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Starlings - you either love them or you don't but we need to reverse the decline

Starlings are adapting more than ever to exploit bird feeders, but you can strike a balance for them and other songbird species to feed in your garden.

Although much of every daylight hour is taken up running the various aspects of our large farm and the bird food business, we still try to take time out to observe the birds and other wildlife around us. We have bird feeding stations set-up not just on the farmland and close to our farm shop, but also in the Vine House Farm garden – which is the one place we’re likely to have some time to relax, watch the birds through the window, observe their behaviour and indeed their changing behaviour. And it’s specifically this changing behaviour in starlings that we’re discussing here.

Starlings are a ‘Marmite’ species

It’s probably fair to say that when it comes to the birds which visit our gardens to feed, starlings are something of a Marmite species – you either love them or you don’t. If you don’t, then it’s probably also fair to say that it’s largely to do with them turning up mob-handed, scattering smaller songbirds in the process, then setting about making short work of the entire contents of a fat ball feeder or bowl of mealworms. And if you love them, then actually the appeal may well come from exactly that same bold and extrovert behaviour – and, as it happens, that’s rather our position at Vine House Farm.

Starlings have significantly declined in numbers

But before we discuss how starlings seem to be getting ever-more enterprising at exploiting bird feeders and whether or not you think that’s a good thing or fills you with dread, for context we all need to remember how the species has declined in numbers. Indeed, a BTO study shows that starling numbers have fallen by a staggering 66% since the 1970s, which now places them on the red list as a bird of high conservation concern. Whilst all the reasons for this decline are not yet known, there seems little doubt that a lack of natural invertebrate food – in particular leatherjackets and earthworms – is a key reason. And it is intensive modern farming combined with dryer summers which has contributed to that decline in invertebrates.

So given this position, our view is that we all need to play our part in helping to reverse the decline in starling numbers, and frankly whether we love this gregarious and speckled garden visitor or we don’t.  

Few types of feeder are now out of bounds for starlings – but there are some...

Perhaps a decade or so back, starlings were already tenacious enough to cling onto most types of fat ball and suet feeder, plus some hanging seed feeders if the perches were round rather than straight. But beyond that they seemed to struggle, with this leaving other songbirds such as finches and tits relatively undisturbed on their own feeders. Now though, and certainly based on our observations, there are few types of feeder which they can’t tackle, with only caged feeders where the actual feeder is set well back from the cage – like this Parakeet Proof Cage or the range of Heavy Duty Squirrel Proof Feeders – keeping them out. (The starling’s head shape and thin long bill often allows them to get to food in other types of caged feeder, and also worth remembering that they’re anyway quite a small bird.) For ground feeding, this type of Ground Guard will also do the job if the food is set well back from the edge of the cage. It’s also worth noting that most types of hanging caged feeder are anyway designed to keep squirrels and larger birds such as jackdaws out – the intention was never originally starlings as well.

A further significant factor which has clearly helped starlings change their behaviour on hanging seed feeders, and as we’ve eluded to above, is that most new feeders now have round perches rather than straight ones. Straight was the norm on feeders back in the past but that’s not now the case – and indeed this change has also helped a few other ground feeding songbirds, and notably robins, to use hanging feeders because the circular perch effectively acts as a platform.

So we’ve made it easier for starlings to adapt to get onto hanging seed feeders with the shift to round perches, and although as we’ve outlined there are a few ways to keep them off both hanging feeders and food on the ground, doing this exclusively is not the answer . . .

Striking a balance so all species of bird can feed in our gardens

Hopefully we can now all agree that starlings deserve a place in our gardens, but perhaps not at the expense of other smaller species of songbird. The answer then is a suitable mix of feeder types, which might mean a reappraisal of what you have in place already. This balance could be:

  • At least one hanging seed feeder with an outer cage – though this must be of a type where the cage is sufficiently back from the feeder (see our examples above)
  • The same as above for a hanging fat ball feeder
  • A ground guard, with the inside then used for loose ground feeding – e.g. sunflower hearts, Robin and Friends Mix or live or soaked dried mealworms in a dish
  • At least one unprotected hanging seed feeder with no outer cage and filled with a husk-free mix or sunflower hearts – this then will be used by starlings
  • At least one unprotected hanging fat ball or suet block feeder – again this will then be used by starlings
  • Unprotected food such as sunflower hearts, a husk-free mix, suet pellets or soaked dried mealworms on a bird table, Ground Tray, or directly on the ground – starlings won’t mind which 

On that last point, remember that slightly larger and less timid ground feeding songbirds such as the blackbird also need access to unprotected food, and anyway are less likely to be intimidated by a small flock of starlings.

There are of course multiple ways you could achieve such a balance, with the main principle simply being to have a suitable mix of feeders and foods which a) allows easy access for starlings, and b) doesn’t allow them access but will other songbirds.

A final thought

We were discussing the whole starling topic with a long-time associate of Vine House Farm, Roger Hughes, who now lives in the Scottish Highlands. Having fed starlings in his garden in Northamptonshire before moving north some ten years ago, he had this to say on natural food availability in relation to garden feeding: “Starlings were a daily visitor to my garden in Northamptonshire to feed, and perhaps not surprisingly as the village I lived in was surrounded by land which was relatively intensively farmed. When I moved to the Highlands though, my garden was surrounded by a rich mix of riparian woodland and rough pasture. A pair of starlings nested in a hole in an old tree close to my house, and I attracted further pairs by putting up nest boxes. However, despite having a large feeding station in my garden with all manner of feeders but none with cages around them, I never once saw a starling on them. I did though observe the birds bringing leatherjackets and other invertebrates to their nests, with an apparent abundant supply from the surrounding meadows and woodland. I’ve since moved house to a different part of the Highlands, though with not dissimilar surrounding habitat, and the pair of starlings which nest in my roof never come on to the feeders in my garden. So from these observations over a ten year period, I’ve concluded that starlings will always go after natural food rather that what’s put out for them – provided of course that the natural food is in plentiful supply. My only caveat to that being that my observations only apply to the breeding season, because in both locations starlings are not present in the autumn and winter months, as they tend to move to lower ground .”

So a very interesting outline from Roger, and one which arguably adds further weight to our central argument that feeding starlings in our gardens is essential to help their numbers recover in urban and rural areas, and this with the backdrop that it is humans which have been responsible for the massive decline in their natural food across much of the UK. We therefore surely owe it to these resourceful birds to make them as welcome in our gardens as any other species.