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The Home Habitat

The House Sparrow in America

Richard Van Vleck

(Note: this article was written for Home Ground in 1994. Since then, house sparrows have become infrequent visitors to our property. However, they are the most common species in the small towns 3 miles in either direction and in many nearby barnyards.

male and female house sparrows at nest box trap The house sparrow, along with the European starling, is a classic example of why we should not mess with Mother Nature. It was first imported to the United States in 1850, and, by 1887, some states had already seen fit to launch sparrow eradication programs. While our species have found many problems with the house sparrow over the past century, from eating and despoiling stored grain to defiling our property, we are most distressed with its unrelenting competition with native species for nesting cavities. The hordes of house sparrows that populate both town and country have made a substantial dent in the breeding success of our native cavity nesters such as bluebirds, purple martins, and tree swallows. Of course, the other half of this nesting site deficit equation is the hatred for dead wood that 20th century Americans have developed. Bluebirds have perhaps been literally "saved" by the many thousands of nestboxes provided for them. But, even these are frequently usurped by house sparrows.

So, what is the real status of the English sparrow in America? This evening I have been reading several turn of the century accounts of this species in various early nature books and government publications. and, the sparrow is vilified in every article. Some portray it reasonably accurately, while others deny its several good qualities. W.T. Hornaday writes "Daily we see the unclean little wretches grubbing in the filth and microbes of the street, where no American bird will humble itself to feed". The Agriculture Library, published in 1912, contains an entire chapter by Ned Dearborn, entitled "How to Destroy English Sparrows". One of their best suggestions offered is to hang a nestbox in a tree and catch the sparrows occupying the box after dark with a net. He goes on to write "The most effective method of preventing the increase of sparrows in a locality is to destroy their nests at intervals of ten to twelve days throughout the breeding season".

In contrast, the 1853 Patent Office Report for Agriculture contains several articles on the importation and protection of useful songbirds. Reading these articles, one cannot help but have sympathy for the goals and aspirations of these bird importers. John Gorgas, of Wilmington, Delaware, writes: "I imported last year from Liverpool two lots of skylarks, both of which arrived safely and in good health. The first lot, twenty in number, arrived on the 20th of February, (1853), and were kept confined until the 19th of March, when they were liberated. The other lot, 22 in number, arrived on the 18th of April and were set free the next day. The last lot were only 22 days from the time they were trapped in England until they were turned loose in Delaware. I ordered only such birds as had been reared wild in the nest, as their instinct of self preser-vation would not likely be so blunted by familiarization as to render them incapable of getting their own living, nor shun their natural enemies. I feel a strong hope that the experiment will succeed, as the birds may now be seen (July 24) ascending to the sky, warbling their beautiful melodies as cheerfully as they do in merry England. There is little doubt but they will propagate with us and be useful in destroying myriads of insects and their larvae, like many of our native birds". The skylarks, of course, didn't survive, nor did most of the other species mentioned. Only the house sparrow and starling flourished, while the Eurasian tree sparrow, introduced in St Louis in 1870, continues to hold its own locally in part of Illinois and Missouri.

A century after we humans imported the house sparrow, we are still calling it an alien species. The English sparrows in our yards are, perhaps, 40th generation Americans. And, humans have certainly done more damage in the New World than all of the sparrows and starlings combined. Nevertheless, our native cavity nesters have not learned to cope with the house sparrow, and the results have been disastrous.

Whether we accept responsibility for the plight of our native cavity nesters or attribute it to the bird brain of the house sparrow, we still must deal with the problem. And, basically, that means we must at least discourage house sparrows that try to use nestboxes. No one believes that, after a century of trying, we will ever be able to eliminate the house sparrow from America. And, local elimination is possible only with continual vigilance. The sites of purple martin colonies must be protected from both house sparrows and starlings. It is most important to keep the martin house entrance holes plugged in the spring until the martins arrive.

Away from martin sites, many people have resigned themselves to living with the house sparrow. If a large number of sparrows are trapped or shot, it won't be long before others move in from surrounding areas to take their place. Attempts at mass extermination probably accomplish very little in the long run. However, trapping and killing house sparrows found using bluebird boxes is as important as erecting the box in the first place. As mentioned in the previous issue of Home Ground, allowing house sparrows to successfully nest in bird houses may cause these birds and their offspring to become even more acclimated to nestboxes. For many years, I have immediately trapped and killed any male house sparrow that claims a bluebird nestbox. This now happens quite rarely.

The greatest bluebird nestbox predation in our yard has not been by the house sparrow or raccoon or black rat snake. It has been the house wren, a fascinating little bird that almost everyone loves to have near their home. We try to keep our wrens and bluebirds separated by providing plenty of habitat and nestboxes for both, and, most years, this works. But, when the house wren population is large, the wren habitat becomes saturated, and they seem to spill over into the open areas and take over the bluebird boxes. During a recent wren explosion year, we had a pair nesting in our woodshed, two more pairs sharing the mailroom in the barn, but, using separate entrances, and a pair nesting on the porch. Also, almost every nestbox for titmice and chickadees by the creek had an active wren nest and every bluebird nest was destroyed and taken over by wrens. The next year, no bluebird nests were destroyed and all of our cavity nesters seemed to be thriving, including the wrens. So goes the ebb and flow of bird populations on our property. (2002 update- Since this article was written, 8 years ago, wrens have not been a problem at our bluebird boxes placed out in open areas, due to the use of wren gourds placed in adjacent wooded areas. However, the wrens still plague the other cavity nesters who require this same wilder habitat).

Two years ago our very first pair of tree swallows stayed to nest, followed last year by 5 pairs. This has meant doubling the number of bluebird boxes, but the tree swallows are a welcome addition here, a mile south of the Mason-Dixon line, and they don't seem to affect the bluebirds in any way.

Unlike the blue birds and tree swallows, both the house sparrow and starling will nest in close proximity to other pairs of their own species, making it impossible to saturate an area with nestboxes so that other species will be able to nest.

House sparrows can also overwhelm bird feeders by their sheer numbers. Although ours have never shown any interest in sunflower seeds at the feeder, they have, on two occasions, attacked the sunflower heads hanging in the barn. However, for many years, the sparrows in the barn completely ignored the hanging heads. When they did begin feeding on the flowers, they did so with a vengeance. We had to move the remaining heads to another building to prevent a total loss. For three years, we did not hang flower heads in the barn, and, when heads were stored there four years latter, the sparrows didn't bother them until the following spring when only a hundred or so were left. I don't know if it takes that long for the sparrows to recognize the sunflowers as a food source or if they only turn to them when other food is exhausted. It may be that none of the sparrows that had learned to harvest the upside down bundles of flowers four years earlier were still alive, and the current generation had to rediscover this unusual food source.

Sparrow traps are an easy way to keep house sparrows out of bluebird nestboxes. While a string can be used to trip the pivoting hole cover, a solenoid works much better. Each of my boxes is fitted with solenoid mounting blocks and a predrilled hole for the swinging arm. When a house sparrow begins to use a box, the solenoid and hole cover are attached and the trap is tripped from a nearby vehicle. The vehicle battery is used to power the solenoid, making a separate power supply unnecessary. In a dozen years of trapping sparrows in bluebird boxes, I have invested a total of only, perhaps, three or four hours and trapped a dozen or so sparrows. But, they were the right sparrows.

Oct 2002 update Now, 8 years later, house sparrows are uncommon in our yard, but one or two males spill over into our yard every year and make a move on a bluebird box or martin gourd. This year, one managed to kill a tree swallow in the box, then decided to nest under the eaves of the barn. The male began using a sparrow feeder the next day and was shot. The female moved on.

use of nest boxes and nest box traps by starlings and house sparrows

the house sparrow in 19th C. America

the European starling in America

the pellet gun - a valuable tool in house sparrow and starling control

2022 update - Return of the barn owls
2021 Chimney Swift tower success!!!
2020 Barn Swallow nesting
Barn swallow nest cups
2019 Barn Swallows and Black Rat Snakes

2018 - The Barnyard Balance of Nature Goes Awry
Black rat snakes vs barn swallows, Northern flickers, kestrels and others

2018 Purple Martin preference for clam shells
2017 - Return of the Monarchs!
2017 Purple Martin prey photos
2010 - 2016 Northern flicker nestings
2014 house wren gourd use
2014 - A dramatic loss of many types of insects
2019-2020 Purple Martin nesting
2014 barn owl nesting - prey study
A new barn swallow shelter for 2013
2010 barn owl nesting
2010 Update
2016-2017 Kestrel nestings
Starling traps
Using blinds in the home habitat
Providing perches for birds
Providing snags for wildlife
The ugly young maple
2001 - 2013 nest cams
Use of tomato cages as hunting perches by insectivorous song birds
Vultures, beetles and the resurrection of life

Species of interest in our yard - photos and articles
barn owl American kestrel purple martin barn swallow Eastern bluebird
tufted titmouse Eastern phoebe yellow shafted flicker tree swallow chimney swift
house wren big brown bat Carolina wren brown thrasher catbird
cedar waxwing Northern mockingbird
Yellow warbler Acadian flycatcher

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