Filed Under (rural life) by admin on 14-05-2008


I hate house sparrows. These beasts, also called English sparrows, are an invasive bird species that aggressively abuses native birds. A house sparrow is a rather drab brown and tan bird. It’s small and fearless, nesting among humans in just about any available nook or crevasse.

If a house sparrow has a song, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I have heard a house sparrow’s annoying, persistent chirp—the same grating tone again and again and again. A house sparrow chirps this way as it blockades entries to nesting boxes; impedes access to feeders; and generally harasses other birds, squirrels, chipmunks, dogs, and people.

In contrast, there are several bird species native to the United States that have all kinds of character and color. For example, the robin has its trademarked red breast and, while it also will nest anywhere and chirp harassingly, it tends to ignore birds or other species, and it offers up real songs from time to time.

There are far more exciting natives, and from occasional articles in the local paper, you’d think these birds would be easy to attract… actually, they are easy to attract. I hung a nesting box one spring, and almost immediately a bluebird couple moved into it. Another spring, I raised a twelve-room purple martin condominium twenty feet above my back yard, and purple martins came! (Purple martins are swallow-tailed birds that are blue on top and cream underneath–well, the adult males are all blue. They soar and swoop over a neighborhood, chowing on insects and flashing purple when the sunlight hits them just so.)

Most cool of all: every season that we’ve bothered to hang a hummingbird feeder, hummingbirds have come. When the garden fills with blossoms, we don’t even need a feeder to attract hummers… they arrive anyway.

Now for the ugly part: within a day of the bluebirds moving into my nesting box, house sparrows started harassing them, and a day later the bluebirds left. Within a day of the purple martins moving into my condominiums, house sparrows harassed them and a day later the martins were gone. (Thankfully, house sparrows care nothing of hummingbirds.)

This spring, a pair of Carolina wrens discovered the purple martin condos (now standing only six feet above the yard), and nested in one of them. A Carolina wren is a very small brown bird with a tight, intricate pattern woven into its feathers—as though it’s wearing a fine tweed. Wrens actually sing, and they’re uncommon enough, that it’s always a pleasure to see them flitting around the garden.

Of course, the bad boy house sparrows descended on the purple martin condos, strutting in front of the entrance to the wrens’ home, and chirping that bone-headed chirp. The wrens—smaller birds than the sparrows—stood their ground. They didn’t directly challenge the sparrows, but they stayed on the nearby garden fence, on the play set, and on the ground beneath the martin condos. The sparrows carried on for hours, but I saw the next day that the Carolina wrens were still coming and going at their purple martin condo home.

I’m glad that some native American birds can hold their own against house sparrows. The bird books encourage: If you encounter these bad boys of birds, kill them. I haven’t figured out how to do that without breaking a law. But, when I find house sparrow nests in my yard, I destroy them repeatedly, seeing the sparrows rebuild day-after-day until finally they leave, or they build somewhere else out of my reach.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural living) by admin on 28-03-2008

The 9-month-old, shriveled ornamental cherries at the end of our driveway attract Hitchcockean numbers of hungry robins when winter holds on past the end of February.

Migratory birds apparently don’t have the inside track on knowing when spring-like weather will start. Some years, it comes as early as the first week of March. Other years, it doesn’t come until April. The birds arrive pretty much at the same time each year.

This year, robins arrived from the south as usual in the last week of February. Snow still covered the ground, and it was very cold. I imagine that from a robin’s point of view, arriving in Lewisburg in February seemed like a huge mistake.

During warm weather, when I see a robin eating, it’s almost always eating worms. Though, just before our blueberries are ripe enough for human consumption, robins pluck them from the plants. I also remember as a kid seeing robins in my dad’s strawberry patch—presumably, snacking away. A Google search reveals variety in a robin’s diet: insects and fruit of all kinds. But it’s hard to imagine any of that being available in the snow and cold of late February… except for the ornamental cherries.

There’s an ornamental cherry tree nearly on the property line between my neighbor’s and my driveways. In late spring, gorgeous flowers cover the tree, and when the leaves drop away in the fall, bunches of tiny cherries cling to the ends of the branches. With the extreme cold and late-season snow, quite recently that tree was also covered with robins. There weren’t just a handful of robins; there must have been fifty or more kicking about in the tree. Apparently, in the absence of worms, caterpillars, insects, and fresh fruit, dried up ornamental cherries are good stuff.

The snow has melted, there has been another storm, and the snow has melted again. In fact, the lawn is starting to turn green, and there are worm castings between the blades of grass. Judging from the lack of robins in the tree, there is more interesting food available than nine-month-old dried up ornamental cherries. Maybe next year the robins will wait until mid-March to return from the south. I’d wait until May.

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