Grackles, blackbirds and starlings don’t like safflower

dark-eyed junco on tree branch

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed juncos have made their way to northwest Iowa to overwinter. Black-capped chickadees are flocking to feeders. White-breasted nuthatches are looking for nuts to get fat and ready for the cold.

Food is a constant necessity for birds to survive through Iowa winters. Their feathers are wonderful insulators, but the food is what produces a bird's metabolism, creating both heat and energy.

For their weight, birds require more food than any other vertebrate, except shrews. The smaller the bird, the more frequently it must eat.

(Find out more about Iowa's winter birds here.)

That's why it's important people help birds find food throughout the winter months. Plus, having bird feeders in just plain fun. In fact, birding ranks 15th on the list of the most popular outdoor activities, just below bicycling and spending time on the beach. About 85 million Americans enjoy observing, photographing or feeding wild birds.

(Read about fall migration and birding trek programs here.)

As weather cools in northwest Iowa, it's the perfect time to start thinking about feeding our winter birds. Songbirds like protected areas out of the wind, such as near a shrub or thicket of trees, with a sunny exposure. Having cover nearby also allows a quick escape from predators.

Hanging feeders at different heights and different spacing from each other will also draw in a wider variety of birds.

But what kind of feeder should you use? And what kind of seed? We'll cover a few different kinds of each that will draw in some of the most popular northwest Iowa birds.

oldfinch at a safflower feeder

Safflower: These seeds come from the annual safflower plant and are high in protein, fat and fiber. A variety of birds love this seed, including rose-breasted grosbeaks, cardinals, doves, goldfinches, blue jays, juncos and chickadees. Safflower has a bitter flavor and a unique shape that grackles, blackbirds and starlings typically avoid.

Black-oil sunflower: Sunflower seed is probably the most popular seed, and the black-oil seeds have a thin shell that easy for all seed-eating birds to crack. Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell that is more difficult for house sparrows and blackbirds to open. Black-oil sunflower is not quite as attractive as shelled seed, but it will not spoil as quickly as sunflower hearts or chips.

Nyjer or thistle seed: These black, needlelike seeds are a favorite of goldfinches, indigo buntings, pine siskins and common redpolls.

White proso millet: Ground-feeding birds love millet, and it's often scattered on the ground or put in low tray feeders. It will attract cardinals, juncos, native sparrows, blue jays and tanagers, in season.

Peanuts: Peanuts in the shell attract blue jays and woodpeckers, while shelled peanuts will also attract grosbeaks, nuthatches and juncos. However, shelled peanuts can harbor aflatoxins, so they must be kept dry and used up quickly.

Tree nuts: I am always amazed when we feed out tree nuts that the birds eat better than I do! Walnuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts --- nuts that didn't pass the muster for human consumption are treasured by juncos, cardinals, woodpeckers, nuthatches and blue jays. Throughout the winter, the nut feeder at the nature center is always attracting red-bellied, downy and hair woodpeckers as well as white-breasted nuthatches.

Suet: Suet cakes are made from rendered animal fat and usually have seeds, fruit or insects inside. The fat offers a great source of energy for birds. It will attract woodpeckers, flickers and nuthatches.

As for feeders, look for something that is a hopper style that won't need daily maintenance as well as one that is squirrel proof. Sunflower and safflower can fit in most "normal" feeders, then there are a few specific kinds for each kind of seed or that will attract certain kinds of birds.

spiral nyjer feederSpiral nyjer seed feeder: The small holes are perfect for nyjer or thistle seed so it doesn't spill out on the ground. Nyjer or thistle seed feeders usually have small perches for the smaller birds that will use them, and one with a spiral allows more birds to perch at the feeder. Finches will sometimes walk up and down from port to port instead of flying.

nuthatch at a nut feeder

Nut feeder: A feeder with large holes will allow nut-eaters easy places to land and remove larger seeds and nuts.

wreath feeder with three birds

Wreath feeder: This fits whole peanuts in the shell, but make sure to hang it away from main feeders to keep larger birds and squirrels at a distance.

platform feeder with various birds

Platform feeder: The screen on the bottom allows for chaff to blow away, and if it's placed near the ground it will draw juncos, doves and sparrows.

ed-bellied woodpecker at a suet feeder

Suet feeder: Put suet cakes in a cage-like feeder at least five feet from the ground, and ideally, close to a tree trunk. Most birds that enjoy suet are cling feeders that cling to tree trunks in search of insects.

bird at a window feeder

Window feeder: Some feeders will suction cup to a window so you can have up-close viewing.

To make your birding area even more inviting, put in a water source that is heated so it doesn't freeze over in the winter. Offer a variety of bird houses in your yard. Plant plenty of trees and shrubs for cover.

Anything that helps your little feathered friends get through the winter a little easier will be greatly appreciated.

I'm sure of it.


  1. Heather Wiese on August 28, 2019 at 9:48 am

    I decided to put out only safflower for awhile, at least until I get a caged feeder. The starlings are still all over it. They’re even clinging to my finch sock I have in a different part of the yard. I’m starting to hate these birds

  2. KATHLEEN on June 7, 2019 at 4:58 pm

    I live in WI and still having trouble with blackbirds, crows and grackles eating my birdseed. Today I put only safflower in the feeder. I did buy a tube feeder with metal guards all around it and no perches, but these guys are such wisenheimers that they have found a way to grab onto the lowest bar and still get their heads inside to eat. Is there some other way to keep these hogs our of my feeders?

    • kiley on June 10, 2019 at 8:21 am

      They are tricky. Usually cages that are small enough to allow in songbirds but keep out blackbirds is the only tried-and-true method.

    • sangeeta chakraborty on August 19, 2019 at 4:16 pm

      I hear you. In my backyard, nothing was protected from the onslaught of these blackbirds. When I removed all kinds of food except a thistle sock for my goldfinches, these hogs even clung to that sock and started eating nyjer. Finally I put a cage around my thistle sock and the tube feeder (bought the separately and it has a slot for the feeder hanger to pass through). the cage mesh is a square with a gap of 1.5inches. Do not buy anything bigger than that as the birds can squeeze half way through it and reach the feeding port. in my case, they still try to squeeze through the 1.5 in opening but get stuck around the shoulder and then give up.

  3. Karl Fliris on April 26, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    This past winter, I used suet feeders that held the suet facing the ground (with solid roof on top) to keep grackles from devoring it. Guess what? The grackles learned to hang upside down, just like the woodpeckers. I’m not sure if a more adaptive bird exists. A great article. Thanks for the tips

    • Erika on June 8, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      I’m horrified, but slightly amazed they outwitted an upside down suet feeder. They aren’t supposed to be that agile.

      • Joanne on March 6, 2020 at 7:28 pm

        I have learned that the Starlings will eat from an upside down suet feeder. They can’t stay in the upside down position as long as a Woodpecker but they can do it.

        I just read another article that suggested putting a squirrel baffle above the suet feeder. The article says Starlings are reluctant to go under the baffle. Guess I will be trying that tomorrow.

  4. Annabelle on November 5, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    thanks for the tips !!!!!!
    love what you wrote !