Last weekend was the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, an effort to get folks all over North America to take note of the birds in their yards. This can be a big bump in bird feeding, might as well keep those feeders topped to pump up the number of species that you can record. I have a delicate tap dance at my feeders. I live in an apartment building in a very urban section of Minneapolis (I live in Uptown, which is where you go to get pierced, tattooed and have a fancy meal).

I’m not supposed to feed birds, but because we moved in and the previous owners of the building allowed it and we have a tendency to pay rent on time and act as mediator with noisy neighbors, management lets me get away with it. They periodically suggest that I use seed that is “less messy” but for the most part, the building manager turns a blind eye to the lack of grass beneath my window since we are in the back.

Because I live so close to downtown, my top three feeder guests are non-natives, particularly the bad boy in the above photo: the European Starling. I took this photo with my WingScapes Bird Cam. Alas, when you get starlings to a feeder, you don’t get just one starling.

You tend to get a butt load at a time. This ever vigilant flock had caught wind that I was putting out peanuts out of the shell on my window ledge and swooped in to gobble them up. The intended treat was for nuthatches and chickadees, but starlings will snarf these up faster than your average vacuum cleaner. When that happens, I return to my original choice of food to offer birds: black-oil sunflower seed.

Check out this photo of a starling on my ledge. Note the beak action going on there? Starlings will use that bill opening technique to move debris covering a food source or to open soil and expose worms and other insects. They are very good at opening their beaks. However, they have a soft insectivor type beak and cannot crack open hard shell seeds. By offering only seed in the shell like black-oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower and even white millet you can avoid starlings. It is physically impossible for starlings to open those seeds. If you see a starling at a feeder with those seeds, they are using that bill opening technique to sift hard shelled seeds out of their way and search for seed hearts. They usually give up and leave the feeder alone.

This is a photo I digiscoped. Here the starling is all over this Droll Yankee feeder chock full of peanuts out of the shell. They will also chow down on sunflower hearts and cracked corn–no cracking, just swallowing. All of those are seeds that my building manager would like me to offer because they will not leave a mess under my feeders. But if it’s a choice between avoiding starlings or lack of shells under my feeder, I’ll take avoiding starlings every time.

Most of my other birds totally dig the black oil sunflower seeds like these two White-breasted Nuthatches as do chickadees, titmice, finches, cardinals and jays are all capable of cracking open a hard shell. So, I will keep the sunflower going for at least the next month…when the grackles arrive, this game changes. They have a hard beak and they can crack open a shell. That will involve a new strategy.

Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog,, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.