Migratory Bird Program
Conserving the Nature of America

BACKYARD BIRD PROBLEMS

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

PROBLEM BIRDS

  • Woodpeckers
  • Fruit-eating Birds
  • Fish-eating Birds
  • Roosting Birds
  • Nesting Birds
  • Hawks and Owls
  • Nuisance Waterfowl
  • PROBLEMS FOR BIRDS

  • Birds and Window Collisions
  • Insecticides and Lawn Chemicals
  • Baby Bird "Orphans"
  • Injured Birds
  • Cats
  • Problems at the Bird Nest Box
  • Feeding Station Problems
  • Birds Trapped in Feeders
  • Squirrels
  • Rodents
  • Storing Seed
  • Problems at the Bird Bath
  • ADDITIONAL READING

    CONTACTS

    Link to the MIGRATORY SONGBIRD CONSERVATION PAMPHLET and select Sources of Information About Migratory Birds under Table of Contents.

    INTRODUCTION

    Any bird, a cardinal, chickadee or dove, can become a "problem" when it does something unpleasant. What's unpleasant depends on what the bird is doing, and how you react.

    A mockingbird's midnight song may be a musical marvel to some, but an annoyance to others. The flicker may be welcome at your feeder, but not if his hammering damages the cedar siding on your neighbor's house. The Canada geese at your pond tempt you to offer them corn, until their droppings foul your lawn.

    Birds come to your yard to eat and bathe, to roost and nest. Birds can cause trouble when they eat your cherries, drill holes in your birch trees and fish for koi in your pond.

    They can be hazardous to your health when they roost by the hundreds in the trees at the edge of your patio.

    They can be a nuisance when they nest in your hanging baskets, on the ledge over your front door or in your clothes drier vents.

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    PROBLEM BIRDS

    What's the quickest, easiest way to eliminate problem birds? The "quick fix" solutions that first come to mind are: Shoot them. Trap them. Poison them.

    Wrong.

    All wild birds (except pigeons, English sparrows and starlings) are protected by federal and state laws. You may not trap, kill or possess protected species without federal and state permits.

    The first step in solving your wild bird problem is to identify the bird and what's attracting it. Your goal is to remove what attracts the bird, or build a barrier between the bird and what it finds so attractive.

    Call your US Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Office, your state wildlife officer and (US Department of Agriculture) county Cooperative Extension agent for advice.

    Before you take any action, consider these questions:

    • What do the experts recommend?
    • Could it hurt people, pets and other wildlife?
    • Will it reduce or eliminate the damage?
    • Is it worth the cost?

    Most bird problems do not have a simple solution. What eliminates a bird problem in one case may fail in similar situations. You may find a solution that seems effective, but don't be surprised if it works only for a short time. The secret to solving bird problems is to use several tactics and to vary them so birds don't become complacent.

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    Woodpeckers

    Each year thousands of homeowners put out suet feeders to attract woodpeckers. These handsome birds reward us by consuming millions of noxious insects, including carpenter ants and carpenter bees.

    While it's rare, an occasional woodpecker may single out a house for drumming, or worse, for a nest or dining site.

    Each spring, when males set up territories and attract their mates, these woodpeckers make their presence known by "drumming." Normally they pick a resonant dead tree trunk. As more homeowners remove dead trees, woodpeckers may turn to metal gutters, house siding and television antennas.

    While drumming may be aggravating, it usually doesn't physically damage your house. You can eliminate the drumming noise by deadening the resonant area. Fill the hollow space with caulk.

    Then distract the bird from the drumming site by using scare techniques: balloons, a child's pinwheel, flash tape, and strings of shiny, noisy tin can lids, wind chimes and/or pulsating water sprinklers.

    If that doesn't work, create a physical barrier by screening the drumming site with hardware cloth, sheet metal or nylon "bird netting."

    You might encourage the bird to leave altogether by creating an alternative drumming site nearby (but away from your bedroom window).

    Here's how to make a drum: Fasten two overlapping boards, the back board firmly secured and the front (covered with metal sheeting) nailed to it at only one end.

    Serious structural damage occurs when woodpeckers drill holes in unpainted, untreated plywood and cedar siding, window frames and roofing. While no one knows for sure what attracts a woodpecker to a house, your first step in eliminating the problem is to check for signs of insect infestation -- carpenter ants, carpenter bees and cluster flies.

    You may want to consult with a licensed pest control operator on how to remove the insects and eliminate future infestations. It may be as simple as caulking their tunnels and painting with exterior latex.

    If you can't find any insects, try "scare" techniques.

    If you have a bird feeder that attracts woodpeckers, you might think removing your feeder will cause the bird to leave. Just the opposite may be true. Keeping a feeder full of suet may encourage the birds not to look at your siding for food.

    If you have dead trees in your yard, you might think removing them (and the insects they harbor) will solve woodpecker problems. Again, the opposite may be true. Cutting down dead and decaying trees deprives these birds of nesting, drumming and food sites, and may force them to take a look at your house.

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    Fruit-eating Birds

    It's early summer. You've planted your garden. Your trees and shrubs are full of fruit. Before you get a chance to enjoy them, your crops are harvested by birds.

    Again, barriers are the most effective deterrents.

    Hot caps (opaque plastic "hats" used to cover young plants in the spring to prevent freezing) and inverted crates can keep starlings from pulling up small plants.

    Netting may keep starlings, catbirds, orioles, robins, blackbirds and jays from your grapes, apples and raspberries.

    Scare techniques may repel birds from gardens.

    Placing feeders filled with sunflower, millet, nectar, and peanuts nearby may also distract birds.

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    Fish-eating Birds

    Herons and egrets at the edge of a pond create a picture of tranquility. That is unless these and other fish-eating birds (gulls, terns, kingfishers, diving ducks, pelicans, cormorants and ospreys) are dining on your prize koi.

    First try scare techniques, then exclusion.

    While they may be unsightly, physical barriers can deter most fish-eating birds. For small ponds, complete screening with bird netting may be effective. Properly spaced monofilament lines suspended over a pond may exclude gulls (every 4 feet), mergansers (every 2 feet), and herons (every foot). Perimeter fences provide some protection from wading birds.

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    Roosting Birds

    You don't have to park your car under a tree to discover why people have no patience with roosting birds. Everyone knows bird droppings pile up under a roost.

    An occasional bird perching on a tree limb, gutter or fence may not be a serious concern. But problems arise when pigeons perch on your balcony railing, sparrows select your carport rafter and gulls bask on your boat dock piling.

    When starlings, grackles, blackbirds and crows roost by the thousands in trees -- they create a serious health hazard.

    Physical barriers may be the most effective way to control birds roosting on buildings.

    To eliminate birds on ledges try porcupine wire, stretching a "slinky" toy, or stringing rows of monofilament, one or two inches above each other about two feet apart. Sheet metal or hardware cloth placed at an angle on ledges may also make roosting more difficult.

    Pruning may eliminate birds roosting in trees. Removing some cover may be enough to make the roost site less attractive. Scare tactics may provide temporary relief.

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    Nesting Birds

    Birds often pick what seem to be the strangest places to nest:

    • in your gutter, clothes drier or kitchen fan vent (house sparrows and starlings);
    • above your front door (barn swallows);
    • in a bucket in your garage (Carolina wrens);
    • in your hanging basket (house finches);
    • a pile of twigs on your window sill (doves);
    • in the shrubs next to your front door (mockingbirds).

    The federal and state laws that protect wild birds also protect their nests and eggs. You must have a federal permit to disturb the adults, nests or eggs.

    The most effective way to eliminate these problems is to discourage the bird before the nest is built by offering an alternative artificial "nest" nearby, but out of your way. If that doesn't work, contact a federal or state agent for advice. Resist the temptation to destroy the nest or harass the adults.

    House (or English) sparrows, pigeons and starlings are not protected by law. You may remove the nests, eggs and adults.

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    Hawks and Owls

    The presence of hawks and owls (raptors) may cause problems for people who raise free-ranging poultry and small animals such as rabbits, for people who operate bird feeding stations and for those who allow their household pets to roam at night.

    Federal and state laws prohibit the capture, killing or possession of hawks and owls.

    The best solution to most raptor problems is prevention. Keep your pets indoors, and your livestock in pens.

    If you feed wild birds, expect a visit from a hungry hawk or owl. Raptors at a birdfeeding station are a problem only when they perch nearby, all day. You won't see any birds at your feeders. Rather than get upset, consider yourself fortunate to get a close-up look at these magnificent birds.

    Stop filling your feeders for a couple of days, and the raptors will look for dinner elsewhere.

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    Nuisance Waterfowl

    Ducks, geese, swans and cranes can cause problems near rivers, ponds and lakes. They feed on crops, grass and other vegetation.

    During their summer moult, flightless birds may create more problems by trampling plants and leaving droppings.

    Whatever the problem with waterfowl, immediate action is crucial to successful control.

    Farmers are encouraged to use early-ripening and damage-resistant plant varieties. Another strategy, delaying fall plowing, allows waterfowl to feed in harvested fields.

    A combination of several frightening techniques may produce the best results: scarecrows, noisemakers, flags, balloons and dogs.

    Scarecrows should be of simple construction and move in the wind. Put one in every five acres and move them every two to five days.

    Old cars, farm machinery, pinwheels, streamers, fluorescent traffic cones and aluminum pie plates, if they move in the wind and make noise can also be effective waterfowl scares.

    Noisemakers. Contact your state animal damage control expert for advice on using explosives as noisemakers.

    Flags may be the most effective and least expensive control tool. Make two by three-foot black plastic flags on four-foot posts. Put one flag per acre in fields where waterfowl have been feeding, one per five acres in fields with no damage.

    Balloons, if properly maintained and frequently moved, can be effective waterfowl scares. Fill a two-foot diameter balloon with helium and anchor it with a 50 to 75 pound monofilament line.

    Dogs. A free ranging dog, trained to chase birds as soon as they land, will discourage waterfowl.

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    PROBLEMS FOR BIRDS

    Birds and Window Collisions

    Contemporary homes and modern office buildings often use insulated and reflective glass to replace walls. These windows may be aesthetically pleasing to humans, but often they are lethal to birds. Unfortunately, many birds cannot distinguish the difference between the real sky and a reflection of the sky in a window.

    In the United States alone, it is estimated that each year during migration, millions of birds fly full tilt into windows and are seriously injured or killed.

    You can minimize these collisions by breaking up the reflection on the outside of the window with a window screen, flash tape and bird netting.

    Life-size, animate "scares" (plastic falcons, owls and balloons) and falcon or owl silhouettes attached to windows with suction cups are not effective deterrents.

    Planting trees and installing window awnings to block the sun from hitting the window may eliminate some reflection.

    Migration isn't the only time homeowners have trouble with bird-window collisions. Birds may hit your windows during breeding season, and in the winter too.

    During breeding season, male cardinals, woodpeckers and mockingbirds may "fight" their own reflections in windows (and car mirrors). They'll stop banging into the window as the breeding season ends. You can discourage them with screens and other barrier techniques.

    Regardless of the season, birds can fly into windows when they're frightened while visiting a feeding station. Either move the feeders a considerable distance away from the window, or immediately adjacent to the window (so birds don't get up to flight speed before hitting the window).

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    Insecticides and Lawn Chemicals

    If you attract birds to your yard, keep in mind that many herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers are deadly poisons.

    Ornithologists have known for several years that many lawn-care chemicals kill songbirds and contaminate their food. Mechanical and biological techniques may provide less hazardous pest control options.

    Contact your USDA Extension office and the Environmental Protection Agency for information about integrated pest management, biological and chemical pest control safety and pest-resistant plant varieties.

    Baby Bird "Orphans"

    Sooner or later, no matter where you live, you'll come across a baby bird. You'll have to decide: should you rescue it or leave it to fend for itself?

    In most cases, it is best to let nature take its course. Don't interfere.

    If the bird is fully feathered, chances are it doesn't need your help. Each spring, baby birds leave the nest and have to learn to be adults. Their parents are nearby. They're best equipped to take care of the babies. You can help fledglings by keeping your dogs and cats in the house.

    If the bird is unfeathered, try to return it to the nest. If that's not possible, put the baby in a shoe box and cover it. Get the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Do not attempt to take care of it yourself. After all, do you know what kind of bird it is? Do you know what to feed it?

    No matter what the "first aid for baby birds" books at the library say, you will kill baby birds if you offer them a diet of human baby foods, hamburger meat, tuna, bird seed, milk, hard boiled eggs, bread or water.

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    Injured Birds

    Thud. A bird hits the window. You look out and see some feathers sticking to the corner of the pane. You rush outside and find a tiny yellow bird, still alive, lying under the window. It's not moving. What's the right thing to do? Get a towel. Gently put the bird in a cardboard box or large paper bag. Put the bird in a warm, quiet place. Do not offer first aid. Do not offer food or water. Get the bird to a veterinarian or an authorized wildlife rehabilitator (call your state wildlife agency for a referral).

    Regardless of your best intentions, if you offer first aid without the proper training, you're likely to do more harm than good.

    Cats

    In the fall of 1990, a study on the effects of cats on wildlife was reported in the scientific and mass media. Researchers estimated that house cats and feral cats are responsible for killing approximately 78 million small mammals and birds annually in the United Kingdom.

    Feline predation is not "natural." Millions of backyard birds and other animals are slaughtered by cats each year. Cats are a serious threat to fledglings, birds roosting at night and birds while they're on the nest, at the feeder and using a bird bath.

    If you are unwilling to eliminate free-roaming cats, do not attract birds to your yard by putting out feeders, nest boxes and baths. Eliminating free-roaming cats is the best way you can "protect" your backyard birds from cat predation.

    Responsible pet owners keep their cats indoors. Most local jurisdictions have enforceable leash laws for cats and dogs. Contact your local humane society for help.

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    Problems at the Bird Nest Box

    Many homeowners invite birds to nest in their yards by putting up nesting boxes. Almost two dozen species will consider a human-made nest.

    How do you make sure the "right" animal is using your bird nest?

    Learn all you can about the birds you want to attract and offer them a box that opens at the top and the front or side. Monitor the nest box, and evict starlings and house sparrows.

    The safest solution to insect infestations is physical removal and soaping the inside top of the box. If insects infest the box during nesting, apply a light dusting of rotenone or pyrethrin. Do not use chemical sprays.

    If snakes and climbing mammals are a problem, use physical barriers to deter them. Try a PVC pipe over your metal bird house pole, or metal sheeting on a tree or wood pole. Smear the PVC or metal with Vaseline laced with hot (cayenne) pepper. Avoid automotive grease, it can be lethal to wildlife.

    Put a predator guard over the nest entrance hole.

    Do not use bird houses with perches below the entrance hole.

    If you find birds attacking the adults, eggs or nestlings, what you can do depends on the perpetrators. Eliminate house sparrows and starlings. All other birds are protected by federal and state laws. You may not harass or otherwise harm hawks, owls, falcons, crows, grackles, jays and shrikes.

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    Feeding Station Problems

    More than 82 million Americans feed wild birds. Sooner or later, these backyard bird feeders experience some problems: "wrong" birds at the feeder, no birds at the feeder, sick and injured birds, predators, pests and the "mess." Several factors determine which birds will visit your feeders: the type of feeder and seed you use, the presence of predators and how often you sanitize your feeders.

    Tossing a mix of seeds on the ground is an easy way to feed birds. Just about every seed-eating bird in your neighborhood will stop by. So will squirrels, chipmunks, mice and rats. Any bird can feed on the ground, but in the wild few birds other than turkeys and quail find all their food there. Contrary to popular wisdom, large birds like the cardinals and doves are not "ground feeding" birds per se.

    All birds will use an elevated feeder. The larger birds, with their larger feet and bodies, require large perches. Cardinals and doves will visit tube feeders, if you add a tray.

    And it's healthier for these songbirds to feed at a feeder, not on the ground. Any cage bird owner and zookeeper will tell you that the ground below bird roosts and feeders is not where you want your birds to dine. It's very difficult to sterilize the ground below your feeders.

    So resist the temptation to toss food on the ground. Put it in a feeder where it's dry and protected from contamination.

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    Birds Trapped in Feeders

    When they're nearly empty, some poorly designed bird feeders can actually lure the birds inside, where they become confused and may die in a panic. If you're going on vacation, never leave your feeder full. It's better to take it down, than take the chance that a bird will become trapped.

    Avoid clear plastic feeders with feeding ports an inch or larger in diameter. Chickadees will squeeze inside to get that last seed, and try to fly upward and out, forgetting the entrance is at the bottom. The same can happen in a wood hopper feeder with plastic walls tight to the roof.

    Squirrels

    Just about any yard that has trees, is a yard with squirrels. If you feed birds, sooner or later, squirrels will cause problems.

    Squirrels will eat your bird seed and, when they "feel" like it, damage your feeders.

    That is, unless you use safflower seed. Put it in any feeder. Hang it anywhere. Squirrels don't seem to like safflower, yet.

    Who eats safflower? Cardinals, doves, chickadees, titmice and house finches.

    Want more bird variety? Use sunflower. Most seed eating birds favor it. The problem is, squirrels do too. If you want to use sunflower, put it in a squirrel-proof feeder.

    You can "squirrel-proof" any feeder by putting it on a pole with a baffle (the underside lathered with Vaseline and hot pepper) about ten feet from a squirrel-jumping off point.

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    Rodents

    Birds are attracted to sunflower because of its high oil content. Some of that oil saturates the shell. If you don't remove the spent shells, rodents are attracted to the smell.

    The obvious solution is to rake up the shells. An easier way to eliminate the shell problem is to use hulled sunflower (also known as sunflower hearts or chips).

    Storing Seed

    Regardless of which seed you use, store it in a metal garbage can in a cool, dry place. Seed will turn rancid when it sits in a hot garage or shed in the summer. To avoid insect infestations in warm weather, don't store more seed than you can use in a couple of weeks.

    Problems at the Bird Bath

    Water attracts more bird species than any feeder or nest box. Bird baths can become bird problems when they're too deep (small birds can drown in three inches of water) or dirty (birds drink, bathe and defecate at a bath).

    Hose out the bath daily and wash it with hot, soapy water at least once a week. Add liquid bleach to the soapy water to help kill algae and bacteria.

    Winter is the most important time to offer water. There's no easy way to keep water from freezing. Contrary to some reports in the popular media, glycerin and antifreeze will kill birds.

    The only way to keep water from freezing is to add an electric water warmer.

    Be careful with electricity and water. Use a UL (Underwriters Laboratory) listed warmer, and connect your appliance to a GFIC (ground-fault interrupt circuit) outdoor socket.

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    ADDITIONAL READING

    "Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage," edited by Robert Timm, 1983 Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service, Lincoln.

    "There's A Bat in the Attic and a Woodchuck in the Garden: Methods of Reducing Wildlife Problems in Suburban Homes and Yards" by Richard Patterson, 1985. Indian Creek Nature Center, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

    "The Birder's Handbook" by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye, 1988. Simon and Schuster, New York.

    "The Expert's Guide to Backyard Birdfeeding" by Bill Adler and Heidi Hughes, 1990. Crown Publishers, New York.

    "Backyard Bird Feeding," 1988. US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC 20240

    "Homes for Birds," 1990. US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC 20240.

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    Last updated: April 11, 2012