Noisy English sparrows unwelcome at bird feeders

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, December 8, 2013

Put out some winter sustenance for your chickadees and cardinals, and this drably feathered pest will show up in numbers, hogging the seeds, knocking them on the ground and quarrelling with the other birds.

Their raucous chatter and squawking tells you that your feeder has been invaded by the hoard of unwelcome visitors, and sometimes you start to wonder if trying to attract winter birds to your backyard is worth the effort.

Along with another ill-considered import, the starling, the English sparrow is a classic example of someone's bright idea gone terribly wrong.

In the mid 1800s, inchworms were becoming a problem in New York.  The foliage on shade trees was being eaten up, so the directors of a local institute decided to import a known worm-eater to help the local birds take care of the problem.

Eight pairs of English sparrows were introduced, and when this apparently didn't get the job done, another hundred were brought in the next year.

As they say, the rest is history, and as one writer aptly sums it up: “It wasn't long before the destruction of crops, the spread of disease and parasites, competition with song birds, its filthy habits and a population explosion revealed its introduction as a huge mistake.”

More bad news was soon learned about the sparrow.  Just a few of them can multiply into thousands in a short time.  Among the most prolific of birds, they can be counted on to raise three and sometimes as many as five broods per year.  Since each brood often has five or six chicks, their numbers go up exponentially.

The sparrow is a bad neighbor to our more desirable songbirds.  Not only does it compete for food with them, it is also a cavity nester and seeks out hollows in tree (or that nice bird house you put out for your nuthatch).

Being an aggressive bully, the sparrow usually wins the turf war. During nesting season it will even kill other birds to take over a prime site.

Luckily, we've been spared the flocks that seem to descend on urban feeders.  During the past three decades we've been feeding birds, only a handful of sparrows have shown up in our yard and never more than a single pair.

One reason might be that for all its blustering, the sparrow appears to be a cautious bird.  Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches will readily eat off the feeding shelf just under the window.  I can even stand a foot away and many of them will be undaunted by my close proximity, but a sparrow is far more skittish.  They don't seem to like coming that close to the window and will fly away at my approach.

If you're plagued with “sputzys” (a name we used to call them when we were kids), there are a few things you can try. 

Since the bird is rather short and chunky, it can't feed while hovering.  Trim down (or cut off) the perches on your hanging feeders and it will be difficult for the sputzy to use them since it's primarily a ground-feeder and not adapt at eating on the wing or clinging. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers that are used to hanging to tree bark, however, won't have a problem.

Another tip is not to feed cracked corn, millet or bread. Switch to black oil sunflower, thistle and safflower instead.

The sparrow's girth also can be used against it when putting out a birdhouse next spring.  Some claim that a 1 3/8th-inch hole will discourage the portly pest from taking over. 

How can you tell if a sparrow has started to settle in your birdhouse?  As might be expected from this slovenly bird, its nest is a big loose, shapeless bundle of dry grass, rather than the tidy nest built by most songbirds.

For more information on managing this destructive pest, go to sialis.org/hosp.htm#revenge

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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