting cavities nearby, try replacing your nesting boxes with structures designed specifically for particular species.

Chickadees and wrens, for example, typically use boxes with smaller entrances that house sparrows may not be able to utilize.

Common grackles

A common grackle with its mouth open.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Most people aren’t trying to attract grackles to their yards, but they often show up — and frequently in large numbers. The problem with that is they are big birds with voracious appetites, emptying a feeder before other birds even get a chance at the seed, according to BirdWatching Daily.

Grackles are blackbirds, and they often flock with starlings and other blackbirds, according to the Cornell Lab. They are ground feeders, so if you want to attract them, spreading seed and grain on the ground is a good way to do so. Conversely, if you’re trying to discourage them from visiting, make sure to regularly clean up any spilled feed around your feeders.

There are a few other strategies you can try to keep the grackles at bay. Opt for tube feeders instead of tray or platform feeders, BirdWatching Daily suggests. You can also try hulled seeds to reduce the amount of seed that falls to the ground. And they don’t seem particularly fond of safflower seed, so fill your feeders with that to see if they move on to other feeding grounds.

European starlings

Two European starlings on branches.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

European starlings are another bully bird that’s not native to the United States but has become so widespread that they are considered a nuisance by many. More than 200 million starlings are estimated to live in North America today, all descended from a group of 100 birds released in Central Park in New York City in the 1890s, according to Cornell Lab.

If flocks of starlings are crowding out other birds at your feeders, try switching to foods like white-striped sunflower seed and peanuts in the shells. These are harder for them to eat because they have softer bills than many other birds. You might also try switching your feeders for nyjer seed in tube feeders, which they don’t like. It’s also a good idea to keep the ground around your feeders free of fallen seed. And just like with house sparrows, if all else fails, remove your bird feeders for a week or two and slowly reintroduce them.

European starlings are cavity nesters, and they often choose openings in buildings and other structures for their nests. If they are causing problems around your house, try using mylar balloons to keep them at bay. Simply hang mylar balloons near the area of your house where they are nesting, Cornell Lab advises. The balloons’ shininess, plus the sudden, unpredictable movements as the balloons billow in the wind, can force the birds to look elsewhere.

Brown-headed cowbirds

Brown-headed cowbird on a building.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Brown-headed cowbirds are considered bullies for a different reason than most birds. These birds are brood parasites, meaning they don’t make their own nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and rely on them to incubate their eggs and raise their nestlings, according to the Cornell Lab. In the process, they may destroy already-laid eggs, and the presence of cowbird nestlings in a nest may mean the nestlings of the other species are less likely to thrive and survive.


Many people consider this behavior cruel, but brown-headed cowbirds are incapable of making their own nests, so they are doing the only thing they know how to successfully produce offspring. Cowbirds do not focus on only one or even a few species when looking for nests to parasitize. They have been known to use nests from more than 220 different kinds of birds, NestWatch reports. 

Because they are not discerning about where they lay their eggs, it can be difficult to deter cowbirds from parasitizing other birds’ nests. The best strategy is to try not to feed them in your yard. To do this, opt for feeders designed for smaller birds, like tube feeders, NestWatch advises. Put out safflower seeds, whole peanuts, nectar or nyjer seeds and avoid corn, millet and sunflower seeds, which they prefer. Also make sure to clean up spilled food from the ground.

(Lead image: House sparrows via Shutterstock)

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