Feed the Birds… How we adapted our feeders to be more ‘starling friendly’

If only it was still just ‘tuppence a bag’ (thanks Mary Poppins!) then our efforts to feed up the city’s starling population would cost us a lot less. As it is, the cost of meeting the voracious appetite of these birds for our dried blow-worms is proving exorbitant – but worth it! I write about the large number of parent starlings that are visiting our garden on a ten-times-a-day basis at the moment, looking for food for their young, back in the nests. They make for a spectacular site as they crowd in on the feeders, following some kind of pecking order with rules unclear to the watching human. We have seen as many as thirty birds surrounding the bird table, taking it in turns to grab a beak-full of grub before flying rapidly away.

Our ‘starling story’ began a little over two years ago when we moved into our bungalow, accepting a somewhat down-sized garden as a result. By adding a few bird-feeders, we hoped to increase the number of birds visiting the new garden as we hadn’t seen many in the first few weeks. In our previous property – just across the road, we had been visited by crowds of our feathered friends. The list included great tits, blue tits, green finches, bull finches, house sparrows, dunnocks, robins, cole tits and, occasionally, long-tailed tits. Notice, I haven’t listed starlings as they rarely visited our feeders or the garden as a whole, unless the elderberries and blackberries were ripe.

When purchasing feeders for our new garden, I spotted a worm feeder that I thought might be useful as it was spring and I’d read that some birds struggled to rear young as they needed grubs or worms to feed them – a high protein diet. The worm feeder proved an immediate hit with the local robin and a pair of dunnocks. Unfortunately a group of magpies also fancied their chances of grabbing a share; I didn’t think they would be able as the feeder was the hanging type; surely there was no way the magpies could get a perch before it would swing out from under them and send them flying? As it happened, they didn’t need the perch as they quickly discovered that by head-butting the feeder, enough worms would fall out to the floor, where their pals would be ready to pounce. This presented a problem as the magpies would just head-butt away and eat and eat until all the worms were gone. I partly solved the problem by refilling the feeder frequently.

It was around this point that we noticed our first starling visitors. While, up a ladder, fixing a gutter on the garage, just hidden from the view of any birds visiting the feeder, I heard a rapping and scratching sound. Peering around the corner I spotted a starling on the feeder, furiously pecking at the worms. After while, it achieved its aim of picking up a whole worm without breaking it – tricky as the worm was dried – and flew off with the worm visible in its beak. I realised it was taking the worm back to its nest, either for its mate or possibly for new chicks.

During the course of that year, we continued having trouble with the magpies which would empty the feeder almost as quickly as I could fill it. This problem was alleviated by making better use of the bird table in one corner of the garden. I discovered that by wrapping it in a mesh, big enough for starlings to access but too small to admit anything bigger, it made a safe place to put a tray of worms. It didn’t take the starlings long to figure out how to enter and I was able to fill the tray last thing at night, knowing that the worms would still be there in the morning. The food would last till the next evening as, unlike the magpies, the starlings just seemed to take what they need, without eating the lot!

The starlings came and went over the course of that year, heading off to warmer climes for the winter. In the spring of the second year, we were ready for them. We noticed that they visited in pairs during March and early April and, as far as we could be sure, there seemed to be two pairs of regular visitors. Suddenly, it became clear that the females were nesting and only the males came to collect food. The same pattern as last year was soon established – the male birds grasping as many worms as they could within their beaks and heading off for the nests. The starlings made more and more frequent journeys as, presumably, their chicks were hatched and demand for food increased. By June the birds’ visits ceased , then, in early September something new – something we could only describe as ‘starling frenzy’ occurred!

Over summer, we followed a simple routine – fill the worm feeder in the evening and then keep an eye over the next few days as the robins and occasional dunnocks ate their share, then fill again. One morning, after a refill, we found the feeder to be empty before 8am, with just a little bit of worm dust left behind. Shortly after topping up, about thirty birds descended to the garden fence and took it in turns to flutter down in groups of about ten and grab as many worms as they could. Worm dust spewed in all directions and they polished off the lot in double-quick time! this happened a few times until things grew quiet again for the winter.

This year we increased our number of feeding stations by one, with a domed cage covering a tray on a home-made platform. Otherwise the routine has proved similar with two pairs visiting initially. However, as spring has progressed, the number of starlings coming for their worms has increased markedly and I’ve found myself filling the feeder three, even four times a day. To our great excitement, some of the adult birds have arrived with two or three juveniles in tow and it’s been fun watching the young sit on the fence while the adults do all the hard work, collecting worms and feeding them. Soon the birds will head off for the summer again, leaving us wondering whether they’ll return in the autumn in even greater numbers.

Here’s a video of a couple of adult starlings collecting worms; one heads off to its nest while other feeds its young.