Dear Bird Folks,
I’ve read your columns about keeping grackles and other large birds away from feeders. My problem is with small birds, House Sparrows to be exact. They devour all the birdseed before the other birds have a chance to eat. I live in an urban area where there are tons of House Sparrows. My only hope of getting a variety of birds is to keep the sparrows away. Any suggestions?
– Carol, Brockton, MA
I like baseball, Carol,
I know that has nothing to do with your problem, but it has to do with the City of Brockton. For years I thought the Kansas City Royals were from Kansas City, Kansas. It made perfect sense to me. It wasn’t until the 1985 World Series, when everyone talked about the cross state rivalry with St. Louis, did it finally hit me that the Royals were from Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas. Who knew there were two Kansas Cities? Recently, a similar thing happened with the City of Brockton and its high school’s logo. A customer came in wearing a Brockton Boxer’s T-shirt. On the shirt was the image of a boxer…the dog. What? A dog? The Brockton Boxers are about dogs? When did that happen? I was certain the nickname “Boxers” had to do with heavyweight champ, Rocky Marciano, who was from Brockton. I was shocked by this dog news. I would have been less surprised if I’d discovered that the Brockton Boxers were named after underwear. Actually, that would be pretty cool. We could have the Jamaica Plain Jockeys and the Framingham Fruit of the Looms. Okay, maybe not.
You don’t have to live in an urban area to have problems with House Sparrows. Just about any place where there are people and buildings you’ll find House Sparrows. This sparrow’s first name, “House,” is a clue. They used to be called “English Sparrows,” probably because they were introduced from England. Or perhaps, like the British, these birds have pretty much colonized the entire world. And as is the case with all colonizers, their arrival has caused lots of headaches for the locals. House Sparrows are aggressive at food sources and are downright deadly when it comes to securing nesting locations.
House Sparrows are tremendously adaptive birds, equally comfortable around the dumpsters in a commercial setting or on a feeder in a landscaped backyard. Many folks have inquired about a type of food they won’t eat, but I doubt one exists. They’ll eat anything, even Pringles. And because they thrive in cities, which can be filled with the sounds of gunshots and sirens, they aren’t easily frightened away. Heck, these birds are so tough they don’t even mind the constant sound of the leaf blowers that dominate my neighborhood.
While House Sparrows may be tough, someone discovered that they do have a weakness. It turns out House Sparrows are afraid of monofilament fishing line. That’s right. These adaptive, aggressive birds don’t want anything to do with ordinary fishing line. They hate it as much as the fish do. A single strand of the stuff will stop a House Sparrow in its tracks. Do you believe it? Neither did I. I had to find out for myself.
To test this theory, I took a plastic weather dome, one that is used to protect a hanging birdfeeder from rain, and attached six, evenly spaced, 12” strands of fishing line to it. The lines hang down like the tentacles of jellyfish or one of those weird rain lamps from the seventies. In the two years that I have been using this contraption, both in my yard and at work, I have not seen a single House Sparrow on the feeder. Not a one. None. Zero. I’ve seen plenty of chickadees, jays, titmice and finches eating at the feeder, but not a single sparrow. To be sure, the sparrows are still around. It’s not like they moved back to England, but now they only pick up scraps off the ground. That’s the good news. Now here’s this.
Before everyone starts draping fishing line all over their birdfeeders, I must pile on the cautions and disclaimers. The use of monofilament to deter House Sparrows is fairly new and is not an exact science. Fishing line is nasty stuff. Each year carelessly discarded line entangles and kills thousands of birds and other forms of wildlife. Anyone using monofilament around a feeder must take every precaution to ensure that no creature, bird or otherwise, becomes tangled in it. Feeders must be monitored 24/7/365. This is not for those folks who have the foolish habit of filling a feeder and then going away for a week or weekend. Leaving unattended feeders is not a good thing, regardless of what kind of feeder is being used.
I wish I could tell you the safest way to use monofilament, Carol, but as I said, this is new and we have yet to learn all the pitfalls. My homemade jellyfish dome works great, but I doubt it would get UL approval. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that monofilament does keep House Sparrows off my feeders. With a little caution and common sense it should work for you, too. If you are afraid to try monofilament, you could always use one of those Brockton Boxers to keep the sparrows away. I’m talking about the dogs, not the underwear.