House Sparrow (12/9) Attack of the ‘Bird Mafia’

Image result for house sparrow

Photo © Brian E. Small

Sighting: On Friday, December 9 at 3:39pm, in the bushes in front of Common Wealth Hall.

Description of the Bird: Spying a small flock of tiny passerines (or songbirds) on my commute from campus, I took a closer look at each varying individual- the black-chinned male and drab brown female- and discovered that I had happened upon a flock of invasive house sparrows.

Male House Sparrow:

Photo © James Bush

Female House Sparrow:

Photo © Pheanix300

Range of the House Sparrow:

See It For Yourself: If you have ever been to a city or heavily urbanized area, the first passerine birds you might see would likely be a flock of house sparrows. As invasive species, these birds have adapted to human-populated areas, often using buildings and the likes as roosting and nesting places.

Males have a distinct head pattern, with a black mask covering their eyes and throat. Off-white patches of white decorate their cheeks and gray feathers cover their crowns. The brown on the male house sparrow is a reddish, rich, saturated color.

Females lack distinguishable features aside from the tan, off-white streak running from the beak area of the eye-line to the back of the neck. The entirety of the female house sparrow is usually a dull, desaturated brown with dark brown accents on the back.

Similar Species: White-throated sparrowAdult white-striped
Photo © William Jobes

While the white-throated sparrow’s chest and upperparts are similar to the house sparrow’s, the white-throated sparrow possesses a stark white eye line, prominent and characteristic white throat, and usually a yellow spot towards the beak area of the crown.

Similar Species: Song sparrow 
Adult eastern form
Photo © Ed Schneider,

The song sparrow is found in the same range as the house sparrow and possesses a similar drab and rich brown coloration on the back upperparts. However, the chest is more noticeably streaked and the off-white eye-line on the song sparrow is larger and more prominent than the buff brown eye-line of the female house sparrow.

Conservation Status: According to the IUCN, the house sparrow is categorized as Least Concern. The North American Breeding Bird Survey have recorded an 84% decline between 1966 and 2015.

How You Can Help: As an invasive species introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851, the fiercely territorial house sparrows- or as I unaffectionately call them, the “bird mafia“- displace native bird species from nest boxes and will go as far as to peck holes in native bird eggs, and even kill native bird nestlings and adults. The sparrows will strike whilst the native birds are in the nest box, trapping the victim and pecking them to death. Common victims of the house sparrow are eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and purple martins, but the house sparrow will attack and kill other nesting birds in the area.

One witness account from the Bluebird Conservation states:

“I found a dead Black-Cap Chickadee lying on her smashed eggs because the sparrow had killed her while she tried to defend her eggs and nest. Then, the sparrow didn’t even use the nest box.”

Here are pictures of native bird deaths by house sparrows. A forewarning: many of the pictures depict graphic deaths.

How to Deter House Sparrows-:

-From Nest Boxes:

  • Active methods of house sparrow control include removing nests and eggs, trapping, or rendering the eggs infertile by pricking them. A fair warning: a house sparrow male may go on a killing rampage upon finding their nest and eggs completely disturbed, and will kill other birds in the area. It is advised to, if the eggs have been laid, to render them infertile instead of causing any noticeable damage. The house sparrow is not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act so you can damage the eggs and nests without a permit.
  • Some passive methods of control include using monofilament.
    -According to the Bluebird Conservation, “house sparrows tend to be spooked by monofilament. They will fly towards it, flutter in place, and then fly away. Placing line on the roof may prevent house sparrows from perching on it (which they tend to do when claiming/defending a box.)”
    -This may not work forever as the house sparrows may become accustomed to the monofilament, yet observational accounts suggest that the sparrows “appear to prefer nest boxes without monofilament over those that have it. It is important to put up the monofilament BEFORE a male has ‘bonded’ with a nest box, in which case, he may ignore the presence of the monofilament.
    -“WARNING: To prevent the line from being pulled into the nestbox and tangling up nestlings, put a fishing weight or metal nut on the end of the dangling lines”.

Fishing line on roof to deter House Sparrows

-From Feeders:

  • House sparrows do not usually prefer safflower seeds, nuts, and thistle, although these foods will still be consumed during food shortages “so selective feeding is not an effective deterrent” (Bluebird Conservation).
  • “Put a hoop device such as the Magic Halo on your bird feeder, which repels an estimated 88-94% of HOSP in winter, 84% of summer. Other birds are not repelled. Hang hobby wire (28-30 gauge or the thinnest lightest weight you can find) from the hoop at 4 equidistant points, weighted with a fishing weight or metal nut so incoming birds do not get tangled in it” (Bluebird Conservation). This mechanism has been recorded to deter and scare house sparrows from the feeders. 

Magic Halo:

  • Place suet in an upside-down hanging cage. This will not deter native species such as nuthatches, woodpeckers, and even chickadees. However, house sparrows and European starlings dislike feeding this way.
  • If house sparrows continue to eat at your feeders, remove the feeders for two to three weeks. By that time, the house sparrows may have moved on. To get back into feeding, start only with suet or thistle in the feeders.

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