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For weeks I’ve been on a crusade to get rid of House Sparrows that settled in over the winter. We’ve never had many House Sparrows. I only put out millet in the winter months for the White-Throated Sparrows and the Dark-Eyed Juncos. Each winter, I might get a couple, but they have always left once I stopped offering millet in the spring.
But this year, the House Sparrow population built up gradually over the winter. Now I typically see nearly twenty at a time and they’ve become a problem. If I let them stay, they will nest here and the numbers will climb like crazy. They need to go. This is the story of what has turned into one of my biggest bird feeding challenges. In the end though, I did get the House Sparrows to leave.
Why Deter House Sparrows?
I have known that House Sparrows are non-native invasive birds with a reputation of aggressiveness. Because I rarely saw them in the yard, they haven’t been a personal problem.
First Reason: But this winter, most of the day when they were around, there were only a few White-Throated Sparrows. Once the House Sparrows left, White-Throated Sparrows came out of the woodwork, with one to two dozen around for the last hour of sunlight.
Second Reason: I’ve also been reading about how aggressive these birds can be to Eastern Bluebirds. Because they nest in cavities but can’t excavate their own, they take over bluebird boxes and woodpecker holes. They kill bluebirds in the nest (eggs, nestlings and adult birds) and even build their own nests over the bodies. That’s pretty hardcore.
I understand that they will also attack woodpeckers for nesting cavities. I’ve never had bluebirds until recently. I’ve put up a nest box and am hoping they will stay. And I am very fond of our woodpeckers.
Third Reason: House Sparrows are very prolific. As their numbers rise, they have been known to take over feeders so you eventually see less of other birds.
House Sparrow Deterrence Strategy
Like most problems that come up with feeding bird, it can take experimentation to figure out what to do. Sometimes you have to try something and see if it works. If not, you try something else. I’m finding with House Sparrows that it isn’t easy to get them to go!
First Try: Stop Millet
My first attempt was to stop offering millet. I do this every spring to discourage big flocks of Common Grackles, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds. I hoped the House Sparrows would move on as they usually do when the millet goes away.
White-Throated Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos who also eat millet will be around another few weeks. So I instead spread handfuls of nyjer seed for them. They seem totally cool with it and I’ve got a couple Song Sparrows eating it too. The House Sparrows seemed completely uninterested in the nyjer but still stuck around.
The problem? The brush pile where they hang out is right next to a Squirrel Buster Plus feeder full of sunflower hearts. When I offered millet, one might occasionally get on this feeder. But mostly they were on the ground with the millet. But once the millet was gone, they diverted their energy to the sunflower hearts in this feeder.
Second Try: Adjust Feeder Perches
House Sparrows weren’t getting on the front yard Squirrel Buster feeder where I had removed the cardinal ring. (This plastic ring joins the perches together so cardinals can eat facing the ports.) So I removed the cardinal ring on this feeder too and shortened the perches to their minimum length.
The initial House Sparrow reaction was somewhat positive (although I’m sure they would disagree.) They would fly up to a perch and briefly land, only to flutter away again, only occasionally grabbing a seed. Birds tend to be smart and persistent though. Before too long, some of them figured out how to land on a perch just right to sit and eat.
Third Try: Switch to Safflower
Next I tried swapping out the sunflower hearts in this feeder with safflower. At first I left the cardinal ring off but realized this made it hard for them to see there was no longer sunflower in the feeder. So I put the ring back on.
They seemed glad to have the ring back. Several landed at a port, poked their head in and left unhappy. But at least one male grabbed some safflower and gave it a try. Would he think it too bitter and not hang around? Nope. Several started getting up on the feeder to eat safflower. Sigh.
Fourth Try: Adjust Feeder Again
It was now late in the day. I kept the safflower in the feeder, removed the cardinal ring and shortened the perches again. Would it be too much of a pain for them to hang on to eat this alternate seed? But if they are ok with safflower, there are other feeders in the yard where they can eat it easily.
Fifth Try: Be Present
House Sparrows were still around the next day so I needed to try something else. I can get some flocks to move on by being present in the feeder area for awhile. So I tried sitting right next to the feeder they’ve adopted for an hour or so.
They reacted by straying over to another area to eat mealworms! I’ve never seen them eat either safflower or mealworms before. Apparently they are flexible. If they can’t eat millet, they’ll eat sunflower. Can’t get sunflower? They will go for the safflower. If they can’t get that, they’ll eat mealworms. I even saw one eating nyjer on the ground with the juncos and white-throats. This is another first for what I’ve seen them eat. Creatures will eat all kinds of things if hungry enough.
Rather than encourage them to continue exploring and getting comfortable with other feeders (since up to now they’ve only used this one), I moved away. They immediately returned to the feeder, getting up on it sometimes. Other times they picked up sunflower bits dropped by other small birds from the cage feeders. So far they haven’t tried getting into these cage feeders themselves.
Sixth Try: Remove Cover
When I sat by the feeder near the brush pile, the House Sparrows retreated to the fallen pine tree ten feet away. If I walked over there, they retreated to a side yard brush pile. If I walked toward that brush pile, they retreated up into the cedar tree next to it.
Many birds will move to cover when a human gets close, but House Sparrows seem particularly focused on cover. They usually sit in the near brush pile and take very short forays of just a few feet to the feeder and back. So I decided to try removing this cover.
Jim suggested that before taking the whole pile apart (which took half a day to carefully build), I tarp it as a test. The two small tarps I had only covered the near side. They then hung out in the far end and over in the downed pine. It definitely made a difference. They couldn’t get to the feeder area as quickly and were less of a presence.
My plan had been to leave the pine’s top during the winter and cut it up in the spring. But maybe I provided a bit TOO MUCH cover that particularly appeals to House Sparrows. (The pine top pressed down on its side onto the ground makes it like very thick evergreen bushes they prefer.)
So I deconstructed the near brush pile and radically trimmed the pine to open it up (until we could cut it all up.) It was a little heartbreaking to get rid of the brush pile. It has been there for years and has been popular with other sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals.
Seventh Try: DIY Anti-House Sparrow Halo
At the same time, I tried another strategy. Researching House Sparrow deterrence online, I learned of the University of Nebraska’s “Magic Halo.” The idea is to hang a wide (30” diameter) circle of wire above the feeder. Then string four weighted thin wires equal distance around the edge, hanging straight down. Apparently it freaks House Sparrows out and has been known to reduce them on a feeder by about 85%.
It seemed a bit sketchy to me at first. But it was developed by the university folks and endorsed by the Sialis bluebird conservation website and Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. It isn’t supposed to deter other backyard birds. As long as you use weighted craft wire and not loose monofilament that can entangle birds, it is supposed to be safe.
You can buy a 20” version online, but I decided to first see if I could retrofit my extra large 21” disk Erva baffles. As a trial, I used electrical tape rated for outdoor use to attach thin craft wire to the baffle underside near the very edge. I temporarily weighted them with heavy washers and nuts.
After I put the wired baffle and feeder back up, again filled with sunflower, the first bird to approach it, a White-Breasted Nuthatch, was spooked by the wires. He went to a different feeder. But immediately after that, an American Bluebird flew right up to eat. Later, a Red-Breasted Nuthatch was also spooked when he clipped a wire. But several American Goldfinches are perfectly willing to use the feeder and even hang on the wires.
House Sparrows completely stopped visiting this feeder. They instead hung out with juncos and white-throats eating nyjer on the ground near the pine tree or picking up sunflower under the cage feeders.
Eighth Try: Remove MORE Cover
By the next day I decided I was on the right track. At first I thought I had succeeded in chasing most of them off . . . but maybe not. Instead of the sixteen House Sparrows I’d been seeing every day in the backyard feeder area, on this day I saw three and those only very occasionally.
They were mostly picking up nyjer off the ground close to the pine tree. I started sprinkling this seed further away from cover. (Juncos are willing to pick around on the ground all over the yard. White-throats, although not quite as adventurous, are willing to move much farther from cover than House Sparrows.)
Sounds good right? Well, maybe. I was also monitoring the even larger side yard brush pile. Most of the day when I looked, I saw no House Sparrows there . . . . BUT at about 3:30 I looked again and saw three, five, ten . . . maybe a dozen poking around in that brush pile. Argh!!!! So, while they weren’t in my feeders, they were still in the yard. I need them out so they don’t nest here. Sigh.
So I dragged all the pine off the side brush pile, leaving only matted down old brush, hoping it wouldn’t be as appealing. We spent two weekends cutting up more of the pine tree and getting rid of the excess pine and brush pile branches.
After all this, at least one male and two females appeared off and on each day at first. They showed up every now and then to look for sunflower bits under the cage feeders. But they weren’t on the feeders or out in the open where I spread the nyjer. That’s was a huge improvement, but it only takes two and a nest to create a lot more!
One day was cold with torrential rains. It was one of those days when the yard was very busy with birds wanting to eat extra food to keep energy levels up. That day a dozen or more House Sparrows suddenly showed up on the ground under the feeders. I’ve read House Sparrows flocks will travel around for about a mile and a half to two miles. So they may just have been a flock reacting to the weather the same way the mixed blackbird flocks do this time of year. Once the weather cleared up, I was back to two under the feeders every now and then.
Current Status: Halos & Wires
Update: Removing the nearby thick cover dramatically reduced the number of House Sparrows in the yard. I almost never see them now. And my experiment with wiring a baffle has gone extremely well. As soon as the wires went up, the House Sparrows completely avoided the feeder. You can read about how I my completed wired halo project here: “My DYI Anti-Sparrow Halo.”
Have you had problems with House Sparrows in your yard? Have you tried to get them to move on? How did you handle it?
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