Unwelcome Visitors at the Bird Feeder
Choosing to set up a bird feeder is a great idea. It’s relaxing to watch colorful songbirds visit your yard each day, and with a little effort, you can learn a great deal about your local ecosystem. It’s good for the birds too, as you are providing them with an abundant, reliable energy resource.
However, it won’t be long until other critters decide they’d like a little bit of that energy resource too. Bird feeders don’t just attract birds. They attract all kinds of creatures, from tiny field mice to massive, 500-pound bears. You didn’t put up your feeder for them, but they will help themselves anyway. You can try placing a sign indicating that the food is meant only for the birds, but unfortunately, mice and bears can’t read very well.
Frankly, it doesn’t bother me when other critters steal my birdseed. I put the food out there in nature, and it is fair game for whoever can get to it. But I do have a problem with some of the other issues unwanted bird feeder visitors bring with them. They may pose a danger to the birds or even to my family, and they may damage property. That’s not acceptable.
So how do you stop them? In this article, you’ll learn about a few things you can do to reduce and in some cases completely eliminate the problems caused by different types of unwanted bird feeder visitors.
Some birds just aren’t very nice, but it’s not their fault. They’ve evolved to act this way as a survival mechanism. Tough, aggressive birds get their fill when resources are scarce, where small, wimpy birds have to wait their turn.
That’s interesting from a behavioral perspective, but when one bird species dominates your feeder, it can get a little frustrating. In my area, it is the Blue Jay that tends to take over bird feeders and push smaller birds around. Blue Jays are bigger, meaner, and just plain smarter than most other birds, so when a bunch of them show up at the feeder the little birds scatter.
The solution is to provide different sizes of feeders for different birds. I have one large feeder for bigger birds. The Blue Jays can mob that feeder when they want to, and the larger birds are less likely to be intimidated by them.
I also have a smaller tube feeder which Blue Jays can’t feed on because the perches are too short. The Blue Jays quickly learned they can’t get any food from the smaller feeder so they ignore it. This allows little birds like Goldfinches and Chickadees a safe feeder all to themselves.
Bully Birds to Watch For
- Blue Jay
- Eastern Starling
- Common Grackle
- Red-winged Blackbird
Chipmunks and Squirrels
Squirrels and chipmunks may be the biggest headaches backyard birders face. They will mercilessly empty your bird feeder on a daily basis, and at times you will feel like you are feeding them more than the birds.
The solution is a two-level security system incorporating squirrel baffles and squirrel-proof feeders. There are two types of squirrel baffles: The first hangs above your feeder and prevents critters from accessing it from above by tipping with the weight of the animal and dumping it to the ground. The second type of baffle mounts on a pole beneath your feeder and provides a barrier that squirrels and chipmunks cannot get past.
Practically, for either of these baffles to work you need to make sure the animals can’t get to your feeder any other way besides passing the baffles. Squirrels and chipmunks come up with some pretty imaginative ways of bypassing these barriers, so really put some thought into their placement.
Good squirrel-proof feeders can be very effective. Some are weight-activated, which means they will stop squirrels but possibly not chipmunks. Others, the kinds I have found most effective, simply have feeding ports too small for a rodent to stick its nose into. Birds can get food out, but squirrels and chipmunks can’t.
Field Mice and Rats
Field mice are likely the tiniest animals that will visit your feeder. In most cases, they probably can’t even access the feeder itself, but will instead scrounge for seed on the ground beneath it. So what trouble can they possibly cause?
There are a few issues field mice bring with them. First, they will be attracted to your stored seed. For this reason, you should store your seed indoors in a container made especially for animal feed. This will keep the seed dry and fresh and make it less likely rodents can chew their way in.
Second, mice are prolific breeders. If they find a rich energy resource such as a bird feeder they are more likely to congregate in that area and multiply. As anyone who lives in the country as I do knows, when winter comes the field mice start to come into your house. In fact, they’ll probably come up with a very efficient system of scampering out to get the seed and then running back into your nice, warm home.
This problem is even worse when the infiltrator is not the common field mouse but one of his bigger, uglier rodent cousins: the Norway Rat. Yes, rats are attracted to bird feeders just like squirrels, mice, chipmunks, and other rodents. If you have rats in your area they’re going to love your feeder.
Now that you’re thoroughly freaked out, what can you do? First, keep your seed safe in the proper storage container. (I use a Buddeez pet food dispenser and have never had issues with mice or rodents getting into it.)
You can keep the area beneath the feeder clean by sweeping up the extra seed on a daily basis. This means rodents will be less likely to come around, and it can even help with your squirrel and chipmunk issues.
Of all the unwanted visitors who will come to your bird feeder, black bears are by far the least polite. They won’t just steal your seed; they’ll smash your feeder to bits while getting it. Even metal feeders don’t stand a chance against an adult bear.
But crushed bird feeders are the least of the potential issues bears bring with them. Any time bears and people mix in unnatural ways, it can lead to trouble. While bear attacks in my area are relatively unheard of, they are more common in other parts of the country. In some areas, bears have been known to demolish property and even break into houses looking for food. There is a reason people are advised never to feed the bears, and when you put out a bird feeder you are doing exactly that.
The solution is to take your feeder in at night. Black bears are largely nocturnal, and this is when they will find your feeder. Once a bear realizes your property is a place to find food they will be back over and over again.
One of my neighbors chose to ignore my advice and the bear visits got so bad they were coming in the daytime as well. Only when a really large, nasty looking male bear came around when she was outside one afternoon did she decide to start removing the feeder.
If bears are coming in the daylight hours, you will need to remove the feeder completely for several weeks before they stop snooping around. Otherwise, as long as you are taking it in at night you should be okay, but keep an eye out nonetheless.
I can get away with storing my feeders in a secure container on my deck overnight, but in some areas that may not be good enough. You may need to remove the feeder into a garage or other area bears can’t access.
Finally, we get to one of my biggest pet peeves: Stray and wandering house cats. House cats are not a natural part of the ecosystem, and they wreak havoc on songbirds and other small animals. Cats kill an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion small mammals in the lower United States annually according to one accounting. That’s billion with a B.
If you have a cat, please don’t let it wander. Through no fault of their own cats are amazing killing machines, and even a well-fed cat will instinctively hunt small animals. But the greatest threat comes not from owned cats but true strays.
This article isn’t about the management of the stray and feral cat populations, so let’s get back to how you can protect the birds who visit your feeder when cats start coming around. You can:
- Trim back or remove any vegetation that gives cats cover for an ambush.
- Consider moving the feeder to a location where cats can’t access it, such as a higher position.
- Keep the area under the feeder clean so fewer birds are feeding on the ground.
- Consider switching to a type of feeder such as a tube feeder that allows less food to fall.
Defending your feeder visitors from cats requires a vigilant eye. If all else fails you may need to remove the feeder. While it is wonderful to feed wild birds if all we are doing is ringing the dinner bell for cats it kind of misses the point.
Protect Your Feeders!
In summary, here’s a seven-point plan for dealing with unwanted bird feeder visitors.
- Provide several feeders so small birds aren’t chased away by bully birds.
- Use squirrel baffles and squirrel-proof feeders to slow down squirrels and chipmunks.
- Keep the area underneath your feeders clean so mice and rats aren’t attracted to your yard.
- Store your extra seed (indoors) in a proper container that rodents can’t easily access.
- Remove your feeders at night and place them in a secure area to discourage black bears and nocturnal rodents.
- Discourage house cats by keeping the area around your feeders free of ambush locations.
- Keep an eye out for frequent cat visits and remove your feeders if things get out of control.
While you can never completely remove the nuisance of unwanted bird feeder visitors, for me personally the practices listed above have greatly reduced the minor problems, and effectively eliminated some of the major issues.
Sometimes you have to pick your battles or all of these critters will drive you insane. While I have learned to tolerate sneaky chipmunks and squirrels, other issues such as marauding black bears and prowling house cats are simply not acceptable.
Good luck keeping your bird feeder safe from unwanted visitors. If you have any tips to add feel free to mention them in the comments section!
Anne Boyd on April 04, 2020:
I use slinkies on my bird feeder post. I have no problems with squirrels or other varmints climbing my feeder posts. Had a lot of fun watching squirrels try to jump on post hitting slinky and bumping butts on the ground. Anne
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on August 20, 2015:
Thanks Vic! The squirrels around my home are certainly well-fed as well!
Vic Dillinger on August 19, 2015:
I'm with purl3agony up there, Eric. If you can't beat 'em, feed 'em! The fun part is thanks to the squirrels' feeding around the bird feeder we have sunflower plants and corn growing (one of which already has two maturing ears on it).
Good piece as always.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on August 19, 2015:
Donna Herron from USA on August 18, 2015:
Great hub! My husband and I have decided that feeding squirrels is just one of the consequences of feeding birds. We've just decided to live with it. My dad, however, has had good luck with using his own homemade baffle. It really does seem to keep the squirrels away from his feeder. Thanks for sharing this great information!