Sparrow Discord 'round Th' Birdfeeder

jaybear_4k(z5b)July 20, 2005

Sparrow discord: Two weeks after installing/situating a decorative and practical mini-aviary (feeders, birdbath, hanging plants, bird-friendly landscape, etc.) as the primary focus of our enclosed porch, ...we began to have a beautiful coming of every local species of birds...including many hummingbirds. From early morning to night, there were always opportunities to get more familiar with the regulars, favorites being the spectacular cardinals and blue jays, and the red winged blackbirds & tufted titmouse...which all seemed to interact peaceably. That was mid spring. Then the starlings began to show-up more often and blue jays would scuffle with them, seeming to be chasing them off. Then eventually the blue jays stopped coming, to my chagrin because they were the most interesting both visually and with their tones...& habits. Then the sparrows began to come in groups and the cardinals and starlings and a pair of mourning doves seemed to share the ground level seeds comfortably, ...while the sparrows took turns hording the feeder level seeds...sloppily tossing-out more seeds than they ate, which worked-out okay for the ground foragers. NOW we are only being visited by THOSE sparrows, which I am fine with...but would like to have the whole spectrum of birds return. Such a beautiful daily routine of avian sites & song appear to have become sullied by a group of 8 or 10 sparrows...whoÂve completely taken over; least it looks that way.

I have stopped refilling to the feeder in hopes of starting the cycle over again from the beginning in a couple weeks. Does anyone have any advice or a shared experience? TIA.

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jillmcm(z6 PA)

I am assuming that you are having problems with house sparrows (HOSPs), an introduced, non-native pest species. They can be very aggressive and monopolize feeding stations. There are several ways to discourage them from visiting, though.

The simplest may be to change what you are feeding. Switching to black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS) and/or safflower will discourage the HOSPs, which prefer millet, corn and other filler seeds. Cheap mixes are not cheap in the long run, as many birds toss out the filler seeds, leading to a mess and attracting undesirable birds. BOSS and safflower are enjoyed by most native birds, especially cardinals. Do not offer millet, milo or cracked corn.

There are also devices available for your feeders to discourage HOSPs that do not affect other species - google "magic halo" for more information.

As to other birds in your yard, many species are less visible at this time of year than at others. My jays have also vanished, but I expect them back in the fall. Other birds will also cycle in and out of a feeding area based on their breeding, etc. If you switch to offering BOSS and safflower, I am sure that you will see your regulars return.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 2:43PM
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I am also assuming you are talking about house sparrows. You have just described the basic state of the environment around many suburban and urban homes. You have been given a snapshot of how non-native species slowly erode diversity. Species diversity makes for a healthy environment around your home, so I would think you would want to encourage it. Jill has given you some good advice.

The thing is that bird feeders do generally attract non-natives and they concentrate the birds into one area making them attractive to predators, such as hawks. Once they find that your feeder is a good place to get a meal, you'll have a hard time discouraging them from hanging around waiting. Your plantings, on the other hand will attract more diverse species as well as provide cover for the birds to hide from predators.

I vote for more plantings!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 5:38PM
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Thank you, jillmcm. Thank you VERY much. ...We will switch to the BOSS & safflower; & if it comes down to it, we'll have a look at the "Magic Halo". I am also happy to hear that the disappearance of the blue jays is a common seasonal occurrence, ...because I certainly do dig those jays. Do the cardinals, who seem to be ground foragers, generally become less visible until fall as well? Most ALL of the species have vacated...accept for the sparrows ~ I will make an effort clarify whether they are HOSPs, ...but they certainly do fit the mannerisms. Even the blackbirds & starlings are gone. The hummingbirds are the only others to remain frequent. Your post was very informative; ...I can pretty much always count on the Garden Web forum for the best intentions of it's panel.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 5:46PM
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vonyon, ...thanks. This is our first year feeding birds...& therefore all good info is appreciated. Next year we intend to locate/install a few specific birdhouses on the property...and increase the bird-friendly plantings around the feeders. I will surf Garden Web for more info on species specific plantings. We have an overpopulation of wasps and other stinging insects in the area so IÂm trying to pinpoint any species that eats while in flight...or just plain eats these types of insects. There are several barn swallows nested nearby, however I have not seen one catch a wasp out of the sky yet. But I suppose IÂve strayed from the topic. Again, ...thanks for the "plantings" advice.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 6:13PM
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Jay, Swallows take all food "on the wing." That would include barn, cliff, tree and any other swallows that frequent your area. I'm not sure if they eat wasps though. I have loads of tree swallows and barn swallows around here. The thing about bird boxes/houses is that you will probably only get the house sparrows in them. They are so aggressive that they will also kill/maim any native cavity nesters that try to use them. Also, wasps tend to like boxes, so be sure to soap of use vaseline on the roof and a few inches down the sides. I wipe off any excess, but it keeps the wasps from being able to build.

The other thing I was thinking about your post and this time of year I notice a lot of birds disappear. I believe that many molt now or soon and that seems to make them scarce. Also, berries are ripening as well, so they seem to relish those.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 7:07PM
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Great replies, ...thanks. We enjoy the swallows flight-acrobatic feeding in the meadow beside the house...when there are swarms of tiny insects several feet above the ground before dusk. I will take your points regarding bird boxes under advisement, fact, after reading your post, I did some reading on boxes and the problems with NON-indigenous species...yadda-yadda, ...and have probably come to the conclusion that we will just focus on making the feeding area most effective and scrap our bird box intentions altogether. WeÂll leave that to the pros. Much like the black squirrels, Asian ladybugs, and multiflora rose (which I find attractive and pleasantly scented, but just too overpowering to all other plant life) are the antagonists to their kind & us, the house sparrows & house wrens look to become our avian spoilsports.

To jillmcm: The feeders have now been refilled with the combination of BOSS & Safflower, nix on the millet and cracked corn sparrow staples; ...with a feeder off away from the main area on the edge of the woods for the wild seed mix weÂve been using (have to use it...itÂs out there, now, hopefully, the sparrows can eat and fight amongst themselves...chuckle). Although one tidbit I just read on another site is: House sparrows can break the soft shells of the they CAN and may eat it. BUT not as a staple, thatÂs positive. IÂll post the share how itÂs going.
...All smiles :o)

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 8:56PM
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Jay, Just a bit of info for anyone that happens to read it. house wrens while ferociously competitive, are natives. That means that even though the spoil the nests of many other natives, there isn't much that can or should be done about them. You can remove any false nests that the male makes of sticks though. Amazing that something like that would attract female wrens isn't it?

If you ever change your mind about doing the boxes, check in on the bluebird forum. The hobby is good for the natives and fun. I'm glad there are people that do a bit of research before just putting them up. It can be disastrous for the birds if not done right.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2005 at 11:50PM
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jillmcm(z6 PA)

Good luck with everything - let me second what Vonyon has said about native plantings - they are the single best thing you can do to attract more birds to your yard. It's just tough waiting a few years for things to fill in, fruit, berry, etc. But we have had more than 60 species of birds in our suburban yard (about 10 miles from Philly), and while many enjoy the feeders, the rest come for the plant foods and bugs.

Also, adding a water feature, even something as simple as a glazed saucer with water dripping into it from a suspended milk jug with a pinhole (what I have three of), will bring even more birds in. The only time we've had a mocker in our yard was during a hot spell when they came to drink and bathe.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2005 at 10:44AM
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Jill and Vonyon are right about the native plantings. I have extensive native plantings (in a small yard in an old, built-up suburb) and no feeders. I also have abundant native birds, with few house sparrows and no pigeons or grackles, throughout the year. I also use no pesticides so there are abundant insects for birds (usually the preferred food source for nestlings), and I have a small birdbath for water. Right now, as the raspberries finish and the chokecherries are fruiting abundantly, there are so many birds around that I think we could sell tickets. The activity in the backyard is absolutely amazing. And all this takes less than 5 years from planning to fruition.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2005 at 11:18AM
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jillmcm: ...We have a very nice woods bordering the east side of our yard that we cleared to ground level, about 15 or so feet back, 8 years ago (accept for the trees and larger saplings and burdock ~ which I enjoy and respect too much to cut back). We leveled the area because the previous owners had used it as a dumping site for waste construction material, & it became a haven for poison ivy and the like. In fighting that nasty plant back off the ground and trees, we all went through a bad time with poison ivy. Worth it. There is now a flourishing old giant umbrella shaped maple [my favorite] & a beautiful holly tree in the back yard, that we transplanted in a prominent place after digging it out of nearly being smothered by poison ivy, as a reminder of that painful/itchy season of endeavor. We, then, just let nature reseed itself in any indigenous way it would, ...while tossing a seed or two in from time to time. Now itÂs thick, beautiful & willful of more space, ...& we are prepared to enhance it with fruiting vines and such...once we get a good list of the MOST effective plants. IÂm thinking wineberry, blackberry, blueberry, sunflowers, buckwheat, Jack-in-the-pulpit, bluebells, goldenrod & some kind of aster ...for starters. There are some cleome, lavender, alyssum, echinacea, coneflower and morning glories there already; I seeded them, ...but probably NONE are indigenous [chuckle] plants.

~You said, "Also, adding a water feature, even something as simple as a glazed saucer with water dripping into it from a suspended milk jug with a pinhole (what I have three of), will bring even more birds in."~
Our water feature is a large concrete bird bath with hanging plants suspended above & to the side; their long branches dangling into the water along the sides of the basin. Sufficient?...or should I install some sort of moving-water device?

~You said, "The only time we've had a mocker in our yard was during a hot spell when they came to drink and bathe."~
Not sure why that notion has gone over my head, ...unless you are speaking of the
Northern mockingbird Mimus polyglottos...or the likes of the Blue Mockingbird spoken of in the following poem:

Sorry for the wordiness of this post, ...but you have inspired my imagination.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2005 at 12:05PM
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jillmcm(z6 PA)

Sorry, by mocker I did mean northern mockingbird. They generally prefer a more open yard than we have (but their cousins, the catbirds, are here in abundance).

Moving water works better than still water for attracting birds - they are drawn to the sparkle and sound of dripping. So you might want to consider adding something that will drip in. If you could conceal the milk jug in the hanging plants, I'm sure you'd have a very attractive set up. Another option is the Water Wiggler, a battery operated device that keeps the water in motion - also prevents mosquitos. Of course, if you're emptying the bath every day or so to keep the water fresh, mosquitos aren't a problem anyway.

Your brushy area sounds nice - good vines that I have here in PA for attracting birds and butterflies include trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans (will go bananas if you let it, hummers love it), virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia (berries are beloved by birds), virgin's bower, Clematis virginiana (butterflies and small pollinators are all over it in late summer/fall) and as much as this will make you cringe, poison ivy. It is a very important food source for a lot of birds, especially woodpeckers, so we let several of the huge vines on the fringes of the yard alone and just eradicate their youngsters as we find them. I'm horribly allergic, but I still like the plant (at a distance).

    Bookmark   July 22, 2005 at 3:35PM
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All these suggestions that one query has garnered will certainly make for some great new beginnings around this yard of ours. Thanks.

Yes we do change the water often in the birdbath, but I will give some thought to a moving water device. ItÂs a pleasant background noise after all. Will also do some reading on the plants youÂve suggested. &, not to worry, there is still an abundance of poison ivy a little deeper in the woods...along with some jewelweed...which, as we found-out about a year or two after the big poison ivy debacle, is an effective antidote for urushiol. Although I could never be as positive about poison ivy as you [chuckle].

By the way, since refilling the feeders with BOSS & safflower, there have been little to no visitations to the site that we have seen, ...accept for the hummingbirds who are fearless...and some robins ground foraging. While the feeder we placed at the edge of the woods for the sparrows is nearly emptied in just two days and has as much as 15 or twenty sparrows wrestling for it all day. Funny. We hope to see all the indigenous wild birds returning to the main feeders soon.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2005 at 5:10PM
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jillmcm(z6 PA)

Many of the feeder birds vanish for much of the summer - they are too busy stuffing bugs into their babies to visit the feeders. I see all of my regular birds around the yard, but only the goldies and house finches are busy at the feeders, with the mourning doves cleaning up underneath. Don't worry, everybody will be back in the fall.

If you want to go broke feeding the birds, try offering mealworms. All of the birds in my yard are gaga over them, from the robins (ever see one teetering on a feeder? probably worth the money I'm paying for the bugs in laughs alone) to the wrens to the chickadees and catbirds. The babies will come by in droves with the busy parents flitting to and fro.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2005 at 9:13PM
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Jill, I notice they leave around mid to late summer also. I always assumed it coincided with the ripening of the native berries (viburnum, elderberries, etc.)

    Bookmark   August 1, 2005 at 9:26PM
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