Build a Grackle-Proof Bird Feeder

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This bird feeder is for lighter weight breeds — anything up to a cardinal. Any time a critter as heavy as a grackle lands on the perch, a door falls, closing off the feed.
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The spikes prevent acrobatic squirrels from robbing the feeder from the counterweighted perch.
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A side view of the feeder shows the counterweight mechanism.

I love watching birds, so a few years ago I set three bird feeders out in the yard near our house and was soon playing host to a delightful variety of winged visitors. Cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches flitted about the stations regularly, a dozen or more sparrows actually set up residence nearby, and every evening a redheaded woodpecker would stop in for supper.

All went well for my feathered friends and me, until the grackles came.

At first only a few of the noisy jay-sized fowl arrived, but soon squadrons of the gluttonous raiders — 20, 30, and even 40 at a crack — were swooping down on the feeders and helping themselves to enormous quantities of grain. My immediate response was to resent the invasions, then almost as quickly I felt guilty about my reaction. After all, I had set out the devices to attract “warmblooded vertebrates with feathers and forelimbs modified as wings.” Like it or not, the blackbirds qualified.

However, my guilt was short-lived, and soon gave way to annoyance — and then rage — as the size of the hordes and the frequency of their visits increased. They quickly tripled my weekly feed bills and, worse yet, frightened away virtually all of my other winged visitors. Only the quick, nervy sparrows dared to dart in (on those rare occasions when the grackles were gone) to snitch a few bites from what had become the blackbirds’ private hoard.

Enough was enough! In an attempt to solve the problem, I took down two of the feeders — a platform type and a trough-style model — and shortened the perches on the remaining cylinder feeder so that only the daintier backyard birds could get both feet on it. The ruse worked … for about a day and a half. Although the big bandits had to spend some time getting a grip on the problem, they soon learned to grasp the sawed-off perch with one claw and to flap the opposite wing to maintain their balance, while they fed … and fed … and fed.

By that time, I (who had never owned a firearm) found myself reading shotgun ads and wondering where I could find a recipe for “four and twenty blackbird pie.” Reason prevailed, however, in the form of a flash of inspiration: If I couldn’t turn their size against them (those 747’s of backyard “bird-dom”), maybe I could use their weight to force them off the dole. Hmmmmm….

The unusual-looking feeder I’ve built is the result of that concept and its evolution over the course of a summer spent conducting experiments with anti-grackle gadgetry. The station’s counterbalanced perch is connected by levers to a gate that, when the rod is depressed, automatically closes over and blocks the feed opening. If a bird that weighs more than the feeder’s 2 1/2-ounce limit lands on the perch  — click! — the door drops down tight!

Now I realize my invention looks like something Rube Goldberg might have designed, but so what? This is the weapon that won the Great Grackle War!

The contraption worked so well, in fact, that I made a few more and gave them to friends. When they, in turn, told their acquaintances, I got more requests for the feeders than I could possibly fulfill. I was hailed by one and all as a genius, a title I blushingly accepted until I discovered that I wasn’t the first person to figure out a way to tip the scales against grackles. It seems there’s a comparable feeder already on the market. The design’s different, but it uses the same counterbalanced perch principle!

Nevertheless, I still take a good deal of satisfaction in knowing that for under $10, I conceived and put together a bird feeder that would have cost several times as much if it had been bought from a store. I suspect there are a lot of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers out there who’d gain a similar feeling of accomplishment from duplicating the project — and who enjoy small birds (and dislike gangs of greedy ones) as much as I do. So here’s a step-by-step guide to the construction of your own counterbalanced “bye-bye blackbird” feeder.

Materials and Tools

First, you’ll need to locate the following:

[1] one 8′-long pine 1 x 8
[2] one 1/8″ x 1/2″ (or 3/4″) x 6′ aluminum bar (Actually, you need only about 3′ of bar for this project … but hardware stores generally offer the item only in 6′ lengths. Also, the 3/4″ size is more commonly available, but some firms do carry 1/2″ bar. If there’s an aluminum products company in your area, you may want to try that source first.)
[3] one piece of 6-gauge x 4″ x 10″ brass sheet (it’s available at most hobby and hardware stores)
[4] one 3/32″ x 12″ brass rod (same source as item 3)
[5] two 1/2″ x 8-32 bolts, with nuts
[6] six 1″ x 8-32 bolts, with nuts
[7] one 2″ butt hinge, with screws
[8] 6d finishing nails
[9] four 8-32 tee nuts
[10] metal washers (for the counterweights)

In addition to these materials, you’ll need a variety of tools: tinsnips for cutting the sheet metal, a hacksaw, a drill with several sizes of bits, a power saw (table, radial, or handheld circular) for cutting the lumber and making bevels, and a hammer, a screwdriver, and some pliers. You should also locate either a soldering iron and solder, or a couple of feet of small-gauge steel wire.

Feeder Construction

I’ve attempted to simplify the directions that follow by breaking down the process into individual steps, and by keying the pieces alphabetically to the Bird Feeder Assembly Diagrams. You’ve heard of “paint by number”? Well, here’s “build by letter”!

Step 1. Cut the 1 x 8 pine board into the following components (keep in mind that 1 X 8 dressed lumber actually measures 3/4″ x 71/4″):

[A] one 6″ x 7 1/4″ (back)
[B] one 1 1/2″ x 6″ (front sill)
[C] one 3 1/4″ x 4 1/2″ (front)
[D] two 5 1/2″ x 7 1/4″ (sides)
[E] one 4 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ (bottom)
[F] one 7 1/4″ x 13 1/8″ (roof)
[G] one 7 1/4″ x 14″ (roof)
[H] two 6″ x 6″ x 6 1/8″ triangles (gables)
[I] one 3/8″ x 6 1/2″ (perch)
[J] one 4 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ (feed flow)
[K] one 4 1/2″ x 4 3/4″ (feed control)

Step 2. Nail the following parts together, in the order listed: A, D, D, B, C, E.

Step 3. Crosscut the ends of roof pieces F and G to a 60° bevel, and nail the two boards together.

Step 4. Nail one gable (H) flush to the rear of the roof.

Step 5. Place the remaining gable piece upright on—and flush with—the front of the feeder body. Then lower the roof onto this piece—making sure that the rear gable is aligned with the back of the body (A)-and, while pressing down on the roof to hold the triangle in place, nail through F and G into the front gable. (You may want to drill pilot holes through F and G before nailing H, to minimize movement of the gable while you’re hammering.)

Step 6. Center and attach the butt hinge to the rear gable and A.

Step 7. Crosscut the ends of the feed flow component (J) to a 45° bevel, then insert the piece in the feeder and nail it in place.

Step 8. Nail the feed control (K) inside the feeder body to the back of, and flush with the top of, the front (C).

Step 9. Cut and drill two sets of the three bars (M, N, and O).

Step 10. Drill two 7/32″ holes in both sides (D) of the feeder.

Step 11. Cut the brass feeder-gate sheet to measure 3″ x 6″. Scribe a guideline centered lengthwise across the piece, and either spot solder or wire the brass rod to the sheet, in the position indicated by the line. If you’re wiring the rod in place, drill a hole in the gate on either side of the bar at each end and in the middle of the brass sheet. For each pair of perforations, insert a short loop of wire through the back of the gate and twist its ends together over the rod in front.

Step 12. Assemble the sets of bars (M, N, O) by attaching M to O with a 1/2″ bolt and nut, and N to O with a 1″ bolt and nut. (Bar O should be outside bars M and N

Step 13. Now, position a tee nut in each of the holes on the right side (D) of the feeder body, and attach one set of bars (M, N, O) in place using 1″ bolts. Insert an end of the gate rod through the hole in the end of bar N.

Step 14. Before you fasten the remaining set of bars to the left side (D) of the feeder, body, run the other end of the gate rod through the appropriate hole in the second bar N. Install the left bars (M, N, O) just as you did those on the right.

Step 15. Next, cut or file notches that are about 1/8″ deep and 1/2″ wide (assuming you’re using a 1/2″ aluminum bar) into the ends of the perch (I) to accommodate the M bars on either side, and attach the pieces with No. 8 x 1/2″ wood screws.

Step 16. Nail a small scrap of wood (I used a little 1″ equilateral triangle; it’s component L in the illustrations) to the outside top of the front (C), to serve as a stop for the gate.

Step 17. Now, you’re getting to the good part! Counterbalance the gate by attaching metal washers to the 1″ bolts that join bars O and N on each side of the feeder. By hanging a combination of one 3/8″, one 3/4″, and three 7/8″ washers on both the right and the left bolts, you’ll achieve a “perch activation pressure” of about 2 1/2 ounces; in other words, any bird up to cardinal size will be able to dine freely at your feeder, but any critter heavier than that will cause the brass door to shut tight. And, of course, you can increase (or decrease) the pressure required to close the gate simply by attaching more (or fewer) washers.

Step 18. Install an “enforcer.” This is an optional measure (not illustrated), to be employed only if you encounter the same problem I did shortly after mounting my feeder on its metal pole: squirrels. The bushy-tailed rodents quickly discovered that, although they couldn’t crack the “cookie jar” by sitting on the perch, they could climb to the roof and use their front paws to scoop up all the food they wanted while hanging from the peak by their hind legs. In response, I devised the “enforcer”: a row of nails (the nails are about 1/4″ apart) driven upward through the underside of the roof’s overhanging edge. So far, the bristles have been sufficiently fiendish-looking to keep the squirrels away from the feeder.

Step 19. Enjoy, enjoy! Attracting birds to your back yard can be fascinating. In return for your protecting their food supply from robber hordes, and for keeping their feeder well stocked (especially during the harsh winter months), your new-found neighbors will bring into your life a wonderful sampling of nature’s color and diversity.

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