With it being cold and bitter outside, let’s match nature’s mood by talking about a dark and cruel topic that birders face– the invasive species called House Sparrows.
House Sparrows are not native to the US and since their arrival in 1851 their aggressive nature has violently hindered our native songbird population – especially bluebirds. House Sparrows may look small, but are one of the worst predators. With a beak much harder than bluebirds and a personality to match, these birds are nasty bullies that thrive on our trash, eat food from humans and birds, and are extremely sloppy. House Sparrows will kill a family of bluebirds and build their own nest directly on top of the deceased.
Many questions come across our website or social media posts asking about the infamous House Sparrow. Full disclosure, I’m going to lay out some cringe worthy information that many birders don’t like to divulge or participate in, but true conservationist bluebirders cherish the good, see the bad, and participate in the ugly.
Dealing with invasive species can be broken down into the good, bad, and the ugly.
The Good: There are a ton of preventative measures to take when installing a nest box or Bluebird Trail. We’ll cover a few of the best.
1. Location, Location, Location
Bluebirds like elevated wide open spaces… remember since they carry the sky on their wings… it only makes sense to give them room to spread those wings. By putting a nest box in a wide open field, grassy knoll, or golf course you are setting yourself up for success to attract bluebirds and have no problem with House Sparrows.
We first realized if our next box location is more towards the woods and trees we would attract House Wrens, and Chickadees. Place it near the water and attract Tree Swallows. If you’d like your trail to have a variety of native songbirds, place your nestboxes in a mixture of open spaces and near trees to attract them. A fair warning though, trees and other structures can attract other predators.
2. Have no fear! Predator guards are here!
If the location you chose needs a little more security, try adding a sparrow spooker or a Van Ert Trap. These are designed to either keep four-legged predators away or ward off House Sparrows specifically.
From 2017-2019 we focused on security for our Bluebird Trails. The issues with House Sparrows were never ending because the nest boxes were placed at a bustling corporation, Phillips Medisize, and a cemetery in the Eastside Hill Neighborhood in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. House Sparrows kept taking over nextboxes and I was so sick of finding dead bluebirds in our nestboxes. My Eagle Scout, James, helped me greatly with our predator patrol by designing, welding, and camouflaging baffle guards for each of the nest box poles, then mounting wren guards. and installing Sparrow Spookers. Our Predator Patrol was in full on defensive mode.
The Bad: Having House Sparrows occupy your nest boxes is bad. If you cannot maintain and monitor your boxes to ensure House Sparrows do not live in them, you may as well not have them all together…but no birder is perfect (myself included) and there are some ways to spin the bad into good.
1. Using the bad for science!
Our conservation efforts were not lost with the surplus of House Sparrow nests. Those two years we purposely reserved 4 out of 20 nest boxes to swap wooden House Sparrow eggs into the existing House Sparrow nests so we could collect and submit the real House Sparrows eggs to “Sparrow Swap” at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. This allowed scientists to receive and study House Sparrow eggs from our region and for us to get rid of four whole broods of invasive species.
The Ugly: Sometimes all strategies fail and House Sparrows are determined to override the nextboxes and entire trail. It is time to take the situation quite literally into your own hands.
Remember that House Sparrows are invasive, brutally kill bluebirds, and bully their way into many songbird homes – devastating broods. It is time to install a Van Ert Trap or plug the airhole of a House Sparrow occupied nest box and dispose of the dead House Sparrow. This is the conservation part where opinions arise. I get it. These choices only surfaced after I saw the devastation the House Sparrow had on my nestboxes. I was guided by scientists and Ornithology experts on proper ways to rid my boxes of House Sparrows.
See an article by Sialis on Euthanizing House Sparrows.
Normally, I am selective about who I share the ugly side of birding with, but I feel it is something that should be addressed and discussed. If it wasn’t for the ugly we wouldn’t appreciate the beauty and hope we gain from the Bluebirds. Join us on this year’s Bluebird Experience.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch.org
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds: House Sparrow Overview