NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 16, 2013

New ways to deter house sparrows

Words on birds
By Steve Grinley

---- — There is a male Calliope hummingbird, our smallest North American hummer, visiting a feeder in Manchester, N.H. The Calliope live in the hills and mountains of the west and normally migrate to Mexico.

Occasionally a few migrate east, more often to more southern states. A few have reached Massachusetts in the past, but this is the first record for New Hampshire. Despite the cold weather, this bird has been returning to a couple of feeders that are still maintained in a yard near the Londonderry border. To survive our cold nights, hummingbirds use torpor, which is a slowing down of their heart rate and their metabolism to conserve energy. Let’s hope this little guy continues to do well.

The cold weather does keep the all the birds coming to our feeders. So many customers are commenting on how much seed the birds are going through. Of course, the squirrels and other creatures are also eating their share, but this becomes less of a problem as people learn to use effective baffles to keep squirrels and other at bay. Other folks are moving to more of the effective squirrel-proof feeders, like the Squirrel Buster series of feeders, which finally outwit most of the squirrels.

Then there are the nuisance birds. In early spring to early fall, the number two complaint, after squirrels, is always the grackles. Those long-tailed, black iridescent birds come in flocks and eat everything that you put out. Thankfully, these birds have moved south for the winter. Moving up to the number two position of nuisance birds now is the house sparrow, or English sparrow if you care to remember from whence they came. They are not even a true sparrow but a member of the weaver finch family. These birds were introduced to America in the 1800s and have proliferated such that they seem to be in every manmade dwelling and bird house in the country. And coming to most every bird feeder, or so it seems.

So for anyone who has defeated the squirrels, these house sparrows are now public enemy number one. Like the grackles, these birds eat most every kind of seed that you can put out. They are particularly fond of mixes that contain corn or millet. If those are not available, they will eat sunflower, especially without the shell, but they also will eat the black-oil sunflower without problem. Striped sunflower, with its larger, harder shell is less attractive to the sparrows and some customer have told me that, like the grackles, sparrows like safflower even less.

What I did at our previous location, where were had bushes full of sparrows, was to put less expensive corn on millet in a tray feeder on one side of the building and put black-oil sunflower in tube feeders on the other side. The corn and millet kept the sparrows occupied while the chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals enjoyed the sunflower with less interruption from the sparrows. It wasn’t foolproof, but it helped.

I recently have learned about another mostly effective method of keeping squirrels off of feeders. Well actually, I was told about it by an older birding friend a few years ago and I just didn’t believe it. She told me that she put a wire ring (I think she used an old tire rim, in fact) secured to her feeder pole above the feeders, and hung weighted strands of string vertically around the feeders, with the string space about 8 inches apart. She told me the sparrows wouldn’t go near the feeders after that but all her other birds fed without problem. Really? Then, a couple of months ago, I went to visit a friend who has a bird store in Sturbridge. I looked outside his window and there he had a feeder with four strings hanging down around it. I had to ask. Bill told me that he was inundated with house sparrows and put up the strings after hearing about them as a sparrow deterrent. He said that now a sparrow doesn’t go near his feeder. Meanwhile, I watched chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches come and go.

Bill also turned me on to a commercial product called Magic Halo that I now carry for those that don’t want to create their own deterrent. The next week, I told one of my customers about what I had learned and he rigged up his own strings, suspending them from domes that he already had over his feeders. He came in later and said that his 40 sparrows go to the bird bath, they sit in the nearby bush and look at the feeders, but they don’t go near them. He just came in again, after a month and the sparrows are still just onlookers!

Yet another customer, whom I told about, this came back in just this week. She pulled out her camera and showed me a photo of the Squirrel Buster feeder that she has hanging from a clothes line. Her husband suspended two pieces of heavy yellow cord, weighted on the bottom, from the clothes line, on either side of the feeder. She said it has been more than a week and her sparrows don’t go near it! Her chickadees, titmice, etc, all feed without concern. The chickadees even perched on the yellow cord. The sparrows, so far, have stayed completely away! So if house sparrows are of great concern, then this is something you might try.

There have been a few short studies, even including on bluebird houses, that are inconclusive so far. I would be interested in hearing your results. Just one note of caution. Some articles that I have read promote the use of thin filiament line. Whether it is filament or string, birds sometimes get entangled, so I wouldn’t recommend that you use this method if you leave your feeders for days at a time. I would think that string or cord would be safer than filament line, but it is best to be safe until more studies are done on this. But if you are watching sparrows devouring your bird seed all day long, you might just give this a try. Good luck!

Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.