Bully

February 24, 2022

This morning we had a lull in the ice storm that hit our state yesterday.  I noticed there was no action on my feeders and assumed they had filled with ice.  I went cautiously out on the ice sheet covering our patio and sure enough, the feeders had a 2-inch (5 cm) sheet of ice covering the seed the birds had not been able to salvage before the storm began.  The ice filled several of the feeders to the brim.  I was unable to remove the solid blocks of ice, so I decided to just put new seed on top.  It was not more than two minutes when 25-30 birds showed up to attack the feeders or the seed that spilled off the ice onto the ground.  Usually, the different species fuss among themselves and the larger birds bully the smaller ones.  The birds today all concentrated on getting as much seed as they could before the storm retuned.

When I looked online, I found birds at a feeder display dominance and even bully other birds.  Three dominance-related behaviors happen at a feeder.  Displacement occurs when one bird leaves to get out of the way of another bird or when one bird waits nearby for another bird to finish eating.  Within a species males tend to dominate females and older birds dominate younger ones.  At feeders, larger birds tend to dominate smaller ones.  Threat displays are used when the dominant bird does not displace the subordinate.  Examples are the bill-up display of the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) or the wing-spread display of the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).  Subordinate birds make appeasement displays by de-emphasizing their size or by leaning or looking away from a newly arrived bird, often while crouching or folding their wings.  When the dominant bird leaves, the subordinate bird will resume its normal posture.  Several dominant species will also bully other birds at the feeders.

Feeder bully birds are often those that are highly social and feed in flocks, as well as larger, more aggressive species.  Examples are the Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), and Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) who are often found intermixed together in flocks.  One or two of these birds at your feeders does not imply a bully problem, but when the flocks grow and the feeders are crowded, other birds will have difficulty feeding and the bully can take over completely.  In a flock, you eat fast, or you do not eat at all.

THOUGHTS:  Another bully we have on our feeders is the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).  The jays drive other birds away from our squirrel feeder and then pick their way through the corn, sunflower seed, and peanuts I tried to use to keep squirrels out of the other feeders (it does not work).  When a squirrel does find this feeder, he ignores the jay.  While some people are like the squirrel and find it easy to ignore a bully, others find it more difficult.  According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in 4,400 US deaths per year, and for every suicide there are at least 100 attempts.  Being a bully is not child’s play.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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