I’ve been meaning to write this article for a long time. As a member of a few birding forums, I see a lot of requests for advice with sparrow trapping and shooting and I always post a lot of information, but never thought about putting it all together into one article – until now. This article will benefit both blue birders and purple martin landlords, as well as anyone who puts up housing to host any of our beautiful North American native birds.
After I shot my first starling in 1998, I put the gun away and cried for three days. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it again. Then, I moved to Missouri in 2007 and decided that I wanted to put up a purple martin house and have a bluebird trail on my 23 acres. But when I first read the articles on the Purple Martin Conservation Association forum about hosting purple martins, my heart sank; one of the key elements for attracting and keeping purple martins is control and elimination of the non-native, invasive species; the European Starling (EUST) and the English House Sparrow (HOSP). Then I read the bluebird forums and found the same information and learned that HOSP are also a particular problem for bluebird trails.
Entrances on purple martin housing can be fitted with Starling Resistant Entrance Holes (SREH), to keep starlings out and the holes on bluebird houses are far too small for the starlings to enter. The more insidious problem is the HOSP, because any hole that was small enough to prevent the HOSP from entering would also prevent the purple martin, bluebirds or tree swallows from entering the nest box as well.
During my first year I trapped and killed more than 35 HOSP at my site. They wreaked havoc on my purple martin, bluebird and tree swallows’ eggs. At first, I was timid in my approach, however, after experiencing the loss of 5 one-week old baby tree swallows, my compassion for the HOSP ended. A male HOSP came by at 7 AM one morning and by 7:30 AM had committed the atrocities for which he is well known. At that point, I declared war on every HOSP and became determined to educate every purple martin and bluebird landlord that I came into contact with about the issues with allowing HOSP to breed and roam their sites.
Figure 1- One-week old tree swallows were victims of a HOSP attack.
Identifying the Starling and English House Sparrow:
The Starling is pretty easy to recognize: bright yellow, long beaks, long legs and irredescent coloring of their feathers.
The male English House Sparrow is also easily recognizable, but the female is a bit more difficult to identify. The male’s markings are pretty distinct, with the distinguishing ‘bib’ below his beak. The female has a buff-colored stripe that goes through her eye and a buff-colored belly, but the most telling indicator is that she’s hanging out with a male HOSP. The other indicator is that they are invading your nest cavities and building a very unique nest. The Sialis.org site has much more information on id’ing HOSP.
|Figure 2 – Male English House Sparrow||Figure 3 – Female English House Sparrow|
If you are interested in only passive measures for managing HOSP and starlings that are invading your nest boxes, then you should read no further. Passive measures such as nest pulling do not work and you are not yet serious about protecting our native birds. I am only interested in protecting the native birds that I invite to nest on my property and by doing so, I feel obligated to do my absolute best to protect them and their offspring. Allowing a HOSP to live only serves to delay the inevitable and ensures the death of one or more of our native birds. I have found that other stories, such as, “if you shoot the male, the female will leave” are simply not true either. I’ve shot 3 males that had paired up with a female that became attached to a neighbor’s house and she never left, until I was finally able to kill her too. The only measures that will guarantee that your native birds won’t be harmed by these non-native species are aggressive measures intended to kill them.
Do not be discouraged by the number of house sparrows around your area. This study by University of North Dakota determined that the HOSP has a range of 2-4 miles from its natal site and most of them won’t venture beyond that range. That means that yes, you can make a difference by trapping out large numbers of HOSP in your area.
From the article: “A concerted effort based on trapping could reduce house sparrow damage on the small, experimental plots of cereal grains and sunflower grown at the station.” Reference:
I have to admit that I am not a crack shot. I do have my days where I am dead-on and other days when I am dead-off! I have an RWS-850 –C02 pellet rifle and I love it. Others highly recommend the Beeman R-7 break barrel gun, but I have no experience and cannot speak to that gun. Search the “Straightshooters” forums and the PMCA forums for more discussions on the best gun for you.
I actually prefer trapping now over shooting, but I will shoot if I have to. The lessons I have learned are: 1) Only shoot a pellet gun on the days when it is less windy; 2) only shoot when you are confident of your shot; 3) take your time – if you shoot & miss, the bird will become skittish and it will be difficult to get a future shot on him; 4) use vehicles or cheap camouflage sheets / tents to allow you to get closer to your target; and – most importantly – 5) Buy a QUALITY pellet rifle the first time. Don’t even waste your money on the cheap pellet guns such as those at Walmart – you will only waste your money and your time and become extremely frustrated. Go ahead and spend the money, especially if you plan on hosting birds for years to come.
The best times of day for shooting & trapping are in the morning when they are searching for nest sites.
English House Sparrows
There are many different traps that can be used in various situations to trap the non-native birds. Unfortunately, HOSP are smart – you just need to be smarter. Trapping requires you to consider the HOSP behaviors and use them against him. For example, the HOSP has a tendency to hop, so trip levers on traps work well; also, they are very sensitive to any changes to their nests, so be careful when pulling one that you’ll be using later to camouflage traps. Once a HOSP has committed to a nest and laid an egg, they aren’t likely to abandon, so use his commitment to the nest box and egg to set your trap (there is no 100% guarantee on this, but it works *most* of the time for me). You’ll also find that the presence of other birds returning to the housing will help drive the HOSP back to his nest to protect it from them. I have waited for 30-40 minutes after setting a nest box trap, with the HOSP sitting 30’ away and refusing to return to his cavity. But when the martins / bluebirds flew back to their box, the HOSP immediately came back to defend his territory.
Below, I’ll discuss my three favorite traps and the strategies for using them.
- The Universal Sparrow Trap, seen here is a simple, insert trap that fits inside most martin housing nest boxes. You can catch both starlings and HOSP in this trap. I only deploy this trap when one of them has become interested in a particular cavity. I have found that the trick to using this trap is to ensure that the bird cannot see the wire walls of the trap.
- Cut 3 pieces of cardboard to the exact size of the inside walls of the cage. Spray paint them with a flat black paint, let the cardboard dry, then slip a piece into each side of the trap and the third piece goes inside the back door. When you slide the trap into the nest box, the bird will not be able to determine the dimensions of the cage and will more readily enter the trap.
- Another trick I use for the hard-to-catch, wary HOSP is to let them build their nest (it takes a lot of patience) and lay an egg. This normally only takes a day or two. Carefully remove the front of the nest (try to keep the tunnel shape of the front of the nest) and take out just the small nest cup, keeping as little of the cup as possible, but enough to hold the eggs, with the egg intact. Place the nest cup containing the egg in the back of the trap and insert the trap back into the nest box. Before closing the nest box door, try to rebuild the front of the nest around the front of the trap and then close your nest box door. Keep a close eye on the trap entrance, as you don’t want to catch any curious native birds that may try to enter. Using this method, I have usually trapped the HOSP within the first 30-60 minutes of placing the trap.
- After you catch the male or female that went in, if they didn’t break all the eggs, reset the trap and wait for the other. Put your trapped HOSP in the repeating trap in the holding pen. She / he is *bait* for future sparrows, so give him / her food & water & keep them alive.
- The Repeating Bait Traps – my absolute favorite is the Blaine’s Repeating Sparrow Trap. Repeating traps work best with the proper bait for the right season. During the off-breeding, winter months when the birds are hungry, use cheap millet seed, French fries, chunks of white bread and / or popcorn. During the breeding season, the only bait that will work is other HOSP in the holding pen. Their strong mating instinct draws HOSP to either males or females in the trap – I’ve found that either sex of the species works equally well as bait. This trap has 3 features that make me prefer it over any other trap on the market:1) A small screen over the entrance into the holding pen that prevents the trapped birds from re-entering the trip-cage area.
2) A screen around the trip-cage area that prevents anything from escaping that may get into that part of the trap.
3) A rubber flap over the retrieval door that prevents any birds from escaping past your arm when you reach in to retrieve them.
Placement of repeating traps:
a) If you have HOSP that are trying to nest in your martin housing, place the trap just below your martin house – off to the side 4-6 ft., up on a small platform that’s about 1-2 ft. high. Put a couple of feathers just outside the trap so the sparrow can ‘win’ by grabbing a couple and he’ll get cocky / comfortable around the trap. Place more feathers, or some of the old materials from the last nest tear outs in the bait tray of your trap.
b) You can also trap HOSP by placing your repeating trap near their favorite bush where they hang out. Again, make sure you put it up on a small 2-3’ platform.
c) The end of the breeding season is a good time to catch the newly fledged HOSP that have been fledged by your neighbors. If you keep 2-3 HOSP alive in your repeating trap holding pen and a cheap millet seed mix in the bait tray, you will find that the newly fledged HOSP will march right into the trap.
3. Van Ert Trap – With 15 bluebird and tree swallow nest boxes at my site, this trap has been my most-used trap. At $9.00 each, it is a bargain for all the headaches it has helped relieve. This trap comes with a couple of sets of screws and is portable. You can simply put the screws in the inside of your nest box door and when a HOSP invades, slide the trap on the door, set it and wait.
- I have actually had more of a problem with HOSP invading my bluebird housing than my martin housing, so if anyone is having an issue with HOSP and their martin housing, my first recommendation is to put up a bluebird box and set this trap.
Attracting HOSP back to the box after inserting the trap:
Make it desirable for HOSP to go in. Put a little Sparrow type nesting material over trip mechanism to hide it and make him think another bird might be building nest. Stick a long strand of grass out of the hole (makes him think another bird is trying to take “his” compartment and in he goes). Scatter some nice nest material on ground under the nest box near “his” hole (makes him want to add it to “his” nest). Try purchasing small craft plastic eggs that look like Sparrow eggs. Place egg on trip mechanism or in back where he can see it and have to go in after it (he knows it is not “his” egg and will want it gone). All these things will allow you to catch him quickly.
- Once the HOSP is trapped in the nest box, I use a kitchen trash bag placed around the nest box, then open the front door and let him fly into the bag. Once he settles in the bottom, close the bag and place him / her in the holding pen of your repeating bait trap. The reason I use a kitchen trash bag is that I have tried just lifting the door slightly and reaching into the cavity, but given that I need some room to get into the nest box, it often leaves just enough room too for the HOSP to zoom out of the box and escape.
- As I have a neighbor whose barn is hosting HOSP and producing numerous vermin during the year, I’ve had to get smart about trapping them before they get to my nest boxes and kill my nesting native birds. I have found that if I place a decoy nest box containing traps, directly in between his barn and my nest boxes, that it is usually the first (and last) stop for the HOSP. I’ve been using this strategy for 2 years now and I have trapped 80% of the HOSP that come here in this trapping box. This is a two-chamber nest box trap. The door on the left is a trap door for Trios that was sent to me by someone on the PMCA forum a while back. I just mounted it to the front of this ‘box’ that I screwed together out of left over wood. The other chamber has a Van Ert trap in it. On the back are 2 retrieval doors, 1 for each chamber.
- I had a problem with the blue birds and tree swallows insisting on trying to nest here, so I finally closed down the box on the right and cut a smaller hole out of a sour cream lid, then duct-taped it over the larger hole on the door. I used a 1 3/8″ Forstner bit to cut the hole in the plastic lid, but as the bluebirds were still squeezing in, I adjusted the hole down another 1/16″ by sliding the lid over the door edge. That did the trick! So, the net effect is 1 5/16″ hole. Since then, I’ve only caught HOSP in this trap. The roof rests on top of the two T-posts and to keep it from tipping, I have 2 screws on each side, just far enough apart to let the trap slide down the t-posts. It was cheap, but it is very, very effective.
When sparrows have started nest building, only the female sleeps in the bird house.
Knowing this information, you can go out in the dark of night, quietly sneak up to the bird house and block the entrance. Place a plastic garbage bag over the bird house and flush the female sparrow out. Insert a nestbox trap the next morning, and when the male returns to check out the nest, he will be trapped.
As Starlings can be kept out of martin housing by the deployment of Starling Resistant Entrance Holes (SREH) and are not able to enter the 1.5” holes on bluebird housing, I don’t have much of a problem with them anymore. I do have a few that will stop by and try to invade my woodpecker nest cavities and my wood duck boxes, however, they are quickly dispatched by shooting and / or use of the Van Ert trap as described above. I will be discussing more on Starling trapping in my next article.
Please visit Chuck’s Purple Martin page for more information and strategies & tips for trapping & killing the non-native birds:
Plans for a Do It Yourself Starling Trap are available here: