I am listening to beautiful bird song as I write this: the Eastern Bluebird's plaintive cry; the Carolina Wren's playful banter; and "CHEEP, CHEEP"! Oh no! A House Sparrow is declaring territory in my yard!
House Sparrows claim nest boxes early. I start trapping them in mid February, checking my home and trail boxes for evidence that they have claimed a box. They often claim a box long before they begin nest building. This time of year especially, it is good to know your sh#@… Sparrow droppings.
If you hear a House Sparrow singing as you approach a nest box, he has almost certainly claimed it. He is declaring his find to a potential mate and declaring to his male friends to back off.
He may be declaring an alternative nest site if there is not a box nearby. House Sparrows often weave large open nests in pine trees. They can also nest behind signs and in crevices in buildings. Check wood siding for holes that they may be using or attic vents, etc. Block off alternative nesting sites where possible. Also, due to the House Sparrow's affinity for pine trees, site your nest box as far from pines as you can.
If he is in your nest box, he has claimed it. If he is on the box, he has claimed it. If he is near the box singing, he has probably claimed it.
Open the box and look for House Sparrow feces: white, solid, about ¼" long little curved cylinders. The bigger the pile, the more he has been in there over the past week(s) and the easier he is to trap. If you have paired box stations, it is common for male to roost in one and female in the other if male has already attracted a mate.
Why did they bring the English House Sparrow to the USA?
Such an excellent question! It makes one want to throw their hands up to the heavens and loudly proclaim, "Why?! Why?! Why?!"
There are a couple of rumors as to why the House Sparrow was brought to this country, but I could find no definitive citation. In documents I have read, some believe they were brought here to enhance the lives of city dwellers of the time. Immigrants from Europe may have missed that incessant, delightful "CHEEP" call they remembered from their homeland. Deforestation of land for city development drove away many native birds from urban areas and the House Sparrow was known to thrive in the proximity of human dwellings. Perhaps they just missed seeing birds in the city.
It is also rumored that caterpillars and other insects were wreaking havoc on the foliage of the remaining trees in the urban landscape and some well meaning people may have believed the House Sparrow might help control insect pests in their beloved cities. We know today that the diet of the House Sparrow is predominantly seeds, but they may not have known that back then. Regardless of the motivation, the little brown plague was released on the continent at multiple locations in various cities throughout the United States and Canada. Legislation was actually enacted in many cities to protect the bird.
An excellent history on the dissemination of House Sparrows throughout the United States can be found on Bet Zimmerman's website: http://www.sialis.org/hosphistory.htm
Apparently, the introduction of House Sparrows was a concerted effort by many different groups to many different cities. The first birds were introduced in Brooklyn, New York in the fall of 1850 and many other cities followed suit for the next 25 years or so. Apparently, House Sparrows became an American fad. It was not until the late 1870's that people began to realize their mistake. By the late 1880's, protective legislation was rescinded and large scale efforts were undertaken to try to eliminate House Sparrows.
Regarding the proper name of the bird, I discovered an interesting side note when delving through the tome, The English Sparrow in America by Dr. C. Hart Merriam and Walter B. Barrows, published in 1889 (pg. 17). "The true name of this bird is the 'House Sparrow.' The name 'English Sparrow' is a misnomer, as the species is not confined to England, but is native to nearly the whole of Europe. The fact that most of the birds brought to America came from England explains the origin of the misleading name by which it is now so widely known that any attempt to change it would be futile." As to why the authors then used the improper name in the title of the book, Madame WingNut just sits here scratching her head in wonder…
I delved into the WingNut library and will quote a couple references for you that should help to further explain the reason for introducing these birds to our continent, as well as some history on early attempts to then eradicate them. From these references, it seems as though House Sparrows were introduced so people could enjoy birds in the cities. As native cavity nester conservationists, we are all familiar with the aggressive habits of the bird toward native birds. Additionally, the House Sparrow turned out to be quite the destroyer of crops in agricultural areas and the desecrator of city buildings and landscape due to its roosting and defecating habits. The mistake was realized, but attempts to stop the ensuing scourge were for naught.
USDA Farmer's Bulletin 493 "The English Sparrow as a Pest", originally published on April 20, 1912, states that the English Sparrow was introduced into America in 1851.
"An ill-advised endeavor, about the middle of the nineteenth century, to populate a few parks with nonmigratory birds resulted favorably as an enterprise but very unfortunately for the general welfare of this country. Among several kinds of European birds introduced, one was the house sparrow, commonly called the English sparrow. From a few centers this bird has spread in vast numbers from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Gulf of Mexico well into Canada.
The English sparrow defiles private and public property, fights and dispossesses useful native birds, replaces their songs with discordant sounds, and destroys fruit, grain, and garden truck.
At first it was confined to towns, but its rapid multiplication has caused it to push out into farming communities, and thus to extend its pernicious activities. The fact that in isolated cases the bird has been found doing useful work against insects barely saves it from utter condemnation."
The bulletin goes on to recommend trapping and other techniques to eliminate and discourage House Sparrows. Finally, it encourages people to eat them, explaining how to dress and prepare them.
The following excerpt is from The Birds of Ohio by William Leon Dawson, published in 1903.
"WITHOUT question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow. The extinction of the Great Auk, the passing of the Wild Pigeon and the Turkey, - sad as these are, they are trifles compared to the wholesale reduction of our smaller birds, which is due to the invasion of the wretched foreigner, the English Sparrow. To be sure he was invited to come, but the offense is all the more rank because it was partly human. His introduction was effected in part by people who ought to have known better, and would, doubtless, if the science of ornithology had reached its present status as long ago as the early fifties. The maintenance and prodigious increase of the pest is still due in measure to the imbecile sentimentality of people who build bird-houses and throw out crumbs for the 'dear little birdies', and then care nothing whether honest birds or scalawags get them. Such people belong to the same class as those who drop kittens on their neighbors' door-steps because they wouldn't have the heart to kill them themselves, you know.
The increase of this bird in the United States is, to a lover of birds, simply frightful. Their fecundity is amazing and their adaptability apparently limitless. Mr. Barrows, in a special report prepared under the direction of the Government, estimates that the increase of a single pair, if unhindered, would amount in ten years to 275,716,983,698 birds.
As to its range, we note that the subjugation of the East has long since been accomplished and that the conquest of the West is succeeding rapidly. It is only a question of a few years until it becomes omnipresent in our land.
It requires no testimony to show that the presence of this bird is absolutely undesirable. It is a scourge to the agriculturist, a plague to the architect and the avowed and determined enemy of all other birds. It is, in short, in the words of Dr. Coues, 'a nuisance without a redeeming quality.' Altho we assent to this most heartily, we must confess on the part of our race to a certain amount of sneaking admiration for the Sparrow. And why, forsooth? Because he fights. We are forced to admire, at times his bull-dog courage and tenacity of purpose, as we do the cunning of the weasel or the nimbleness of the flea. He is vermin and must be treated as such, but - give the Devil his due, of course. What are we going to do about it? Wage unceasing warfare as we do against mice and snakes. There is no ultimate issue to regard. The House Sparrow is no longer exterminable, but he can be kept within limits. No doubt there will be English Sparrows in cities as long as there are brick-bats, but the English Sparrow in the country is an abatable nuisance. He can be shot, and he ought to be. There are no English Sparrows about my present home, in a suburb of Columbus. A sensible and determined neighbor has plied the shotgun for several years and as a result Bluebirds, Chipping and Field Sparrows, Woodpeckers of all kinds, Warblers, Robins, Blue Jays, etc. are plentiful hereabouts. I prefer Bluebirds myself.
The Sparrow exhibits a most cosmopolitan taste in the matter of nesting sites. The normal half-bushel ball of trash in the tree-top is still adhered to by some builders, but the cavity left by a missing brick, a Woodpecker's hole - deserted upon compulsion - or a throne upon the scale-pan of Justice - done in stone upon the County court-house, and mercifully blind - will do as well. Of late the choicest rural sites have been appropriated, and the cliffs once sacred to the gentle Swallow, now resound with the vulgar bletherings and maudlin mirth of this avian blot on nature."
The above article appeared in the Fall, 2011 issue of the Ohio Bluebird Society's newsletter and was written by "Madame Wingnut", AKA Paula Ziebarth.
Set an inbox trap before dusk. Check the trap a little after first light. I love Van Ert Universal Sparrow Traps. To retrieve bird when trap is sprung, a mesh laundry bag placed over box and cinched tight before you open box guarantees no escapes.
Don't Feed Them
If you enjoy feeding birds, think about discontinuing feeding competitors during nest season if you have nest boxes in your yard. The birds really do not need your help during this time of plenty. If I feed birds during these months, I only set out hummingbird nectar, thistle seed for finches, oranges and grape jelly for orioles, and clean water in the bird bath. Remember that dropped seed will also attract unwanted climbing predators such as raccoons and chipmunks.
Having more than one nest box in your yard to attract various
native cavity nesting species is a great idea if you are willing to
control nonnative House Sparrows. It is a bad idea if you are
not, as they are attracted to areas with multiple nest sites and
they often aggressively destroy adults/eggs/young they find
The competitive nature of the House Sparrow still amazes me. I have six nestboxes scattered throughout my small suburban lot to accommodate a variety of native cavity nesting species. Very often, House Sparrows ignore the empty boxes and hone in
on the ones that native birds are using. Last week, a pair of Carolina Wrens were starting an early nest. I heard the raucous
call of a House Sparrow, looked, and there he was sitting in the
box with an empty one available less than 10 feet away. The Carolina Wren box has a large slot opening which is not a box House Sparrows have ever shown interest in before in my yard.
Last spring, a Tufted Titmouse used the nest box in my front yard. A male House Sparrow targeted that box and killed four of the six young before I could stop him. It developed into a dramatic afternoon neighborhood project, with kindhearted ladies sitting in lawn chairs and shooing him away every time he tried to reenter the nest box to kill the remaining two nestlings. Realizing he really wanted to kill something, I set a trap in a nearby empty box and gave him something to destroy: a plastic craft bird egg. Luckily, the ploy worked.
If you doubt House Sparrows will nest close together, just take a look at a mismanaged Purple Martin house. Purple Martin houses have multiple compartments side by side. I often see multiple House Sparrow nests in these. Those who monitor Tree Swallow grids (boxes spaced every 25 yards to accommodate breeding colony of Tree Swallows) know that a single House Sparrow can "claim" 3 or more nest boxes. Those who monitor nest boxes paired for Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows also know that allowing a House Sparrow to set up residence in one of the paired boxes is a risky proposition at best for the native bird adjacent to these aggressive nonnative birds. House Sparrows can easily take both boxes for that matter.
For those who do not wish to trap House Sparrows, at a minimum, please do not allow them to breed in your nest box. You can legally remove their nests and eggs as they are not native birds and are not protected by law. If this is the practice you choose, I would also recommend not setting out multiple nest boxes as the House Sparrow will attempt to take over another one eventually. If you have only one box, managing this way will work for you. Although, the House Sparrow is likely to eventually go elsewhere and breed successfully there, creating more House Sparrow issues in the future.
If you live in a more urban area where House Sparrows are prevalent, you probably have little chance of attracting an Eastern Bluebird or a Tree Swallow. However, you can target a nesting of Chickadees or House Wrens by simply setting out a nest box with an entry hole diameter of 1 1/8". If you have a nest box with a larger hole, you can make or purchase hole reducers to screw onto the front face of the box. The smaller Chickadees and House Wrens will be able to enter whereas the larger House Sparrow should be excluded. Set the box in proper habitat for these birds. Wood edge habitat (Chickadee) or areas with brush or bushes (House Wrens) should work well.
If you would like to protect a native nesting bird from marauding House Sparrows, Sparrow Spookers are somewhat effective, though not foolproof (my Tufted Titmouse terrorist ignored it when I put one on the box). Sparrow Spookers should be installed after first egg is laid and removed after young fledge.
Intervention during a House Sparrow attack saved two of the six Tufted Titmouse nestlings.
House Sparrow droppings inside a nestbox
Above, a Van Ert Sparrow trap, shown in the set position (left) and tripped (right).
At right, a sparrow spooker