Sunday, January 17, 2010

Keeping House Sparrows away from bird feeders

In mid-September I posted the following question to several birding e-mail discussion lists:

"Earlier this summer the House Sparrows discovered my feeders, with a vengeance. I was feeding no-mess seed and black-oil sunflowers in tube feeders. I hadn't had problems with sparrows before. I stopped filling my feeders about six weeks ago, hoping that the sparrows would forget about them.In a couple of weeks I want to start putting feed out again for the winter. I was wondering if anyone could suggest bird feed I could use that doesn't appeal to House Sparrows? And it would be an added bonus if it didn't attract House Finches too."

Evidently this is a popular topic. I received nearly 50 replies to my question, by far the most responses I’ve ever received for an e-mail question.

The responses ranged from despair ("It is a lost cause") to resignation ("We have decided that if we are going to have birds, we can't select what we feed. Take what comes."). Several people suggested violent but tempting solutions. For example: "How about a sawed-off shotgun?" and "I'm convinced that there is only one way to keep them from your feeder. Two letters...BB." :-)

The advice people offered can be broken down into two categories: 1) The type of feed to use (and/or NOT use), and 2) Equipment.

The most interesting aspect of the "type of feed" advice is that some people experienced contradictory results, i.e, what worked for some people did not work for others. For example, where one person said they got rid of sparrows by offering safflower seed, another remarked that their sparrows got used to safflower and started eating it. Where one person said they solved their problem by only using feed with no millet or cracked corn, another related that this did not solve their HOSP problem. A couple of folks said HOSPS didn’t like peanut pieces, while another said their HOSPs liked them ("we have 45 or so House Sparrows at our feeder and they consume everything, including peanut pieces"). And one person even said that black oil sunflower seed worked for them at one residence, but when they moved to another house the HOSPs there LOVED black oil sunflower. A couple of people suggested "diversionary feeding" (feeding cracked corn and white millet onthe ground away from the feeders), while others tried that without success.

In my original note I also said I was considering feeding peanut pieces. Several people encouraged me to do so, saying it would attract many desirable species. But others warned of possible dire consequences: "If a squirrel or raccoon can get to the feeder it WILL be destroyed" and "The squirrels will tear your feeders apart trying to get to the peanuts. I really would discourage feeding peanut pieces for that reason." More on my experiences with squirrels and raccoons in a bit.

As far as equipment is concerned, several people suggested various solutions that used monofilament fishing line. They all said it worked like a charm in keeping the HOSPs away from the feeder. But two of them had experiences with other species getting tangled in the lines and decided it was not worth the risk. While it sounds like it has potential, I’d rather not risk the chance of having to untangle a bird from monofilament. From my experiences with fishing, it’s bad enough when monofilament gets tangled with itself, let alone with a bird.

Very few people had suggestions with regard to bird feeders. There were suggestions about how to keep squirrels away from feeders if I decided to feed peanut pieces, but very little about the feeders themselves. But the overall best piece of advice I received was about feeders. Leslie in Wheaton gave some great advice when she said: "The perches are the problem – get rid of the perches." Apparently HOSPs don’t like feeders without perches.

Intrigued by Leslie’s suggestion I went into my storage shed and found two feeders that would let me conduct a "no perches" experiment:

1. This feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited has perches, but they can be flipped up. I tied them up with garbage bag twisty ties, just in case an enterprising HOSP figured out how to flip them down. Birds cling to a metal mesh to get at the feeding ports. I filled this one with sunflower hearts.

2. This Duncraft feeder has no perches. I filled this one with a woodpecker feed mix (shelled peanuts, sunflower kernels, corn, pecans, pistachios, shelled pumpkin seed, and dried cherries).

Both of these feeders have the added advantage of being squirrel-proof. I’ve never seen a squirrel get anything out of them in the past. And I found out that they are raccoon-proof as well. The night after I added the woodpecker mix a raccoon destroyed my ceramic birdbath while trying to reach the feeder. It must have perched on the edge of the birdbath and tipped it over. The next night a raccoon knocked over the stand that holds the feeders and scattered the feeders across the patio. The feeders were fine and lost very little feed. I weighted down the base of the stand and have had no problems since.

The HOSPs definitely do NOT like the perch-less feeders. The Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy and Downy and Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers, Goldfinches, etc. all LOVE the setup. I will occasionally scatter some seed on the ground to keep the juncos and other winter sparrows interested. Even so, I rarely have House Sparrows around.

CAVEAT: I'm not claiming that this solution will work in every situation. As I mention above, what works for some people may not work for others, so your mileage may vary. But after four months of this experiment, so far, so good.


  1. They attack and empty my perch free feeder in less than a day...

  2. Wouldn't you lose Cardinals and Titmice if you used this approach? Might be worth it, but I'd really miss these species.

  3. I got rid of house sparrows off my feeders permently.After trying everything I got a burning laser pointer ($100). Very powerful - can be seen even in bright sunlight. It does'nt really burn except in closeup and it does not harm.But it scares the hell out of house sparrows and they don't come back. Finally success!