House sparrows are familiar, widespread birds. They’re a common sight in cities and their chirping is a familiar sound, but they aren’t always the most welcome guests to birdhouses and feeders. The common house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is considered an invasive bird in many areas, causing damage and problems for native species. They will take over prime nesting sites, particularly from eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and purple martins, and usurp feeders and overwhelm other visitors, including finches, tanagers, buntings, native sparrows, and Orioles, chasing them away, thus reducing backyard species diversity. This is exactly the opposite of most birders’ wishes, who often take great care to plan landscaping, choose feeders, offer nesting sites, and provide a varied diet to attract a greater range of birds. So what can you do to discourage house sparrows from invading your back yard and feeders? We have a few strategies.
First, A Little History
Early American farmers imported the house sparrow with the promise these birds would keep crop-destroying pests under control. Unfortunately, they failed to do the proper research: these birds’ diet consists mostly of seeds and grains, not insects. Eventually, with all the plentiful food available, the house sparrow settled in wherever man settled (including cities and buildings), and began to depend on the food in our gardens to survive, removing the need to migrate.
Making House Sparrows Less Welcome
Many birders think the only way to get rid of them is to remove all food, water, and shelter from the yard, which will also discourage other birds from visiting. There are other ways, however, to continue nurturing other species while making house sparrows less welcome. To keep house sparrows away:
- Change Foods – House sparrows eat a wide range of seeds and grain, but they especially love cracked corn and sunflower seeds. Replace these treats with Nyjer or safflower seed, nuts, fruit, nectar, or suet instead, and while they may still sample the menu, they won’t gorge as much and other birds will have more opportunities to eat.
- Change Feeders – They are stocky birds that prefer to feed in large groups. They are most comfortable on broad platform feeders or feeding directly on the ground. Removing those feeding areas by switching to mesh or tube feeders with short perches (less than 5/8 of an inch) will give other birds plenty of feeding space while encouraging house sparrows to move elsewhere for their next meal. At the same time, clean underneath feeders regularly so spilled seed won’t tempt house sparrows to stick around.
- Offer More Food – It may seem counterintuitive, but offering more food in the yard can actually keep these birds from taking over feeders. Offer an open, convenient feeding area with plenty of cracked corn or other inexpensive seed to tempt house sparrows, and they will be more likely to take advantage of the easy meal instead of bothering more challenging feeders for the food they like less.
- Less Water – These birds love to bathe vigorously in shallow puddles and baths, but that takes away water from other thirsty birds. Instead of providing large bird baths that they will take advantage of, opt for misters or drippers that will provide moisture to birds without inviting splashy baths. Small hanging waterers are another option for offering water without giving house sparrows a spa.
- Less Dust – These birds enjoy dust baths almost as much as they enjoy splashing. Removing dry, dusty areas from your yard will discourage this behavior and urge house sparrows to find a different place to get down and dirty. Use thick mulch over landscaping beds to minimize open dusting areas and consider planting groundcovers or filling in thin turf to remove other dusting options.
- Remove Nesting Sites – These birds are cavity nesters and will easily adapt to nesting in any nooks and crannies they find, including dryer vents, chimney overhangs, or loose siding. Cover, plug, or repair these potential nesting sites to keep house sparrows out. Because sparrows start looking for nesting sites as early as February and March, don’t put out birdhouses until April 1, and later nesting birds will have more of a chance to find their perfect home without house sparrows’ interference. Birdhouses with entrances smaller than 1.25 inches in diameter will also keep house sparrows from taking up residence.
More Aggressive Options
Even when birders take all possible steps to make their property less welcoming to house sparrows, these adaptable birds can still be around, and it may be necessary to take more aggressive steps to remove them. As an invasive species in North America, house sparrows are not protected by federal or state laws, and it is legal to remove them with traps or other lethal methods. Before taking any aggressive action, however, birders should check local laws to be sure any methods they use are allowed in their community. It is also critical to be sure that no deterrent methods could accidentally impact any other bird species, pets, or other wildlife. If other birds, for example, are harmed by methods, birders could be subject to fines or other penalties for harming protected wildlife.
Even with many different options to keep house sparrows away, it can still be impossible to completely eliminate these birds from your property. Successful management is possible, however, and will reduce house sparrow populations and problems, allowing many other birds to enjoy your bird-friendly yard without house sparrow interference.