If you hang bird feeders, have you figured out which birds are visiting? If you buy your birdseed mix from the grocery or dollar store, have you ever noticed that only a few types of bird visit and hog all the food? If so, it’s very likely that you’re hosting House Sparrows (pictured right), whose presence in New England and the Northeast is being blamed for declines in some native songbird species. If you are concerned about the welfare of our bird populations, you do not want to feed, house or otherwise encourage House Sparrows!
It may seem cruel to single out certain types of birds to discourage, but House Sparrows (also called English Sparrows) are an invasive species in the US. Brought to this country from Europe in the 20th century, they quickly established large populations that have spiralled out of control, outcompeting native songbirds for food, shelter and space. Along with European Starlings (another invasive bird in the US), House Sparrows are considered a threat to many bird species already at risk due to habitat loss and pollution. In fact, these birds are among the very few species in the US not protected under Federal species protection laws.
Since the mid-1990s, populations of invasive birds have increased significantly. House Sparrows thrive around human habitation, and you can often see them picking at food scraps in parking lots of fast-food joints or big-box stores (where they also find safe housing inside). They are quick to find a residential bird feeder, and will gobble up large amounts of birdseed, leaving little to the less aggressive birds indigenous to New England.
It’s easy to see why House Sparrows are considered destructive to other birds. They will attack nesting fledglings of other species, throwing the babies out of their nests which they then use for themselves. This nest predation is especially detrimental to birds such as Bluebirds who nest in the cavities in old or rotting trees, and who already struggle to find suitable nesting sites in our increasingly suburbanized landscape.
This weekend, we witnessed a dramatic attempt by a pair of House Sparrows to evict some Tree Swallow fledglings out of a nesting box on our pasture fence. The parent Swallows put up a good fight and we saw and heard a tremendous scuffle at the box. We tried to help out by chasing the House Sparrows away, but they returned several times as the nervous parents tried to keep guard. In the end, Rob sat down in the grass near the box so he could ward off any continued assault, and the House Sparrows finally gave up and left.
We just had to help – our Tree Sparrows migrate from the tropics every year to nest in this box (see below), and they are like old friends to us!
So how do you tell a “bad sparrow” from a “good sparrow”? It can be hard to tell one sparrow from the next, but House Sparrows tend to congregate in large flocks, and the males have a large dark blob right under their beaks (see top photo). Once you learn to identify them, they are easy to pick out of a crowd. See the National Zoo‘s photo gallery to learn how to distinguish them from other sparrows.
Some ways that I have found to discourage House Sparrows from taking over feeders and nest boxes:
- Use non-perching birdfeeders
- Feed Safflower seed instead of Sunflower seed. House Sparrows and Squirrels do not like Safflower seed, but many colorful songbirds such as Cardinals, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmouse and non-invasive sparrows love it.
- Do not feed seed mixes containing millet (House Sparrows are particularly partial to millet seed, often found in inexpensive seed mixes)
- If House Sparrows take over existing songbird nests, immediately remove their nests and monitor the area, because they may try several times to use the nesting box before giving up. You may need to be persistent, but removing their nests will eventually persuade these birds to give up and move on.
Luckily, our Tree Swallow babies survived their traumatic House Sparrow onslaught. Today, they’re back to peering out of their box, waiting for their exhausted parents to provide the next fly-by feedings of mosquitoes and other tasty bugs…and all is peaceful again at Turkey Hill Brook Farm.