Sparrows in my yard

How a birder coped with unwanted visitors

The bird feeder in my neighbor’s yard was a magnet. Dozens of sparrows at a time. I wished they’d eat only from his feeder, however, my backyard was the next course. One morning I stood at my back window and counted more than 60. I can take a few birds, but sun-blocking flocks? I needed to take action.

The English sparrow or house sparrow, so common across the country, including Spokane, is a non-native bird brought here from Great Britain in the 1850s. They’re mainly an urban or suburban dweller, though sometimes they can be found near farms which they use as a food source. A relative of mine in a relatively open area of Spokane Valley stocks a bird feeder and says she never has sparrows.

Sparrows are aggressive competitors; they’ll attack native birds with whom they share habitat, pecking open their eggs and taking over nesting areas. They often overwhelm bird feeders.

The sparrows have always been neighborhood residents, but their numbers and eating habits are changing. A year ago last summer was the first time they did noticeable damage to my backyard vegetable garden. I lived with it, even though I lost a crop of peas and the lettuce was heavily damaged.

This year they really honed in on my garden. They started eating plants they hadn’t touched before. I was forced to buy row covers to protect them.

One evening I removed a cover from a row of mature romaine lettuce. The heads were many and large, and I figured any damage they could do would be insignificant. How wrong I was.

When I came home from work the next day, the lettuce was in tatters. The neighborhood flock must have had its fill, then invited outside flocks. The row cover went back on.

I was working out of town not long after and upon returning, my front yard apricot tree, laden with ripe fruit, was devastated. Most was on the ground. What was left in the tree was damaged beyond salvage. The next morning I watched sparrows descend on the tree and peck away, confirming they were responsible. It was the first time they had touched the apricots.

It’d be nice if my cat Gloopy would deter the sparrows. She showed up at the door one summer, wouldn’t go away, and I was forced to adopt her. I reasoned in exchange for room and board, the least she could do is prowl the yard and take an aggressive, ‘this is my territory’ attitude.

In the past she went after the sparrows and occasionally she’d get one. But too many times she has struck out, and these days she watches more than chases. Now the sparrows seem to use my backyard as a gathering place.

To my dismay, Gloopy has lost her street cred.

My neighbor probably had no idea the sparrows were targeting my garden. I theorized his feeder kept the flock close by, and the easy food source gave a boost to the population. I put on my best air of neighborliness, walked across the alley, and asked him if he’d consider giving up the feeder.

He graciously agreed.

Taking down a feeder won’t lead to birds dying of starvation. Joyce Alonso, a member of the Spokane Audubon Society, says research shows birds don’t depend on feeders as a sole food source. But, if you want to keep a feeder and attract more native birds, don’t buy the grocery store mix.

“Put out black oil sunflower seeds. Sparrows have a hard time cracking the seeds because their beaks aren’t strong enough,” Alonso says. She adds that if you feed a lot, it’s better to buy the black oil sunflower seeds in bulk at a feed store to save money. And if you buy nyger, a type of thistle seed, native birds go for it as well.

Birdwatchers who plan to build bird houses this winter to have ready for nesting can use plans that favor native birds and deter non-native, such as house sparrows.

For instance, bird houses in this area should not have a perch or dowel just below the entrance hole. Sparrows and other aggressive birds use it as a perch to attack occupants. With nesting season long over, now is a good time to clean out birdhouses to prevent disease and make them available for next season.

Some birds even use the houses for winter refuge in bad weather.

With fall here and growing season waning, the sparrows have changed their habits and no longer pilfer my crops. Next year will be the test whether it’s me or the sparrows that eat the most from my garden.

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