I’ve been watching the starling parents fly back and forth with tiny beaks crammed full of mealworm. Just enough to pop into one hungry mouth I would guess and then they are back again and off again and back again; like trying to fill a jug with a pipette. If only birds had pockets they could return to the nest and pose like Fagin while all the little chaps rummaged through their under wing compartments to claim a prize. The crows don’t have pockets either, but they do appear to have beaks like an expanding suitcase. They can cram and cram some more in their attempt to carry off the swag. Guess they have bigger mouths to feed when they get back home.
After a few weeks the starling chicks become mobile and follow mum and dad to the best little restaurant in town. This makes things a whole lot easier. The starling babies sit in patient rows along the fence or on top of the shed while the parents raid the feeders below. They return to their own chicks and drop the food inside a gaping beak before instantly returning for more. The food doesn’t even touch the sides, straight down and ready to go. I noticed that when the parents returned with a few mealworm or tasty fat ball pieces they took the time to find their own offspring. They would call between clenched beaks until they locate their own little hatchling; while the babies are not nearly so fussy and approach any adult bearing food. I suppose your DNA survival depends on you bringing your own brood into adulthood, so that they in turn can mate, whereas from a youngster’s point of view all food is good food.
The morning is bedlam, a commuter rush of early feeders all jostling for a space at the table. By the afternoon the pace has slowed, but the fat balls are just melted snowballs and the seed feeders have been picked bare. Around this time the small birds arrive, the blue tits, great tits, robins and sparrows. They are not good in the cut and thrust of competitive eating. They prefer to take their time, check out the buffet and wipe their beaks along the branches of the tree, much in the way you might polish your cutlery before enjoying a meal. The only problem with slow and steady is that it doesn’t win the day. Virtually all the food has gone and they are forced to pick tiny scraps from the bars of the fat ball feeders. Consequently they don’t stay in the garden for long.
I have tried all kinds of small feeders to stop the starlings and crows from cleaning up. Teensy dishes and doughnut feeders with tiny claw grips, but the big guys soon learn to feed by hanging from the sides, supporting themselves with humming bird style wing flaps. If I went out in the early afternoon to top up the trays, the other birds seemed instantly to know and back they would all swoop for afters. Then I hit on the idea of using the cage. I had a cage feeder in the shed which had been universally shunned, but I decided to try it again with insect embedded suet pellets and a mealworm combo. I knew that the small birds were feeding young and would appreciate a protein hit like this. Bingo – it worked. The blue tit was the first to venture in. Sheer bravado or possibly sheer hunger took him straight through the bars of the cage to take his pick. The sparrow was the next to try, but held onto the outside bars of the cage and just poked his head inside at first. Going into a cage must be daunting, no matter how tasty the treats on offer. Over the next few days they all became more confident, the robin being the last to get the hang of it. I put the cage feeders well away from the bustle of the main feeding station. The small birds could come and go now without the obstruction of a starling or crow to navigate. I saw the sparrow family feeding their young and the blue tits also brought off-spring, one chick at a time.
Fired up by my success I decided to get a caged fat ball feeder as a side order. The first one was unfortunately too narrow and the starlings soon learnt to crane their necks through the bars and nibble at the edges. I had to re-order and find one with bars set further apart. Both caged feeders now confound and confuse the starlings who try hanging in each and every way to get to the food inside. When all the other feeders are empty it must be sheer torture for them. They are forced to sit below to wait for the small birds who slip with ease between the bars and toss down tiny scraps. Like the most discerning shoppers, the small birds don’t take the first thing that comes to beak. They like to rummage through and fly off with a premium morsel. The waiting starlings snap up all the fallen scraps. How the tables have turned. Before the caged feeders arrived the starlings barely gave the small sparrows and blue tits the time of day, regularly sitting on their heads if they managed to find a way to the front of the feeder queue. Now the little guys can lord it up, popping back and forth for a snack any time of day.
With a constant supply of food I have been rewarded by regular visits from robins, blue tits, great tits and sparrows. I think that after three years I have finally achieved a restaurant service to satisfy all comers. Now all I need is five star approval from Simon King, the wildlife guru. Think I might send him an email.