Deal with house sparrows and starlings and May Feeder Survey


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: How to deal with house sparrows and starlings that try to take over nest boxes for bluebirds

ANNOUNCEMENT: The May Feeder survey starts today

This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 contains a copy of the column on the above subject as it appeared in the Post Standard in Syracuse on May 1.

Section 2 has more details on the above subject as well as the results of the April Feeder Survey.


Mr. Burtt: Starlings use my bluebird nesting box every year and the bluebirds are driven away. What can I do about this? –M.C., Port Byron.

Mr. Burtt: House sparrows are trying to take over some bluebird nest boxes we put up in the yard. What can we do? J. N., Walworth, NY.

Dear J.N. and M.C.: Your questions deal with different pests, but keeping the nest boxes just for bluebirds is a common problem.

CAPTION: This is the male eastern bluebird perched on his nesting box. It is the only one of our thrushes that nests in a hole. It is unable to make its own cavity so there is competition with starlings, tree swallows, wrens and house sparrows for every available site.( Photo courtesy of John Rogers of Brewerton).

The Starling Problem
I will answer the starling question first for it is the easiest. Starlings are larger than bluebirds. If the hole is a perfect circle and exactly 1 ½ inches in diameter the starling can not get in, but the bluebird is able to enter easily,

This hole must be bored very carefully. If the hole is just a tiny bit longer one way than the other, that is, it is not a perfect circle, starlings will squeeze in. So, if starlings are using your bluebird box, that means the hole is too big or it is not circular. So you should fasten a piece of thin plywood with the correct size entrance over the hole in the box.

How about House Sparrows?

If you make the entrance small enough to exclude house sparrows you will exclude the bluebird. Since house sparrows live around buildings, bluebird boxes should not be placed close to houses and barns.

If you must place them near buildings, you can put bluebird boxes in pairs about 10 feet apart and the house sparrow will probably take one and leave the other for the bluebird. This does work in most cases. It also works when tree swallows try to take over bluebird boxes.

Some people have had success in repelling house sparrows by attaching one end of a strip of colored ribbon or a piece of monofilament fishing line to a stick projecting up above the box. It hangs down and flutters in the wind. This often will keep away sparrows, but it does not bother the bluebirds.

Announcement: The May Feeder Survey Starts today.

Incoming flights

It is time for the warblers to arrive. Also due this week are the least flycatcher, the great crested flycatcher and the kingbird.

The chimney swift and the catbird are due. The song of the wood thrush should be heard any day now. The white-crowned sparrow will start to pass through to the north. Also expected are the whip-poor-will, red-headed woodpecker and bobolink.

In about a week we expect the veery, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, rose breasted grosbeak and hummingbird.

Another solution to the house sparrow problem.
In regard to the problem of House sparrows and bluebird nest boxes,
Since house sparrows are not protected by law, you can destroy them if you wish to do so as long as you do not harm any other birds in the process. There are traps available that catch them in your yard or there are types that can be put in the nest box that close the entrance when the sparrow gets inside.

If you wish to learn how to make and place bluebird nest boxes, click on
Bluebird boxes

Results Of the April Feeder Survey
During the first week of April, 83 readers counted the birds visible at their feeder and in their yard. For comparison with results from earlier surveys, the numbers given in the discussion below are averaged as if exactly 100 reports came in.

The most abundant species at feeders and in yards was the dark-eyed junco. This is the time of the year when juncos that went south are moving back through this area to nest in southern Canada. Thus April always gives us the highest junco count for the year.

Next in descending numbers were the red-winged blackbird, goldfinch, cowbird and starling.
Birds at the typical feeder

Most every feeder had chickadees, juncos and mourning doves. downy woodpeckers, crows and cardinals. About 75% included goldfinches, blue jays, grackles, robins and starlings..
Birds present during the winter

A measure of the winter population of a particular species is the sum of the six feeder surveys from November through April. Last year there were 5,395 goldfinches tallied. This time we had 4,898. These each were larger than in any winter since the feeder survey started 45 years ago. Normally, it is about 3000 each winter. So the winter population of gold finches has increased in recent years.

The red-breasted nuthatch.

They breed from Pennsylvania north to the limit of the trees. Those that breed in the very northern part of the range move southward in the winter and for that reason we see more in the winter than during the breeding season.

The winter numbers have been higher in alternate years since about 1989. 2005 was one of the low years. Before 1989, the numbers were irregular and followed no pattern from one year to the next.

Species reported by only one person
Niles Brown of Tully listed a black duck. Margaret Miller tallied a common merganser and purple martins near Sandy Pond. At Potsdam, George and Jackie Miller saw a brown thrasher. David Pardee had a screech owl at Brewerton.

The only house wren was seen by Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo. In Cazenovia, Jeanne Ryan tallied a snipe and a swamp sparrow. Steve Swanson spotted an osprey near Brewerton. At Liverpool, Judy Thurber saw two black-backed gulls.

Kathleen Vogt spotted two white-crowned sparrows near Nedrow. Next month we will see hundreds of them as they head back north. John and Elizabeth Wallace listed a red-shouldered hawk near Brewerton. In Fabius, Ted Williams had a rusty blackbird.

Ken Zoller of West Winfield was the only person to report bank swallow and rough-winged swallow, Bonapartes gull and green winged teal.

How many species were seen?
There were a total of 88 species listed, but the average list had 21 species. More species are seen in April than in the winter when 14 would be about average. The shortest list was turned in by Norma Griffins 4th grade class at New Haven. The feeders visible from their classroom are inside a courtyard completely surrounded by the school building. In spite of that location their feeders were able to attract mourning doves and goldfinches.

Other short lists.
Seven species were listed by Fran Vanderveer of Westmoreland. Cynthia Wallace had 10 at Elbridge. There were 11 species on the lists from Helen Clark of Camillus, Alan Fitch of Marcellus and Elaine Lyon at Cortland.

Tallying 12 species was David Bigsby from Syracuse. Also tallying 12 in Syracuse was Dawn Franits. Helen Sterling got 12 at Cleveland and so did Mrs. William Woernley in Homer and David and Kathleen Zakri in Liverpool.

The Long Lists
The longest list had 47 species and was turned in by Ken Zoller at West Winfield. Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo had 46. Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus tallied 43.

Other long lists were:
42 from David Pardee of Brewerton
41 from Jeanne Ryan of Cazenovia
35 from Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville
34 from Dorothy and Steve Hanzlik of Whitney Point.
33 from Bill Purcell of Hastings.
33 from Kathy and Scott Trefz of Perryville.

Below is the list of all species reported. The first number for a species on the list is the number of individual birds of that species on 100 reports. The second number is the actual number of reports that listed that bird.
This last number can be very useful to you. If the bird is unusual in early April that second number will be small, perhaps less than 10. So if you have such a bird it means that very few other people spotted one.

Loon 2 (2); great blue heron 22 (17); turkey vulture 106 (29)).

Geese and ducks: Snow goose 359 (4); Canada goose 1,512 (54);
wood duck 33 (7); black duck 1 (1); mallard 79 (26; bufflehead 29 (2); common merganser 14 (1); reing-necked duck 6 (3); green-winged teal 31 (1).

Hawks: Osprey 6 (2); bald eagle 3 (2); northern harrier5 (4); sharp-shinned 9 (9); Cooper's 8 ( 8); red-shouldered 1 (1); red-tailed 30 (24); kestrel 10 (6).

Pheasant 7 (6); ruffed grouse 4 (4); turkey 136 (24); killdeer 23 (14); snipe 1 (1); woodcock 9 (7).

Gulls: Bonaparte 2 (1); ring-billed 102 (18); herring 78 (6); black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 89 (13); mourning dove 391 (90).

Screech owl 1 (1); Horned owl 4 (2); kingfisher 3 (2);

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 54 (38); sapsucker 7 (6); downy 196 (89); hairy 91 (59); flicker 35 (29); pileated 10 (9);
rough-winged swallow 1 (1); phoebe 37 (29); purple martin 25 (1); tree swallow 112 (23); bank swallow 5 (1); bluejay 223 (78); crow 404 (88); raven 8 (3).

Chickadee 384 (96); titmouse 107 (55); red-breasted nuthatch 35 (24); white-breasted nuthatch 114 (68); brown creeper 7 (7); Carolina wren 3 (3); house wren 1 (1); golden-crowned kinglet 13 (3).

Bluebird 42 (17); hermit thrush 2 (2); robin 342 (92); mockingbird 4 (3); brown thrasher 2 (1); cedar waxwing 21 (3); starling 424 (77); towhee 4 (4).

Sparrows: tree 130 (36); chipping 47 (30); field 5 (4); fox 36 (23); song 168 (59); swamp 1 (1); white-throated 44 (22); white-crowned 2 (1); junco 926 (92).

Cardinal 230 (88); red-winged blackbird 581 (70); meadowlark 4 (3); rusty blackbird 1 (1); grackle 966 (78); cowbird 341 (58); purple finch 86 (40); house finch 172 (58); redpoll 46 (6); siskin 9 (3); goldfinch 457 (79); evening grosbeak 51 (3); house sparrow 332 (46).

May Survey starts today
The last Feeder Survey of the season starts today and continues through Saturday. Record the largest number of each species you see at any one time during the week. Lots of reports are needed. Short lists are just as valuable as long ones.

At the end of the week, mail or e-mail the report to the appropriate address below.

Benjamin P. Burtt
Professor of Chemistry Emeritus
Syracuse University
Home: 6161 Smokey Hollow Rd.
Jamesville, NY 13078
Telephone 315-469-6887