Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Deterring House Sparrows at Feeders is Challenging
October 20, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     The colder weather has more birds coming to our feeders. Some customers are already 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 mammals at bay. Other folks are moving to more of the effective squirrel-proof feeders, like the Squirrel Buster series of feeders, which 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 complaint position is now the house sparrow, or English sparrow if you care to remember from whence they came. They are not 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 most every man-made dwelling and bird house in the country! And they visit most every bird feeder, or so it seems!

     So for those who have defeated the squirrels, these house sparrows have now become problem number one! Like the grackles, these birds eat most every kind of seed, and sometimes suet, that you can put out. They are particularly fond of seed 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 but some customer have told me that, like the grackles, sparrows like safflower and Nutrasaff (golden safflower) even less.

     One strategy I tried at our previous location, where we 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 was not foolproof, but it helped.

     I then learned about another mostly effective method of keeping house sparrows off of feeders. Well actually, I was first told about this a number of years ago by an older birding friend and I just didn’t believe it. She told me that she put a wire ring (I think she used an old tire rim) 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 house sparrows would not go near the feeders after that, but that all her other birds fed without problem. Really?, I thought.

     Then I visited a friend who has a bird store in Sturbridge. I looked outside his window and there he had a feeder with 4 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.

     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 forty 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 came in a month later and the sparrows were still just onlookers!

     Another customer whom I told about this came back in just a week. She pulled out her camera and showed me a photo of her Squirrel Buster feeder that was hanging from a clothes line. Her husband suspended two pieces of heavy yellow cord from the clothes line, weighted on the bottom, on either side of the feeder. She said it had been more than a week and her house sparrows would not go near it! Her chickadees, titmice, etc, all feed without concern. The chickadees even perched on the yellow cord but the sparrows had stayed completely away!

     Just one note of caution. Some articles that I have read promote the use of monofilament line. Birds sometimes get entangled in monofilament line, so I would think that string or cord might be safer, but more studies need to be done on this.

     We have also heard that young house sparrows have less fear of the strings than the adults, so it seems to become less effective later in the nesting season. Even when this is the case, it still reduces the number of sparrows that devour your seed.

     So if house sparrows are of great concern, then this is something that you might try. There have been a few short studies, even including on bluebird houses, which have been inconclusive so far. I would be interested in hearing your results. Good luck if you try it!


Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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