by Steve Eno
What is the most abundant songbird in North America? Next time you’re driving around town, compare the number of House Sparrows you see to the number of our native songbirds you see. There are estimates that there are twice as many sparrows across the country as all other native songbirds combined — a really sad statistic considering the house sparrow is not even a native bird of North America.
The House Sparrow, actually the Weaver Finch, which is the subject of all the “sparrow controversy,” should not be confused with any of our numerous native sparrows such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, etc. In fact, the House Sparrow and the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, are the only non-native sparrows in North America. So, for the sake of clarity, whenever I refer to the general term “sparrow,” I am referring solely to the non-native House Sparrow.
It is thought that the House Sparrow, originated in the Mediterranean and expanded its range into Europe with the growth of civilization. Only at the insistence of man did the House Sparrow make its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. In 1850, green inch-worms were destroying trees in New York City’s Central Park. Many people thought that the House Sparrow’s main diet back in England consisted of these same green worms and that if sparrows were brought to New York City they would solve the worm problem in Central Park. Others thought the House Sparrow would eliminate crop pests. While others theorized that the House Sparrow would eat grain out of horse manure (which was becoming a bigger problem as the city grew and the number of horses on the city’s streets increased), which would help the manure decompose more rapidly. In addition, the new wave of immigrants who were forced out of Europe in the late 1850’s because of economic and agricultural failures, missed the little birds they were accustomed to seeing in their native Europe. While it appeared the house sparrow was an easy answer to several problems facing a new society, no one could foresee the damage that would be done to the population of native birds.
The first introduction of the House Sparrow was conducted by the Brooklyn Institute in 1851. Eight pairs were originally released but none were able to survive the change in climate. More attempts were made in New York City and other areas along the New England seaboard, and eventually the birds adopted to our colder climate and multiplied. The house sparrow rapidly spread across the United States. The abundance of spilled grain used for feeding horses and the artificial nesting cavities provided by man helped the sparrow along.
In less than 25 years, the mistake that was made became obvious. An over abundance of house sparrows became a problem in cities and the sparrow caused extensive damage to grain crops and fruit trees. And, with the increased house sparrow population, there was an evident decrease in the number of native songbirds. A well-intended deed of our ancestors quickly turned into a disaster.
LIFE OF A HOUSE SPARROW
In dealing with house sparrows on your bluebird trail or in your backyard, knowing its habits can be helpful. Courtship & Nesting. The male house sparrow’s bond with his nest site is stronger than the bond with his chosen mate — he may lose a mate, but he won’t give up his nest site. He can claim a nest site as early as winter and his courtship (attracting a female to his chosen site) can begin in the winter or early spring. The majority of the nest building is done by the male, but it is not uncommon for the female to help. The majority of house sparrows will select a cavity for nesting, but it is not uncommon for them to nest in trees. The sparrow’s nesting territory is the immediate area of its nest site. In the Midwest, house sparrows usually have two or three broods but they can have up to five broods in a more temperate zone. The female will lay three to five white/brown speckled eggs and will incubate the eggs for 12 days. The young sparrows fledge after 15 to 17 days in the nest, and since house sparrows are non-migratory, they never wander too far from their place of birth.
Diet— Sparrows are a very social bird and tend to flock throughout the most of the year. A flock’s range covers 1 1/2 to 2 miles, but they will cover a larger territory if necessary when looking for food. House sparrows are generally attracted to buildings and structures for roosting, nesting, and cover. Feed lots are particularly attractive to sparrows since they provide an ample food source, in addition to nesting areas and shelter.
The house sparrow’s main diet consists of grain. If grain is not available, their diet is very broad and adaptable. The parasitic nature of the house sparrow is quite evident as they are avid seekers of garbage tossed out by humans. Can you imagine going to a fast food restaurant, tossing a french fry out in the parking lot and not having a flock of sparrows go after it?
Because the house sparrow is an intelligent bird that has proven to be adaptable to most situations, i.e. nest sites, food, and shelter, it has become the most abundant songbird, not only in our region, but in the world.
DEALING WITH SPARROW PROBLEMS
House sparrows have become a real problem! And if you maintain a bluebird trail or if you enjoy seeing a variety of songbirds in your backyard, they are a problem that must be dealt with. I feel there are two ways to deal with a house sparrow problem. You can either take preventative measures that will discourage sparrows from settling in your area in large numbers (“passive control”) OR once you are beset with sparrows, you may have to take more aggressive measures such as trapping and killing house sparrows in order to decrease their numbers (“aggressive control”).
The house sparrow is quick to take advantage of any area where its three basic needs — food, housing, and shelter — are provided, and will be easily attracted to such an area. If you recognize that the potential for attacking sparrows exists on your bluebird trail or in your backyard, there are preventative measures that can be taken.
Food— “YOU GET WHAT YOU FEED” are the wise words of BAN member Curt Sommer of New London, Wisconsin.
Hopefully the word is out and most people feeding birds at their feeders are well aware that they should not use cheaper birdseeds consisting mainly of filler grains, such as millet, wheat or cracked corn. These feeds only act as an invitation to undesirable birds such as house sparrows. Most reputable bird stores no longer sell birdseed containing a large percentage of these grains. However, many people continue to buy and feed the cheaper mixes, which they can still get at places like their local grocery store, not knowing what a difference the right birdseed can make.
Even if you do everything “right” when feeding the birds in your yard, you may still have to fight sparrows. You may have a neighbor who uses a cheaper mix and attracts sparrows into your area. I know of an individual who feeds nothing but milo because he gets great joy out of feeding house sparrows. And I learned first hand this past winter that, even though cracked corn draws a great variety of wildlife to our yard, including geese, quail, pheasants, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, skunks and deer, we just can’t put it out because it draws in too many sparrows. It took two ground traps and four weeks this spring to reduce the sparrow population so that I could attract bluebirds to my yard. But it was worth the effort — we now have a pair of bluebirds nesting in the front yard in a box previously staked out by sparrows! Next winter we plan to feed whole corn, hoping sparrows will be less attracted to it.
Other suggestions on feeding birds in your yard to help reduce your number of sparrows include:
- Do not feed bread crumbs or other bakery products. These are favorites of sparrows and starlings.
- Feed primarily SUNFLOWER seeds and SAFFLOWER seeds. These are generally preferred by most songbirds while being less preferred by the house sparrow.
- Feed SUNFLOWER HEARTS and NIGER in tube feeders and cut the perches down to about 1/4 inch so that the house sparrow can’t hang on to them.
Housing— Sparrows are opportunists that will look for any man-made nook or cranny in which to build their nests. By being aware of this fact, you can take steps to eliminate potential nesting sites.
An unattended Purple Martin house is a sparrow disaster waiting to happen because Martin houses are a favorite nesting site of the house sparrow. On your next drive around town or out in the country, pay attention to the number of run down Martin houses that are filled with sparrow nests. (It’s easy to spot the messy sparrow nest sticking out of the house openings). People don’t realize the harm they are doing to songbirds in their area by neglecting their Martin houses. Just like unmonitored bluebird boxes, neglected Martin houses, or any unchecked birdhouse in general, should be taken down. Remember, there is an over abundance of house sparrows. Providing nesting sites for house sparrows is only decreasing opportunities for our native songbirds.
Other sparrow nesting sites to watch for in and around your yard or property are:
- Clothes line poles with the end caps off are often used by sparrows. A plug in the hold will eliminate this.
- Any type of nook or cranny in any building should be eliminated whenever possible.
- Overhangs on a roof without a soffit are often used.
Obviously, no matter how valiant your efforts, you will never be able to stop all of the house sparrows in your area from nesting. But you can take some simple and practical steps to reduce the number of sparrows fledged in your area.
Shelter— Sparrows tend to flock together throughout most of the season, but even more so in the winter. They generally prefer a large brush pile, pine, spruce or cedar trees for shelter. Of course, you wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t eliminate this habitat because of the desirability to both you and to other birds and wildlife. If possible, house sparrows using the brush or trees for shelter should be driven away after nightfall which will make them more subject to predation. Also, driving sparrows from their sheltered areas before a blizzard or thunderstorm will subject them to falling prey to hazardous weather conditions. If this sounds cruel, remember that this is a passive control measure which leaves their survival up to them and nature, as opposed to trapping once their numbers are too large to “scare off.”
In addition to natural shelter, house sparrows are quick to use man made shelters such as open buildings or garages with openings. To deter sparrows, keep these areas closed whenever possible.
SPARROW CONTROL ON A BLUEBIRD TRAIL
Control of sparrows on a bluebird trail can be classified into two basic categories: PASSIVE (taking preventative measures when placing the bluebird box to deter sparrow use) and AGGRESSIVE (taking measures after the box is in place and sparrows have located it).
With any luck and a good choice of box and box location, sparrow problems on your bluebird trail can be held to a minimum. Box location is a crucial element in controlling sparrows on any bluebird trail. Dean Sheldon, a successful bluebirder from Greenwich, Ohio wrote in and said “Correcting nest box placement is the ultimate answer to the house sparrow problem. The mistake that many people make is thinking that a box has to be in a particular location because they want bluebirds there. Often times, relocation of the box to a more user friendly site will yield immediate bluebird results.” Dean added: “Avoid placing boxes near farmyards, feedlots, barns, abandoned houses or out buildings; even areas where there is junked farm machinery tend to attract House Sparrows.” Boxes placed too close to towns or cities may also attract House Sparrows.
Monitoring your boxes on a regular basis is another important part of sparrow control. I have heard so many stories about bluebird boxes (even large trails of boxes) that are put up and never monitored. In almost every instance, those boxes (and in some cases, entire trails) became prime breeding grounds for House Sparrows.
Use of the Gilbertson PVC house is becoming more common and is highly recommended. Although the PVC box is not 100% sparrow resistant, house sparrows are very reluctant to use it and will almost always choose a wooden box first. If you are trying to attract bluebirds in an area where you suspect sparrow problems, it might be wise to start off with the PVC box.
Constant nest monitoring is probably the most common method bluebirders use for sparrow control. Constant monitoring will not allow any sparrows to fledge from your trail. But remember — the male house sparrow forms a bond with the box, not with his mate, and odds are that you will be pulling nests out of that box all season. A bluebird box that a male sparrow has bonded with won’t have a chance of being used by a bluebird. Although constant monitoring will guarantee that no sparrows fledge from your trail, be aware that you run the risk of antagonizing the house sparrow which would send him on a rampage, destroying bluebird nests, and killing nestlings and adult bluebirds in other boxes on your trail. All house sparrows are not mean and destructive. They all seem to have their distinct personalities. I have had experiences on my own trail with sparrows in tree branch boxes that were paired with Peterson boxes. The bluebirds nested and fledged successfully in a Peterson boxes located right along side sparrows in a tree branch box. I had no way of trapping the sparrows in the tree branch box, so rather than risk an attack on the neighboring bluebirds, I let the sparrows fledge.
Use of the tree branch box is not recommended as it has been found to attract house sparrows. In 1995, 6 of the 7 tree branch boxes on my trail were occupied by house sparrows. Early in the spring of 1996, I replaced the tree branch boxes with Gilbertson PVC boxes. There were no sparrow nesting attempts in those PVC boxes!
Another method of ridding a bluebird box of continued sparrow nesting attempts is to plug the entrance hole until the sparrow chooses another location. If your using the Peterson box, you can simply leave the box open until the sparrow has moved on. It is recommended that you either plug the entrance holes or leave your bluebird boxes open at the end of the nesting season. I particularly recommend this if you know you have sparrows in your area because it will prevent sparrows from using the boxes for winter roosting sites and prevent them from laying claim to a box before the nesting season begins. However, if sparrows aren’t a problem in your area, you may want to leave the boxes so that they can be used by bluebirds and other songbirds for roosting sites during the winter.
Whatever method you use for sparrow control, the ultimate goal is to never let sparrows fledge from your trail. Those that do fledge will return to your trail next year having been imprinted on the boxes they were fledged from.
Trapping and killing House Sparrows is not something every bluebirder has to agree with or ever has to practice, so don’t feel you’re being negligent if you decide trapping is not right for you. Hopefully, if you follow the guidelines relating to “passive” control, your sparrow problems will be minimal and you will know the joy of having bluebirds successfully nest and fledge from your trail. But if you are unfortunate enough to live in an area where sparrows are a major problem, and you long to see bluebirds nesting outside your kitchen window, trapping and killing House Sparrows will probably be necessary. I myself didn’t start trapping House Sparrows on a whim. I started by reading everything I could find regarding the issue of sparrow control and I’d like to share what some of the most experienced and respected bluebirders from across the country have to say about house sparrows. These authors are all veteran bluebirders who have, on more than one occasion, opened their boxes expecting see find a mother bluebird with her nestlings but instead find a box of mutilated birds — victims of a House Sparrow.
- Bluebirds – How to Book, Fred Comstock: “The only good house sparrow is a dead sparrow.” Mr. Comstock suggests trapping and shooting.
- Enjoying Bluebirds More, by Julie Zickefoose: “Trap the adult sparrow if you can. …Unprotected by law, house sparrows may be destroyed or relocated miles away.”
- Bluebirds, How to Attract & Raise Bluebirds, Tina & Curtis Dew: “Both sparrow nests and eggs, or young, should be destroyed in every case that they are found. … Sometimes the sparrow is so persistent that trapping is the only way to eliminate them.”
- Bluebird Trails, A Guide to Success, Dorene Scriven: “Eradication is the only solution that works! And constant eradication may be necessary over several years before all sparrow threats are taken care of. It is essential to trap and destroy the male house sparrow, even though it is far easier to catch the female.” And “Trapping should continue all year, not just on the bluebird trail.”
- Bluebirds Forever, Connie Toops: “Simply releasing house sparrows somewhere else may result in their invasion of other bluebird habitat. The quickest way to dispatch house sparrows is to wring their necks.”
- Bring Back the Bluebird, Andrew Troyer: “They are as undesirable as a mouse in your house. When trapped do not take them miles down the road to be released. This is no different than throwing your garbage over the fence onto your neighbor’s property. A very humane way to eliminate them is to put them into a plastic bag and hold it to a car exhaust.”
As you can see, the consensus about the house sparrow is that it is a very undesirable, non-native bird that should not be allowed to invade the nesting habitat of our native bluebird.
Trapping in a Bluebird Box — When trapping House Sparrows, remember that it is the male that must be caught, even though the female is easier to catch. As I mentioned before, the male’s bond with a box is stronger than the bond with his mate. If only the female is caught, the male will quickly find another mate and your problems will start all over again. I also want to point out that House Sparrows are the only sparrow that use boxes for nesting, so when trapping sparrows in a bluebird box, you can be sure you have caught the notorious non-native English House Sparrow.
There are many good traps available for trapping House Sparrows in various styles of bluebird boxes. The two that I have used and have had success with are the Peterson trap (which only works on the Peterson box) and the Gilbertson trap (which can be used on any style of bluebird box). The Peterson trap can be purchased through Ahlgren Construction, 12989 Otchipwe Ave. North, Stillwater, MN 55082, for $5.50 per trap plus $3.00 shipping & handling for the first trap and $1.00 for each additional trap. The Gilbertson trap can be purchased directly from Steve Gilbertson, 35900 Dove Street, Aitkin, MN 56431 (218-927-1953.) (Steve Gilbertson’s address has been corrected in this document as of 2/14/02) for $6.00 per trap, which includes all postage and handling fees. (note: these prices change occasionally so check with the Ahlgren Construction and Steve Gilbertson for latest prices.)
Curt Sommer of New London, Wisconsin suggests catching the female sparrow at night when she is sitting on the nest. Place a cylinder (a can with two open ends) with a small plastic bag attached to one end over the entrance hole. Vigorously shake the box until the female flies through the can and into the plastic bag. It might take some prodding with a stick or wire to get her off the nest. A trap like one of those I just mentioned can then be set to catch the male who will return to the box in the morning.
Keith Radel of Faribault, Minnesota suggests trapping sparrows between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon. He says this is the time of day the male is most likely to be sitting on the nest to give the female a break.
Do not ever set a trap unless you’re sure a sparrow has laid claim to that box. Never leave a trap set on a box for over two hours without checking the box. A bluebird or one of many native cavity-nesting songbirds could stop to check out the box, find itself trapped, and perish during that time period from lack of food and water.
When removing trapped House Sparrows from the box, place a clear garbage bag over the entire box and remove the trap with the bag over the box. The sparrow will fly into the bag and can easily be caught. It is very difficult to reach into the box and grab the House Sparrow. Their reflexes are so fast that they will slip out of the first small opening they see.
Some days seem better than others for trapping sparrows — Who knows whether it is weather related, the timing of the birds’ occupancy of the box, or just the variance in personalities and intelligence of the bird that determines whether they will enter a box with a trap on it. (Hint: Always leave a little bit of the sparrow’s nest in the bottom of the box, but just enough so that it doesn’t interfere with the workings of the trap.)
Pairing of boxes has advantages when trapping sparrows and can possible save the lives of your nesting bluebirds. Steve Gilbertson of Andover, Minnesota recommends pairing a PVC box with a Peterson or other wooden box. The sparrow will almost 100% of the time choose the wooden box which will leave the PVC box available for bluebirds. The House Sparrow can then be trapped in the wooden box.
Bob Orthwein of Columbus Ohio has great success with his triple box system (See Volume 2 No. 4 and Volume 4 No. 1 of the Bluebirds Across Nebraska Newsletter for more on his system.) Bob has one box for a bluebird, one for a tree swallow, and one to trap sparrows in. This triple box system is only recommended when you have tree swallows on your trail.
The underlying question on everyone’s mind is what to do with the captured sparrow. Some people recommend taking the sparrow a distance away and releasing it. I do not like to recommend this because all you are doing is passing your problem on to someone else. Why simply relocate the nuisance bird to another area when you have the opportunity to eliminate a bird that is detrimental in so many ways.
Although unpleasant, there are ways to destroy House Sparrows that are more humane than others. Some of the humane ways I have heard of for destroying sparrows are: breaking the neck; suffocation by pressing in on the lungs; drowning in a burlap bag; asphyxiation by placing the House Sparrows in a bag which you then place over the muffler of your vehicle; or throwing the bird to the ground with enough force to kill them instantly. Yes, this may sound unpleasant, but the House Sparrows you trap and destroy can actually benefit some of our native birds — injured raptors. The Raptor Recovery Center, 27320 Adams Street, Elmwood, Nebraska, 68349 uses donated dead sparrows to feed their injured raptors. And, as unpleasant as this may sound, the dead birds can be stored in ziplock bags in your freezer until you have enough to take to the Raptor Recovery Center.
Ground Trapping— Ground trapping is a very effective method for large scale control of sparrows. There are two basic ground traps available: the “Have-A- Hart” and the “Trio”. The Have-A-Hart trap in recommended over the Trio trap mainly because it is “repeatable”, while the Trio trap has to be reset each time a sparrow is trapped.
If you decide to try a ground trap, here are some suggestions that I hope will make your efforts easier and more fruitful: Fall and winter are the best times of the year for ground trapping. The House Sparrow tends to spread out more in the spring and summer, having claimed their nesting sites, and flock together more in the fall and winter.
The best bait for the trap is millet, cracked corn, and/or white bread. A small mirror placed in the bait compartment of the trap helps to lure the sparrow in. It is very helpful to have a House Sparrow in the holding compartment of the trap as it helps to draw other House Sparrows to the trap. I personally have had very little luck drawing House Sparrows to the trap unless there are decoy birds in the holding compartment, so I often trap House Sparrows in my bluebird boxes and then place them in the ground trap. The more birds you have in your holding compartment, the better luck you’ll have drawing sparrows into the trap.
Be sure to keep food and water in your holding compartment and place a cover over part of that compartment to help the birds escape from the elements. Some of the birds will die in the trap during the first or second day of captivity, but the rest who accept the food and water will live for months.
IMPORTANT: When using a ground trap, it must be checked on a daily basis. House Sparrows are not the only birds drawn to the trap. Native sparrows and other songbirds may enter the trap and should be released immediately! Be very careful when identifying House Sparrows as they have many similarities to our native sparrows. The male House Sparrow will be easy to identify (black bill and bib with white cheeks), but study the markings of a female House Sparrow carefully. Unless you are experienced at bird identification, a bird identification book is a necessity.
Thanks to: How to Control House Sparrows, by Don Grussing; and Bluebird Trails, A Guide to Success, by Dorene Scriven, two very helpful sources of my information.
House Sparrows by Steve Eno – this article originally appeared in the Bluebirds Across Nebraska newsletter in three parts and is used with permission from Steve Eno (12/96). Please bear in mind that the prices mentioned for traps in this article were valid at the time of writing but are naturally subject to change. Also take note that this article was written for Bluebirders in Nebraska so the references to the The Raptor Recovery Center is a Nebraska organization and you may wish to contact your local raptor rehabilitator for their specific needs and requirements.
Ground traps can be ordered from:
3364 Pennington Ave. S
Afton, MN 55001