There are many different kinds of sparrows in North America. But, the house sparrow—the little brown bird we see hopping boldly on city streets—is the most widespread and most often in conflict with people. In fact, house sparrows are one of the most widespread animals on this planet. Likely this is because they are excellent at taking advantage of the opportunities we supply.
Living in close quarters with us, house sparrows can get under our skin when they get into our houses and stores, crowd other birds at feeders or birdbaths, or simply hang around in large numbers in public places. And the fact that people introduced them to this continent is sometimes held against them.
House sparrows are often one of the only birds willing to live in inner cities. Would we be better off if these places were empty and lifeless? Let’s accept these naturalized citizens and deal with the conditions we control to minimize problems.
What attracts house sparrows to urban areas?
House sparrows thrive on the food and shelter we provide. They prefer to live anywhere there are people. Like other common urban wild neighbors, we create perfect habitat for house sparrows.
House sparrows eat grains and seeds, our discarded food, and insects. They’re happy to eat many commercial birdseed mixtures. We commonly see them diligently collecting our leavings at outdoor cafes and picnic spots. Early morning commuters notice house sparrows dart from the road just in front of them, eating moths and other insects struck by cars the night before.
True to their name, house sparrows will make themselves at home in our homes. Dryer and other vents, attic vent louvers, and crevices, such as around window-mounted air-conditioners, are favorite nest locations.
Common problems and solutions
In the long run, we can best deal with any problems house sparrows cause us through the habitat we control. For instance, prompt trash cleanup using bird-proof trash containers goes a long way to limit house sparrow activity around outdoor eateries, picnic spots and dumpsters.
Nesting in building crevices and vents
Nesting sparrows can be very noisy. And house sparrows strongly prefer to nest in, on, or near our buildings. The noise can be annoying, especially because they start singing at the very first light. But their habit of packing nesting material in stove, dryer and fan vents may prevents use of the vents—a more serious problem.
Excluding house sparrows from places we don’t want nests before they build is the first—and best—approach. Install covers over vents and check screening over louvers before birds find their way inside.
If the birds have already started to move in, the basic steps are simple. See where birds are nesting, wait until there are no young present, remove nesting material, and block openings with netting, hardware cloth, or other appropriate materials.
If you find eggs or young birds in building crevice nests, leave the nesters to their task. The young hatch at different times and leave over a staggered period. So, you may have to wait 2 to 4 weeks. Check the nest frequently. When the young leave, as swiftly as possible, remove nest material and exclude the birds before they can start a second nest.
Dryer and stove vents
These can be slightly more complicated. Vents with nests inside may not function properly. This can be inconvenient or, in some cases, unsafe. The nesting material may need to be removed immediately.
Birds using vents make noise that the vent itself tends to amplify. Act right away if you hear scratching and shuffling. If eggs or young are already in the nest, can this vent be left unused until they fledge? If so, treat this nest like a nest in a building crevice.
If young are present in the vent and there is no option to leave them there until they fledge, the parents can still raise their young in an alternate nest.
- Make a substitute nest from a wicker basket, a plastic gallon jug, or a small birdhouse.
- Cut an U shape opening in the plastic jug and flip the “door” up to keep rain out.
- Attach the substitute nest as close as possible to the original nest, but in as much shade as possible.
- Carefully remove nesting material and nestlings, and place in substitute nest.
Noisy nestlings usually attract the parents who will continue to care for them. Watch the substitute nest to see that the adults return. They should not take more than a half hour or so, as growing young birds need constant feeding. If the adults do not return to nestlings, contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area for advice. This procedure won’t work with eggs, and you can remove house sparrow eggs when cleaning nest material out of ducts. However, we recommend leaving them to complete the cycle for this one nesting period, and bear in mind that virtually all birds but starlings and house sparrows are protected by federal law, and to remove their nests or eggs would be illegal.
Finally and importantly, promptly install a vent cover to keep other sparrows, and other birds, out.
Competing with other songbirds
Sparrows will use birdhouses we may intend for other species. They fiercely defend their nests, so they are vilified for edging out more popular native species, especially bluebirds.
Some believe there are fewer native birds because of competition from sparrows. Certainly, there are instances where individual native birds came out the losers against house sparrows. And bluebirds did decline in the early 1900s when European starlings and house sparrows were getting established. As a result a few nest-box providers resort to extreme measures—killing house sparrows for the perceived crime of occupying nest boxes.
But, the idea that house sparrows are causing widespread declines in native songbird populations today is not proved. In fact, house sparrow numbers have been declining across the United States over the last few decades while eastern and mountain bluebird numbers are up. And, bluebirds are as successful fledging young where they have sparrows as neighbors as where they do not.
If you want to offer nest space only to birds who are not house sparrows, there are several things you can do.
- Use nest boxes designed for your preferred species. Place them where that species likes to nest and where there’s plenty of their favorite food.
- Feed what appeals to the birds you wish to attract to your yard. Many native species enjoy black oil sunflower seeds, but house sparrows do not. Avoid foods sparrows favor, such as millet, milo, wheat, and cracked corn.
- Place nest boxes away from human activity and buildings (about 300 feet). House sparrows strongly prefer to nest near buildings; bluebirds prefer to nest farther from buildings.
- House sparrows stay put all year while native songbirds migrate. So, sparrows can get a jump on claiming nest boxes early in the season. Some nest box providers wait until migrants arrive to install boxes. Or they keep the entrance holes plugged until migrants get to the area.
- Put up two next boxes between 5 and 15 feet apart. Some nest box providers believe that if house sparrows claim one box, these territorial birds will keep other sparrows from using the other leaving it free for another species.
In public places
House sparrow visit open-air restaurants to help themselves to leftovers and dropped crumbs. Prompt clean up is the best way to discourage visits. Also, look for inviting habitat nearby such as convenient nest sites and open trash. When other attractions are removed, sparrows are likely to spend less time at cafes.
These clever little birds occasionally take up residence in warehouses, large stores, and shopping mall food courts. Here they are protected from the elements and provided plenty of (our) food.
The loading docks of these buildings are often open during business hours so birds can just fly in. Some house sparrows deliberately trigger the motion sensors that automatically open store doors for customers. Others learn to follow us in and out.
Some building managers hire wildlife control companies to come in after hours and shoot these birds using pellet guns. Other try to save expense by putting out glueboard traps—perhaps the most inhumane consumer product on the market—on perching surfaces.
Bird-proofing obvious entry points humanely deals with house sparrows getting inside. Strip doors or curtains, a series of overlapping flexible stripes, part to let people and things through. These can keep birds out of doors that must remain open for long periods.
Once sparrows are inside, they can be removed humanely by catching them with nets or in live-traps. Once caught, house sparrows can be released outside. This short-term solution removes the bird without killing, but it obviously is not a long-term solution to this problem. Only by working with store managers on more comprehensive strategies can the issue of problem birds in stores be successfully addressed and resolved.