Deterring House Sparrows

Flock of House Sparrows on the Brush Pile
Flock of House Sparrows on the Brush Pile

For the past few weeks I’ve been on a crusade to try to get the House Sparrows that settled into our yard over the winter to move on. We’ve never had many House Sparrows in our yard because 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 until now I typically see nearly twenty at a time and they’ve become a problem. If I let them stay, they will probably 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.

Female House Sparrow
Female House Sparrow

I have known that House Sparrows are non-native invasive birds with a reputation of aggressiveness, but I have never had any particular hard feelings about them, maybe because in the past I never saw many in the yard so they haven’t been a personal problem. But this winter, I’ve noticed that during the bulk of the day when the House Sparrows are around, there will only be a few White-Throated Sparrows. Once the House Sparrows leave for the day, the White-Throated Sparrows come out of the woodwork and there are one to two dozen around for the last hour or so of sunlight. So that is one reason I’d like to get the House Sparrows to move on.

I’ve also been reading more recently about how aggressive these birds can be to Eastern Bluebirds. Because they nest in cavities but can’t excavate their own, they will take over bluebird boxes and woodpecker holes. They have been known to 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 in the past, but this year there are several hanging around and I’ve put up a nest box and am hoping they will stay, and I am very fond of our woodpeckers, so this is a second reason to get them to move on. 

Two Male House Sparrows
Two Male House Sparrows

House Sparrows are very prolific and as their numbers rise, they have been known to take over feeders so you eventually see less of other birds. This is yet another reason to try and encourage the House Sparrows to leave. The trick is to do it without chasing off other birds in the yard that I do want around (like the white-throats and juncos.)

Like most problems that come up with feeding birds in the yard, it can take a lot of 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! 

Handful of White Proso Millet
Handful of White Proso Millet

First Try: Stop Millet

For the past several weeks, I’ve stopped offering millet, both to discourage the big spring mixed flocks of Common Grackles, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Red-Winged Blackbirds and to see if the House Sparrows would move on as they usually do when the millet goes away. I instead spread handfuls of nyjer seed for the White-Throated Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos who will be around for another few weeks.

Male House Sparrow on Squirrel Buster Plus Feeder
Male House Sparrow on Squirrel Buster Plus Feeder

The House Sparrows seemed completely un-interested in the nyjer and the white-throats and juncos seem totally cool with it and I’ve got a couple Song Sparrows eating it too, but the House Sparrows still stuck around. The problem seemed to be that the near brush pile where they like to hang out is right next to a Squirrel Buster Plus feeder full of sunflower hearts. When I was offering 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.

Squirrel Buster Plus Attaching the Cardinal Ring
Squirrel Buster Plus Attaching the Cardinal Ring

Second Try: Adjust Feeder Perches

I’ve noticed that the House Sparrows didn’t seem to be getting on the Squirrel Buster feeder in the front yard where I have removed the cardinal guard (a plastic ring that joins the perches together so cardinals can eat facing the ports.) So I tried the same thing for this feeder: removing the cardinal guard ring and shortening the perches to their minimum length. 

The initial reaction of the House Sparrows 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 being able to grab a seed. Birds tend to be smart and persistent though and before too long some of them started figuring out how to land on a perch in the just right position to sit and eat.

Handful of Safflower
Handful of Safflower

Third Try: Switch to Safflower 

One method I’ve used in the past to deter Common Grackles from these feeders is to instead fill them with safflower seed which I’d never seen grackles eat (although that just changed!) In the past if I did this for a couple weeks, the grackles would generally stay gone and I could switch back to sunflower hearts. I always hate having to do this though because there are a few other birds in the yard that I do like who don’t eat safflower. I do have a couple cage feeders with sunflower hearts in them that solves this problem at least for the smaller birds. 

So I swapped out the sunflower hearts in this Squirrel Buster Plus feeder with safflower. At first I left the cardinal ring off but I realized that made it hard for them to really see that there was no longer sunflower in this 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 of them started getting up on the feeder to eat the safflower. Sigh.

Fourth Try: Adjust Feeder Again

It was now late in the day. I kept the safflower in the feeder and removed the cardinal ring and shortened the perches again. Maybe it’ll be too much of a pain for them to hang on to eat this alternate seed and they’ll move on tomorrow. Or not. If they are ok with eating safflower, there are three platform feeders in the back yard and the metal mesh feeder in the front yard that would let them eat it easily.

Two Male House Sparrows Eating Seed on the Ground
Two Male House Sparrows Eating Seed on the Ground

Fifth Try: Be Present

On the next day, the House Sparrows were still here so I needed to try something else. I can get flocks of some birds 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 to that by straying over to another area to eat mealworms! I’ve never seen them eat either safflower or mealworms before. Apparently they are flexible about what they will eat. If they can’t eat millet, they’ll eat sunflower. If they 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 seed on the ground with the juncos and white-throats, another first for what I’ve seen them eat.

I think it goes back to the old rule that creatures will eat all kinds of things, even things you have never seen them eat before, if they are hungry enough. Rather than encourage them to continue exploring and getting comfortable with the other feeders in the yard (since up to now they’ve only used this one), I moved away from the feeder and they immediately returned to it. They still got up on this feeder sometimes and other times they were walking around under the nearby cage feeders that are full of sunflower hearts to pick up the bits the finches and other small birds drop. I do worry that they might try getting into these cage feeders. So far I haven’t seen them try it.

Brush Pile
Brush Pile

Sixth Try: Remove Cover

I noticed yesterday that when I was sitting next to the feeder which is right next to a brush pile, that the House Sparrows retreated to the fallen pine tree that is about ten feet away. If I then walked over there, they would retreat to the brush pile in the side yard. If I walked toward that brush pile, they would retreat up into the cedar tree right next to that brush pile. 

Many birds will move to cover when a human gets close, but the 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 out to the feeder and back. So it occurred to me to try removing this cover.

I mentioned this thought to Jim and he suggested that before I took the whole brush pile apart (which took half a day to carefully build after all), I could start by covering it with tarps as a test. The two small tarps I have don’t cover the entire brush pile but I was able to get the near side covered. They then started hanging out in the far end of the brush pile and over in the nearby downed pine tree. It definitely made a difference in their behavior and where they went in the yard. They couldn’t get to the feeder area as quickly and easily and made them less of a presence although they were still around.

Fallen Pine Tree
Fallen Pine Tree Looks Like a Bush!

My plan had always been to leave the top of the fallen pine tree in place during the winter and finish cutting it up in the spring, but now I’m thinking that maybe I provided a bit TOO MUCH cover of a type that is particularly appealing to House Sparrows. (The top of the pine tree when pressed down on its side on the ground is so thick that it is really a lot like the very thick type of evergreen bushes that House Sparrows are often fond of.)

Deconstructing the Brush Pile and Pine Tree
Deconstructing the Brush Pile and Pine Tree

So I spent the day deconstructing the near brush pile and radically trimming back the pine so it the branches are much more open (until we could cut the whole thing up.) It was a little heartbreaking to have 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.

Wires Hanging From Edge of Baffle
Wires Hanging From Edge of Baffle

Seventh Try: DIY Anti Sparrow Halo 

My seventh strategy was actually done at the same time as first covering up and then removing the brush pile and trimming back the fallen pine tree top. Researching House Sparrow deterrence online, I learned of a strategy that the University of Nebraska came up with called a “Magic Halo.” The idea is to hang an fairly wide (30” diameter) circle of wire above the feeder and string four weighted very 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 to tell you the truth, but it was developed by the folks at The University of Nebraska, endorsed as a method that can be effective by the Sialis bluebird conservation website and by the folks at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. It isn’t supposed to deter other backyard birds and as long as you use weighted craft wire and not loose hanging monofilament that could entangle birds, it is supposed to be safe.

You can currently buy a 20” version of these online, but I decided to first see if I could retrofit my extra large 21” disk Erva baffles to do the job. As a trial, I used electrical tape rated for outdoor use to attach thin metal craft wire to the underside of the feeder baffle, one at each quarter near the very edge. I temporarily weighted them with some heavy washers and nuts so that the wires hang straight. I again filled the feeder with sunflower hearts since that appeals to the House Sparrows more than safflower and it’s meant to be a test.

Wired Squirrel Buster Plus Feeder
Wired Squirrel Buster Plus Feeder

After I put the wired baffle and feeder back up, the first bird to approach it, a White-Breasted Nuthatch, was spooked by the wires and went to a different feeder. But immediately after that, an American Bluebird flew right up to the feeder to eat. Later, a Red-Breasted Nuthatch was also spooked when he clipped the wire flying up, but several of the American Goldfinches are perfectly willing to use the feeder with the wires on it and have even hung on the wires. 

The House Sparrows completely stopped visiting this feeder once I put the wires up and instead hung out over with the juncos and white-throats eating nyjer on the ground near the pine tree or under the nearby cage feeders picking up bits of dropped sunflower. 

American Goldfinches on the Wired Feeder
American Goldfinches on the Wired Feeder

I have to say that at first it became the least used feeder in the yard, but over a few days, more local birds started getting used to it and learning from each other how to manage around it. In fact, the Red-Breasted Nuthatch flew up again and snagged a seed from this feeder without any problem this time. I’m not sure how larger birds with wider wingspans would do with it though. So far I’ve only seen small birds on it but not the House Finches which usually are on this feeder a lot. I also wonder how it would do in the wind but so far the wires are keeping the House Sparrows off the feeder. (More on this a little later.)

Side Yard Brush Pile
Side Yard Brush Pile

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 over picking up nyjer off the ground that is closest to what was left of the pine tree. I started sprinkling this seed further out into the yard away from cover to see if I could get rid of these last few. (The juncos are willing to pick around on the ground all over the yard and the white-throats, although maybe not quite as adventurous, are willing to move much farther from cover than the House Sparrows.)

Sounds good right? Well, maybe. I was also monitoring the brush pile in the side yard. This was another even larger brush pile that I topped off with pine boughs when the pine tree fell over. Most of the day when I looked, I saw no House Sparrows there as well. . . . BUT at about 3:30 I looked over there again and saw three, five, ten . . . maybe a dozen of them poking around in that brush pile. Argh!!!! So, while they haven’t been in my feeders, they were still in the yard. To protect the bluebirds and woodpeckers I need them out of the yard as well so they don’t try to nest here. Sigh.

Too Many Branches!
Too Many Branches!

So I dragged all the pine boughs off the top of the side brush pile, leaving mostly the matted down old brush pile, hoping that it wouldn’t be as appealing to them. For the following two weekends, we cut up more of the pine tree and mademultiple runs to the landfill to get rid of the excess pine and the brush pile branches.

After all this, I still seem to have at least one male and two females in the yard off and on each day and sometimes a couple more. They show up every now and then to look for sunflower bits under the cage feeders, although they aren’t on any of the feeders and aren’t going to the more open area where I spread nyjer for the juncos and white-throats. That’s a huge improvement, but it only takes two and a nest to create a lot more! 

Two days ago it was cold and we had torrential rains and it was one of those days when the yard was very busy with birds wanting to eat extra food to keep their energy levels up. That day a dozen or more House Sparrows suddenly showed up on the ground under the feeders. I don’t think they are based in the yard since I’m not seeing them all the time now. I’ve read that 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: Experimenting With Halos & Wires

I have not managed to get the House Sparrows completely out of the yard. Realistically, maybe I never will. It’s probably pretty amazing that they’ve never settled in my yard before. I’m not done yet, but so far, removing the nearby thick cover has dramatically reduced the number of them in the yard, except for when the weather is especially bad. 

The wired baffle was successful in getting the House Sparrows off the one feeder. I don’t know if they will eventually get into the other feeders and whether I will need to protect them all eventually. Right now I am experimenting with the wire and anti-sparrow halos on two tracks. 

One experiment involves making adjustments to more securely attach the wire (long term) to the baffles but so that it is removable on really windy days when a moving baffle causes the wires to whip around. I’ve got that figured out. The other involves making a separate DIY wire halo to hang a bit below the baffle to see if just the halo (without the hanging wires attached) will deter this group of sparrows.

Update: My trial of just using a homemade halo with no hanging wires did not go well. (A House Sparrow got up on the feeder within a day.) My experiment with wiring a baffle is going extremely well so far. As soon as the wires went up, the House Sparrows completely avoided the feeder. So far so good. You can read about how I wired the feeder 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?

Nancie

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2 thoughts on “Deterring House Sparrows

  1. I was so excited to have a nesting pair of bluebirds several years ago, and then a sparrow got in and pecked the eyes out of the mom, and built a nest right on top of her! I was so upset about that and have been working to get rid of sparrows since. Your tips and experiments will surely help since I’ve not had a nesting pair since. I normally see bluebirds in January and maybe February, but they are still here at the end of March this year, and all over the feeders with the suet made of mealworms. I am hopeful that they’ll stay and nest this season. Thank you for all the time and research, and I will be implementing some of the suggestions.

    1. Hi Debby, I’m finding that it is super easy to fall in love with bluebirds in the yard! Getting rid of the House Sparrows has become a mission. So far getting rid of thick nearby cover and putting the weighted wires up on the feeder has made the biggest difference. Good luck to you! Please keep in touch and let us know how it goes for your bluebirds.
      Nancie

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