The house sparrow, Passer domesticus, is one of the most familiar, widespread birds in the world. It is in many ways a remarkable bird, believed to be one of the oldest known bird species and a marvel of adaptation. Even if you aren't a birding enthusiast, you will quickly recognize this smallish bird (about 6 inches from head to tip of tail). Females and young birds are pale brown and grey, while the mature males have brighter black, white, and brown markings. House sparrows have stubby, squared-off tails, and the thick conical beaks common to other seed-eating species, such as finches. These little birds have a fondness for dust-bathing, and you will often see them in summer raising up dust clouds with their fluttering wings.
An Invasive Species
The house sparrow originated in the Mediterranean region and spread naturally throughout Europe and eastern Asia. The birds were imported to North America during the 1850s for nostalgic reasons and to help control insect populations. By the time it was realized that house sparrows do not regularly eat insects outside the nesting season, the birds’ range had already spread uncontrollably. Today, there are an estimated 150 million house sparrows in North America alone, and the species is one of the most abundant birds in the world.
None of this would be a problem, except for the fact that house sparrows are also invasive birds that disrupt other bird species in many areas. Many birders prefer to discourage house sparrows in order to attract a more diverse range of birds in their yard and to protect other species threatened by house sparrows’ aggression. Because these birds are not native in North America, it is permissible to use fairly aggressive methods to control house sparrow populations. Along with starlings, house sparrows are one of the few species that are not protected by federal law.
Problems With House Sparrows
House sparrows can cause many problems for native birds, including competing for nesting sites, even killing adult birds, hatchlings, and eggs; taking over food sources and reducing diversity at feeders; and crowding out less aggressive birds from traditional ranges and habitats. While all bird species may suffer somewhat from the invasion of house sparrows, particularly vulnerable species include:
These birds are often in direct competition with house sparrows for food and nesting sites, and house sparrows’ more aggressive, bullying behavior is often successful in displacing them.
7 Ways to Get Rid of House Sparrows
Birders can take different actions to get rid of sparrows and make life easier for native birds. Just as it is necessary to pay attention to birds’ basic needs when attracting them, successfully discouraging sparrows will take a concentrated effort to eliminate the conditions that attract these invasive birds.
Get Rid of Sparrows' Favorite Foods
Eliminating favored food sources is one of the easiest ways to stop house sparrows from visiting. Birders who do not want to see house sparrows at their feeders should remove cracked corn, wheat, oats, millet, and bread scraps from their buffet. Sunflower seed should also be either limited or restricted to small feeders that sway in the wind, which can spook house sparrows but will not always be effective.
To continue feeding birds without attracting house sparrows, birders should fill feeders with Nyjer, safflower seeds, suet, nectar, fruit, and nuts, none of which are preferred by these aggressive birds. House sparrows are flexible and may still sample these foods, but they aren't as likely to overcrowd feeders without their favorite treats.
Change Feeder Styles
The types of feeders used can also make a difference. House sparrows prefer to feed on the ground or on large, stable hopper or platform feeders; remove these feeder styles to discourage house sparrows from visiting. Instead, use clinging mesh feeders, socks, or tube feeders with perches shorter than 5/8 of an inch to prevent house sparrows from perching easily. Clean up spilled seed quickly to discourage ground-feeding sparrows.
Make Water Less Sparrow-Friendly
House sparrows easily visit birdbaths for drinking and bathing. To discourage these birds, remove birdbaths or add uneven rocks to the basin to break up bathing spots. Use misters, drippers, or small hanging bird drink stations instead of full bird baths to provide water to other birds without attracting house sparrows. Furthermore, investigate gravel areas and open soil to eliminate dry, dusty patches that house sparrows use for dust baths.
Reduce Available Shelter
House sparrows are highly adaptable and can shelter in a wide range of locations. While it would not be prudent for birders to remove all shelter, depriving native birds of safe spaces, it is possible to minimize shelter for house sparrows.
Keep garage doors and sheds closed to prevent birds from entering, and avoid putting out bird roost boxes that will encourage house sparrows to claim territories. Scare house sparrows away from sheltered spots in the evening so they will be forced to find less protected spots that make them more susceptible to nighttime predators. Installing mesh beneath a home’s eaves may also be effective in keeping house sparrows from roosting in those protected areas.
Remove Sparrow Nesting Sites
House sparrows aggressively compete with native birds for nesting sites, often injuring or killing other birds in the process. To prevent this behavior, avoid putting up birdhouses or nest boxes until April 1. House sparrows typically begin choosing nesting sites as early as late February or early March, when other birds have not yet arrived in their breeding ranges.
If a house sparrow has claimed a birdhouse, plug the entrance hole with crumpled paper or a rubber cork for several days until the bird moves on. Relocating boxes may also be effective, though it is just as likely that the house sparrows will discover the new locations.
Birdhouses made from PVC pipe can be effective deterrents since house sparrows prefer wooden nest boxes. Birdhouse entrance holes should be smaller than 1 1/4 inches in diameter, though this may also exclude smaller native birds from using the house.
Protect Native Nesting Sites
Once other birds have laid their first egg in a house, adding a “sparrow-spooker” can be effective to protect the nesting birds and scare house sparrows away. A sparrow-spooker is an arrangement of hanging Mylar strips that dangle above the roof of the birdhouse to discourage house sparrows from approaching. Other birds are not as easily frightened and will continue to use the birdhouse and tend their nest.
Attract Native Sparrow Species
It can be worthwhile to take steps to attract native sparrow species even as you work to keep house sparrows away. If more birds are using food sources, nesting sites, and bird baths, there will be fewer resources available to attract house sparrows. Attracting any additional bird species, such as wrens, jays, and warblers can also help remove space and resources house sparrows would use.
What Attracts House Sparrows?
House sparrows are attracted to human habitation, and thus are often most prevalent in areas of dense human habitation. They are drawn to areas where there are plenty of seeds from plants or weeds to eat, and they are regarded by farmers as an agricultural pest. Many a country boy has earned a bounty from local farmers for plinking house sparrows with an air gun.
In urban areas, house sparrows will congregate near cultivated gardens or areas where songbirds and other animals are being fed seeds and grains. Thus, these invasive birds and extremely populous birds are rarely welcomed by anyone.
How to Prevent House Sparrows
Keeping house sparrows from chasing away native songbirds involves denying the shelter, food, and water they need to live comfortably. The reality is that birding enthusiasts will need to keep up an ongoing effort when it comes to discouraging house sparrows since they thrive in many of the same conditions to which more desirable birds are drawn.
Can I Kill House Sparrows?
In extreme cases of house sparrow aggression or entrenched populations, it may be necessary to resort to stronger control techniques that actively reduce the house sparrow population. Options include shooting house sparrows, trapping birds to kill them (relocation is not desirable because that simply moves the invasive problem to another region), and destroying eggs or nests to prevent population growth.
Before attempting aggressive controls, however, it is wise to consult a wildlife management office, as not all tactics may be legal or suitable in certain areas. Any aggressive techniques should also be carefully monitored so they do not impact other species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It can be hard to distinguish an invasive house sparrow from native sparrows, so make sure you are an expert at identification before you consider lethal methods.
What Does a House Sparrow Sound Like?
The call of the house sparrow has described variously as chirrup or philip, The vocalization is especially prevalent from the males during the breeding season, when they make the call repeatedly but randomly at short intervals. Groups of house sparrows will vocalize in a matter that forms a monotonous, chattering background noise, devoid of any melody.
How Long Does a House Sparrow Live?
House sparrows typically live four to five years, usually remaining with the same mates for life.
Where Do House Sparrows Nest?
These birds prefer to build nests in hollows, but will also tuck outdoor nests into crooks of trees or under building eaves. They will also take over nests built by other birds and are very competitive with bluebirds for nesting sites. The male of this species is the nest-builder.
What Do House Sparrow Eggs Look Like?
House sparrows usually lay four or five eggs, which can be white to bluish-green, with gray or brown spots. They are about 3/4 inch long and 1/2 inch wide.