In W. L Dawson’s 1903 book, The Birds of Ohio he said, “Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow.”
I’ve been passive-aggressive in my pursuit to expel House Sparrows from my area’s. I’ve not resorted to capture, but I’ve changed my feeder habits.
Male (left) & Female House Sparrows
The English or House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), is one of the most familiar, widespread birds in the world. The problem is House Sparrows are also invasive birds to North America that disrupt native bird species. House Sparrows should not be confused with any of our numerous native sparrows such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow or Song Sparrow (Go HERE for a complete list of Midwestern native sparrows). Many birders learn how to discourage House Sparrows in order to invite a more diverse range of bird species to their yards and to protect other species threatened by the House Sparrow’s aggression.
Some House Sparrow History
The House Sparrow originated in the Mediterranean and expanded its range into Europe as civilization also grew. Many factors contributed to the House Sparrows invasion of America. In 1850, green inch-worms were destroying trees in New York City’s Central Park. It was thought that the house sparrow’s main diet in Europe was these green worms and if sparrows were brought to New York City, they would solve the worm problem. One year later, the Brooklyn institute released eight pairs that didn’t survive the climate change. However, after many more attempts, they did finally adapt. Others hypothesized that the House Sparrow would eat grain out of horse manure, which would help the manure decompose faster. Finally, many Europeans who immigrated to the United States during this time smuggled in the little birds they were accustomed to seeing in their native country. By the time it was realized that house sparrows do not regularly eat insects outside the nesting season or eat grain out of horse manure (yet ate it out of the horse feeders), the birds range had spread tremendously.
House Sparrows = Serial Killers
Native birds that are particularly vulnerable to the House Sparrow include; Eastern & Western Bluebirds, Purple Martins, Tree & Cliff Swallows, Chickadees and Orioles. These types of birds are often in direct competition with house sparrows for nesting sites, food sources and the house sparrows’ more aggressive behavior is often successful in displacing them. By design, the House Sparrow has a very hard beak compared to our native birds. This allows them to use it as a weapon to kill adult nesting birds along with their eggs and young, sometimes nesting right on top of the dead bodies (Link is graphic). Kinda like John Wayne Gacy… (Midwestern thang)
Bluebird Box – Closed for the season.
Male House Sparrows aggressively compete with native birds for nesting sites. Some think it’s the male’s drive to procreate, hormones are hell. There is no stronger bond than that of the male house sparrow to his nest site. He will leave his mate before he leaves his nest. To avoid this housing battle, don’t put up birdhouses or nest boxes until after April 1, as male House Sparrows typically begin choosing nesting sites as early as late February or early March. That gives them plenty of time to take possession of a box before migrating birds have not yet arrived to their breeding ranges. If a House Sparrow has claimed a birdhouse, plug the entrance hole for several days until the bird moves on. Relocating boxes may also work, although it is just as likely that the House Sparrows will discover the new locations as well.
Purple Martin house – No Vacancy.
Encouraging Native Nesting
- Place nesting boxes and bird houses within 4 feet of the ground. However, be sure to shield these nesting boxes or bird houses from predator cats, raccoons and opossums by placing sheet metal around the pole.
- One recent invention is a product called Magic Halo, that is basically a metal ring which is suspended above the roof of the nest box. From this ring, hang a number of strands of monofilament line with small weights attached to the end in proximity to the entrance hole of the nest box. These can be easily DIY.
- Once other birds have laid their first egg in a birdhouse, adding a “sparrow spooker” can be effective in protecting the nesting birds by scaring the House Sparrow away. A sparrow spooker is an arrangement of hanging Mylar strips that dangle above the roof of the birdhouse and discourage house sparrows from approaching, though other birds are not as easily deterred and will continue to use the house. Another DIY.
- Try a Gilbertson PVC Box. Although there is no nest box appropriate for bluebirds that is sparrow-proof, House Sparrows are often unwilling to use the Gilbertson PVC boxes as well as other nest boxes that have a small internal volume. If you are trying to attract bluebirds in an area where you suspect there will be House Sparrow problems, you should start off with the PVC box. This is also DIY.
Eliminating certain food types is one of the easiest ways to discourage house sparrows from visiting:
- cracked corn
- millet / milo
- bread scraps
- sunflower seed should also be either limited or restricted to small feeders that sway in the wind, which can spook house sparrows but will not always be effective.
To continue feeding native birds without attracting House Sparrows, use:
- safflower seeds
- nectar / Hummingbird and Orioles feeders
- fruit and jelly
- Grow native plants that provide seeds for native birds
Types of feeders used can also make a difference. House sparrows prefer:
- feed on the ground
- large hopper types
- platform feeders
- feeders with longer perches
These types of feeders are less attractive to House Sparrows:
House Sparrows require a perch of some sort and can’t grip onto the mesh like this yellow
- finch.clinging or wire mesh feeders
- socks or tube feeders with perches shorter than 5/8 of an inch to prevent them from perching
- They say they don’t like swaying feeders, but Starlings do.
- Be sure to clean up all spilled seed quickly to discourage ground-feeding.
Starling fighting over the suet chunk.
Here’s a great site explaining which birds like which type of feeder.
House Sparrows enjoy taking baths, remove birdbaths or add rocks to the basin of a birdbath to create uneven bathing spots. Use misters, pondless fountains, or small hanging bird drink stations with perches to continue to provide water for native species. House Sparrows also enjoy open soil areas to use for dust bathing and these areas should be mulched.
Aggressive Control Techniques (Probably PG-13 reading ahead…)
In extreme cases of House Sparrow aggression or entrenched populations, it may be necessary to resort to stronger control techniques that actively reduce their population. Since House Sparrows are classified as pests (along with starlings and pigeons) and are not protected by federal law, they should be quickly and humanely euthanized as soon as they are captured. Do not consider relocating the bird, as this just relocates the problem. The dead sparrows can be frozen and given to raptor recovery centers to feed their injured raptors. Before attempting these types of aggressive control techniques, it is wise to consult a wildlife management office as not all tactics may be legal or suitable in certain municipalities.
If you choose to take this type of action, please be sure you know your ID skills, as it is better to release a House Sparrow, than to accidentally kill a native.
Equal opportunity predator.
Some House Sparrows and a Junco who will be going back North soon. Junco’s prefer it much cooler.
© Ilex – Midwestern Plants