Background Switcher (Hidden)

Snob Feeding

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A suet dough fan at the back deck (female eastern bluebird). I post these just to show you that I am capable of taking a decent bird picture.
Blue jays are prone to gobbling great quantities of dough, but I don't mind it. They're just bearing it away to cache it for later. Sometimes I give them the bum's rush when I think they've taken enough. But I adore them and they know it. Well, that's enough of good bird photos. On to the crappy ones.

It's that time of winter, when the cold clamps down and supplies of natural bird food are dwindling. As I write, the temperature is plunging through the twenties, despite brilliant sun and blue sky. Tonight's going to be in the single digits, brrrr!

When the ground freezes, European starlings come in hordes to my feeders. I am an unrepentant snob when it comes to feeding good suet dough to starlings. Hence my newly coined term, "Snob feeding." If the starlings would just take a little food and leave, like all the rest of the birds do, that would be fine. But starling style (dare I call it Eurostyle?) is to descend in a pack of a dozen or more, crowd, squabbling, into the dish, and vacuum up every bit of food. Before they depart, they unload the foul contents of their caecums into the food dish for me to clean up. (No, clearly I dare not.) What doesn't go into the dish goes all over our front stoop. They sit all day in the sumac on our north border and watch for me to put out more food, and they try to beat the bluebirds, Carolina wrens, cardinals, titmice and woodpeckers to it. Usually, they succeed. If starlings weren't exotic birds, and so aggressive and abundant, I'd probably put up with their gluttony. But the filth they leave everywhere puts me over the edge.

Making suet dough is enough work, especially when I'm mixing up the recipe times ten, that this starling problem had to be addressed. So, taking the advice I hand out so freely to others, I got out my so-called "bluebird feeders" and once again tried to make them work to everyone's advantage but the starlings'.

This Plexi-sided feeder has proven to be an unequivocal flop. It's a great looking feeder, a nice concept, and I'm sure that somewhere on Planet Earth, there are happy bluebirds and chickadees going in and out of a feeder just like this one. However...I've been trying to entice birds to use it for five years now, and I have never had a single bird, blue or otherwise, enter it via the entrance holes in each side. Cardinals perch on the side railings and peer forlornly at the dough locked within. Chances that a cardinal would enter a hole are nil, anyway. Carolina wrens peek and lean in, occasionally snagging a morsel. I think it's because it looks like some kind of trap. It's been hanging up for two weeks now, stuffed with suet dough, and the most action it's gotten is a pair of tufted titmice, perching and peeking in one hole. But as bold and innovative as titmice are, neither one has dared enter. One year I put it out and found the same results after a couple of weeks. So I opened up the hinged top, and birds would hop down inside it to get suet dough. But that defeats the purpose, which is to exclude birds that can't enter a 1 1/2" hole. So I reluctantly give this feeder an F, and will consign it to eternity.

This little feeder is somewhat more successful. The principle is that it excludes all birds that can't or won't enter through the 1 1/2" square wire mesh holes. It's a little more user friendly, since the bird doesn't have to squeeze through a hole and enter a completely enclosed area. After a couple of days of sitting unused, a pair of Carolina wrens and a couple of titmice learned to use it. The starlings also figured out that if they stuck their heads inside and stretched their necks all the way out they could vacuum up all the suet dough. Putting the dough in a small plastic dish in the center solved this. But a problem remained: Cardinals, woodpeckers, juncoes and the bluebirds I was trying to entice refused to go inside. In past years I've had bluebirds enter this feeder successfully. It's a matter of giving them time to get used to it. So this feeder was marginally successful, but nothing to write home about, because it's just too small all around to completely defeat the starlings. I often wonder if feeder manufacturers bother to give prototypes to people like me who can test them before going into production. Apparently not, in many cases. The small size of most feeders available today has to do not with utility or efficacy, but solely with whether or not they'll fit on store shelves. Starlings have a reach of more than three inches by just stretching their necks, and this little feeder encloses an area about 9 x 9". So there's a three-inch "safe zone" at the very center of the inside. Hmmph.
There had to be some other solution, given that the "bluebird feeders" I have are both failures, from a number of standpoints.

I decided to use the starling's natural (and well-founded) fear of humans to my advantage. I'd feed suet dough only when I was in the kitchen to watch it. This is easy enough to do, since I'm in the kitchen for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple in the evening, fixing lunches and breakfasts, cooking dinner. I put my birdbath pedestal on top of my bonsai bench, which stands just beneath the kitchen window. I put the suet dough dish on top of that, neatly bringing it up to window level. This is a great arrangement, since the whole affair is under the eave, which keeps the food dry. The dish is snugged right up against the kitchen window, which means that I am about two feet away from it. And I make a terrific scarecrow.Tufted titmice are usually the first to try anything around here. They're inquisitive, smart, and bold. But even the juncoes and song sparrows are becoming accustomed to the new arrangement.My first Carolina chickadee at the new location. Yes, it's me. The Dough Lady. You know me. Don't look so spooked.At first, the birds all avoided the dish, but I was patient. I knew that my true friends would come to accept it if I would only wait. At first, they only came in ones and twos, and only when I was out of the kitchen. About ten days into it, I'm delighted to report that most of the birds are now using the "snob feeder" when I'm in the kitchen, especially if the kitchen lights are off. Titmice and cardinals will come when I'm standing right at the window, and the bluebirds are rapidly acclimating to me as well. Hey, it's not like they don't know who I am. These are the same birds that stare me down, begging shamelessly, when I'm writing in the tower. They know darn well who I am, and they know that I'm the person who puts the dough out for them. And they're cool with it. We're friends.
I really like it when the bluebirds feel comfortable enough to turn their backs on me. That is something I can assure you the starlings NEVER do. A subtle refinement of this new system is to pile the suet dough on the side of the dish nearest the window, so the birds have to come right up against the glass to feed. The starlings don't like that, and I have seen only one house sparrow venture on this feeder. That's saying something.

The starlings are not cool with feeding two feet away from me. I make horrible faces and lunge at them should they be so bold. This photo was taken while I was standing well back from the window in the darkened kitchen, and just a millisecond before I yelled BLAAA! and waved my arms. The starlings didn't come back for the rest of the morning. I have to laugh, because when I drive up from being in town, the "snob feeder" is full of starlings. They know when I'm away and take that opportunity to clean up all the food. But they're decidedly uncomfortable with eating in front of me. They get strong negative reinforcement when they dare. And I actually have suet dough left in the dish at dusk.

For now, two weeks into it, this is working well. I get ridiculously close looks at all my favorite birds. They get good food, unmolested by starlings. I don't have to wash the dish twice a day. My suet dough output has gone from over a pound a day to about 1/3 pound. That's as it should be. What's the sense of putting expensive, labor-intensive bird food out and not hanging around to see who eats it? When you think about it, it makes sense to feed a premium food like this in a highly structured way, at the same time of day. That way, the birds you want to attract learn when it's available, and the birds you don't want have to lump it, because you're there guarding it. The system is based on snobbery, on the natural spookiness of starlings, and on the bond of trust I've built with the birds I feed. Snob feeding.
Action like this right by your kitchen window is its own reward. I know these pictures are awful, but it was the darkest rainy day ever, and I haven't had a chance to get up and clean the outside glass. I just had to show you what all goes on now outside my window as I'm cooking and washing dishes. As you can see, sunny days are worse yet for photography! This is a bluebird with a cardinal. Check out the hind toe length on this white-breasted nuthatch. Nice hook to hang by.How nice to see Mr. Redbelly conquer his shyness! Help yourself! We're all friends here at Birdie Cheers.
If you're around at predictable times a day, and you're having trouble with starlings eating all your good Zick dough,** you might want to try something like this. A large, high-quality cage excluder feeder is a good place to start. But it's really rewarding to train the birds you like most to trust you and eat in your presence. And they'll like you, and trust you right back.

**There. I wrote it. I still have to suppress a startled "Waaak!" when I see people I've never met calling it Zick Dough on their blogs. I keep forgetting that we're all out there, introducing ourselves, every day.


Hi Julie, I made a nice big batch of your dough last weekend, and the birds just keep a comin' to my two windowsill feeders. I agree with what you wrote though..It makes no sense to put out the dough if I can't be there to watch the birds eat it. I chased a grackle away today too...much to the relief of the cardinals, titmice, and chickadees who were waiting.

What a rewarding sight for all your hard work.
Those bluebird faces are precious--I still haven't a single one!

That closeness is the best part of the set-up.

Dear Julie,

First, your bird photos are never bad. I fell in love with the red-bellied peeking into your kitchen. How sweet!

Secondly, you must be reading my mind. I've had enough of starling poop and cleaning up after their Zick dough feast. Oh, they know when it comes out. Every day at 4:30pm. They wait. And I watch. I have it everywhere - in cups and dishes, on the ground for the sparrows and cardinals. About 1/2 pound a day. What really made me burst into laughter was this:

"I make horrible faces and lunge at them should they be so bold."

I do worse than that - I run outside like a mad woman. The other birds only nod and continue their feast but the starlings hit the road.

I like your "snob feeder" idea. If I had a window over my kitchen sink, I'd to do same.

Loved, loved, loved this post. Do you serve it in the spring when the ground thaws?


I am a snob-feeder, too. I don't like House Sparrows, but I really, really HATE starlings.

I use a "bluebird" feeder and a caged feeder, but that keeps out the cardinals, mockingbirds, and red-bellied woodpeckers, so I put some dough on a platform feeder when I can be there to police it.

It took years for my birds to learn the "bluebird" feeder. This is how I finally got them into it. I started with both Plexiglas sides off, and mealworms in a dish in the center. I put it right next to their nest box. After they started using that, I added one side, then later another.

Last year, I had bluebirds and wrens going in and out all day long, for the dough. Starlings learned to lean in and drag the glass dish closer, so I added a piece of one of those mats you put under a throw rug, to prevent it from slipping.

Later, I got a young male downy in that feeder, but he got stuck a couple of times, which worried me.

This year, the only bird using that feeder is the DOWO, and he is remodeling the entrance holes, from the inside out. I think this is the last season for that feeder.

The cage feeder is on my blog. It is designed to hold two commercial suet blocks. I put one block in and fill the other side with dough. I have titmice, song sparrows, downies, and nuthatches in that one. I have only seen my BB couple once each since Jan.1, and I haven't had a Carolina Wren in a year, sadly.

The starlings still stretch to get the crumbs around the edges, but it works pretty well.

I am always fascinated by how the birds respond when I pound on the window. The starlings flee instantly. The others either don't leave at all, or don't go far. It is as if they understand what all the screaming is about.

Oh, yes - My dogs also respond to my shriek of "STARLINGS!" and run around barking and going generally crazy, helping to chase away the vermin.

At least you don't have the neighbor's Guinea Fowl coming around daily to steal bird food!


Great post and great tips. Like Kathi my dogs are on complete squirrel and starling alert. They stand at full attention all day in front of the big backyard sliding glass doors right next to my desk.

When the population of either gets too heavy on the feeders - they suddenly become sufi mystics, whirling dervishes twirling and swirling around the office and making the most ungodly like guttural sounds that raise the hair on every inch of my body -- until I slide the door open. And then there is just vapor where their physical doggie bodies once stood. What's really odd, the minute the dogs go after the squirrels or leap at the starlings - the goldfinches and the wrens are now trained and they come sailing in for the catch without a care for the dogs. They have got the system down. Now I notice once the dogs have stopped pursuit - the robins flock back in where the starlings once were just feet from the dogs. There is some weird stuff going on between the dogs and the birds. I believe my dogs have become "snob" dogs - allowing only the most endemic of species to cohabitate in the backyard.

I always love seeing the many great birds at your feeder and without the zick dough is a fave to everyone (us birders and birdies)

Hi Julie,
I’m proud to say that I am a “snob feeder” as well! I feel your pain in dealing with the starlings. They can really make a big mess and clean out a feeder in a hurry. I have learned to use safflower seed in my main seed feeder. The starlings tend to not like the safflower seed while most of the other songbirds do. Then I use a cage tube feeder filled with sunflower seeds for the smaller songbirds (note, cage is the key word in that sentence). As for the bluebirds I use what’s called a “Dinner Bell” feeder ( This feeder works well because the top dome can be adjusted to lower down which closes the gap between the dome and the feed tray. This keeps the big birds out while bluebirds and other smaller birds can get in. It works best if you gradually lower the dome down over a period of a few days so that the bluebirds and others become acclimated on how to enter it. Once it’s low enough to keep the starlings out your set. I too have tried the bluebird feeders with the entrance holes on both ends without much success.

Where can I find your dough recipe? I’ve tried various store bought suets for my bluebirds, but they normally turn up their noses to it. Maybe its because I have them spoiled on mealworms – lol!

Also, on a different subject – I just recently found your blog/website and have enjoyed looking at your artwork. You are very talented to say the least. I too enjoy painting. It’s hard to find the time for me to do it as much as I would like, but I fit it in when I can. I have some of my art work posted on my new blog. If you get a chance stop by and let me know what you think.


LOL... snob feeding! I just love your descriptions Julie! I feel exactly the same way, and thankfully (gone to find some wood to knock on), I've not had to deal with the starlings at my feeders yet, but if I was, I'd do the same thing. I am on my second bluebird feeder and the bluebirds here don't seem to want to go in either, but at my other house, they loved that feeder. I'll dig up some photos and send you. Keep on snobbing dearie... we're with you.

Dear Alan,

Thanks for your kind words. I'll check out your blog and art! Check my January '08 archives for a post called "Whatcha Doin' Up There?"for a recipe for the suet dough. The URL is

The trick in transitioning bluebirds from mealworms to suet dough is to cut the number of worms you put out until there are only enough for three per bird. Mix suet dough in with them and they will inevitably gobble dough with worms. They'll figure out it's good stuff and you're set. I have good evidence, through my own errors, to believe that feeding mealworms all winter is a bad idea for bluebirds; they nest too early and try to raise too many broods. I do not recommend mealworms as more than an occasional treat or bad-weather supplement for bluebirds. They're invaluable in those summer periods of steady cold rain, to keep broods alive, and great for bringing birds in initially, but I believe suet dough to be the safer food as a winter staple.

Jess in C-bus here! Bought a bluebird feeder approx 2-3 weeks ago, upon your suggestion, for the same problem. Dang Starlings!! My 2 carolina wrens JUST figured it out yesterday and spent a good 10 minutes hanging out inside the bluebird feeder (the kind with the holes on the side). Still waiting for the chickadees or other small birds to figure it out. here's to snob feeding!! -jess :)

Dear Jess,

Giggle--don't be too surprised if your wrens eat up the suet dough and then start stuffing the thing with leaves and twigs! I LOVE Carolina wrens because they're always planning ahead.

Even as I complained about the cage feeder being too small, I believe the problem with my plexi-sided feeder is that it's too big--there's too great a distance between the two entrance holes on the ends. I've had some success with small, short plexi-sided feeders--one in particular that's no bigger than a small bluebird house, has two entry holes on either side. Everybody went in and out of that one until it rotted away. I'd like to find another like it. Jayne, your looks good from the picture you sent me.

I was thinking of you as I wrote this post, Jess, because here I was giving out advice, and not taking it! So our correspondence prompted the whole thing. Thank you!

I made some Zick dough this weekend and built a feeder platform too.... So far there has been little action on either, but birds are creatures of habit and I realize it will take time before they feel comfortable.

Like you I am proud to report that I am not only a snob feeder I am also a snob landlord! It's ironic that I evict foreigners (House Sparrows, Eurpoean Starlings etc)when I am one myself ;-)

I've been using the Droll Yankee
X-1 adjustable dome feeder for my "Zick's Dough". The Bushits, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and a couple of Warblers all come to it and it keeps the Starlings out. I guess I'm a snob too.

Thanks for the link to the “Zick’s Suet Dough” and the advise on how to break my bluebirds from the mealworms. Overtime, mealworms can be rather expensive unless you raise your own, and for some reason my wife doesn’t want me to raise them - cant really understand why…ha ha! Normally I put out a small handful every other day; and your right, it does bring them in close. I’m going to slowly wean them from the worms and get them going on this suet mix. As you said, they will be better off, and I will too!

PS. Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I responded to it in my blog.

Have a good one,


I am blessed, in Far Northern Wisconin, to have no starlings, but the squirrels are a constant problem. I can't believe how much dough they can eat.

Is that dome type feeder a good one for keeping out squirrels? I can see that it prevent them from jumping on it from above, but how about from the side?

Hi Julie,
Could you take that little bluebird feeder with the plexi sides and replace those sides with a wire mesh like your other bluebird feeder? I have a bluebird feeder with those plexiglass sides and no birds ever went inside mine either.

I have an intense dislike of starlings also, but have weakened during these sub-zero days and let them pick around a bit on my suet and peanuts (it doesn't help that they're smart enough to figure out when I'm at work all day too--when I get home I find their "evidence" under the feeders they like best). Once it gets a little warmer, my trap will be put into service again....

Dear Ruthie,

Mesh on that plexi feeder would do no good, since starlings could simply cling to the sides and clean it out. They have a reach of about 3" with just neck and bill.
I'm intrigued by the hanging plexi dome feeders as described. I'm going to try one. Thanks, Jayne!


If you see a sudden rise in the usage of "Zick Dough" in PA, it's because I used the phrase (with generous linkage to a bunch of your dough posts for temptation's sake) in a PA listserve post--answering another lister's call for suet recipes. tee hee!

Next goal: The Oxford English Dictionary!

[Back to Top]