Getting started

Coping with grackles

Seven ways to deal with ­Common Grackles at your feeders, plus a few reasons why you might not want to.
By Lillian and Don Stokes | Published: 6/20/2008

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.

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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  • Pingback: Backyard Bullies | Unlocking the Gate()

  • Erica

    I actually enjoy Grackles. they have a place at my home all summer long. A relatively small group of about 6 this year. smaller then last years. I do not mind them. I find them to be very interesting

  • nononsense

    You might feel differently if you had 50 grackles. If I allow a few I get a flock and then nothing else will come to the feeders.

  • Timothy D Neff

    our house guest brought in two little grackles. now the pair are about 8 inches long. in a cage. i’ve developed a cough since they arrived. is it ok to raise grackle type birds in the house? Tim

  • horrido

    I’ve got two large tube feeders and one small one. The grakels and blackbirds will clean them out in two days (I use sunflower seeds). I’m currently spending more on bird seed than I am on dog food, and I have a 100lb dog. Something’s got to give. I’m going to try shortening the perches. If that doesn’t work, I’ll remove them.

    • AverageJoe

      Attracting birds of prey will make the environment very unfriendly to Grackles.

  • linda

    the dam grackles are kiling my sparrows

  • John Adams

    The closing advice to learn to love grackles is very infuriating. Not only do they monopolize the feed and drive away other birds, they sometimes attack and kill those birds! I’ve seen it happen. A grackle can kill a smaller bird in the blink of an eye. Even if you are standing 10 feet away you won’t be quick enough to stop it.

  • Judy Chandlee

    I have huge flocks of grackles once a year in the fall. The rest of time there are a few that just hang out here. They don’t seem to detour any other birds from the feeders. So far I’ve counted around 32 species in my yard, with the dominance of Robins, Finches, Sparrows, Swallows and Blue Jays.

  • Lisa

    Grackles are fine, if you have 1. More than that; they breed, and then they kill baby house sparrows by poking through the eye socket to eat the brains and occasionally they eat the stomach. It is disgusting! I have tried to save a few babies over the years when I caught a Grackle in the act of killing and only 1 has survived. It is the most horrifying and heartbreaking experience to see the fear and suffering that these little birds suffer. Do what you can to keep Grackles away! I started with only a handful and now I have so many it’s become embarrassing. They completely take over in the spring and don’t leave until the fall. I will never stop feeding the birds but these nasty Grackles need to go!

  • AverageJoe

    This is our experience with Grackles. One showed up, a couple of days later there were two of them at the bird feeders, and about two days later we were being dive bombed by about 8 of them when we stepped out on the front porch one morning. We happened to look up and a tall tree in the yard next to us was full of them! It seems as if they brought at least 100 of their closest friends. We had to take the feeders down it was pretty bad and the reading we did, we didn’t want to let them get established and build nests. It’s too bad, because we probably would have tolerated them, to a certain extent, had they not dive bombed us. They’re intimidating; we had visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Bird” each time we thought about going outside. Anyway, we couldn’t afford the expensive sound machines, but found out that if one makes a positive environment for birds of prey that Grackles will move on. That is exactly what happened; when the birds of prey showed up the Grackles high tailed it out of here.