American sparrows are among my favorite birds. Their understated beauty appeals to my very soul, but their subtle markings and limited color palette intimidate birders. Fortunately, many sparrows are easy to attract. Watching them at leisure helps us appreciate not only how lovely they are but also the features that identify them.
Although many can be drawn to feeders, especially open platform feeders, most sparrows prefer eating on the ground, especially near trees, shrubs, or a brush pile, where they can make a quick getaway. Feeders might attract half a dozen sparrows in a yard where a good ground-feeding area would attract dozens. The largest numbers occur during migration, but quite a few spend winter in the vicinity of feeding stations. The wisest seed choices to set out for them are white millet and black oil sunflower.
Tossing birdseed on the ground has several advantages, including expense — you don’t need to buy a feeder! — and opportunities to photograph birds against fairly natural backgrounds. But ground feeding comes with added responsibilities, and in areas where house mice or rats are prevalent, I advise against feeding on the ground at all. Bread or table scraps encourage raccoons, skunks, and rodents and are eaten by few birds but House Sparrows, starlings, and pigeons.
Uneaten seeds, discarded shells, and droppings collect wherever birds feed, fostering fungus and bacteria. Where we feed on the ground, rain washes most of this into the soil, and periodic raking hastens the process. To keep everything as clean as possible, limit the seed you set out to what can be eaten in a day or two, and offer only seeds likely to be eaten right away. Birds usually ignore filler seeds such as oats, sorghum, and red millet, which sit around until they rot.
Unfortunately, not all sparrows are equally desirable at feeders. House Sparrows were introduced from Great Britain and Europe and belong to an entirely different family than American sparrows. I love the homey little immigrants — they were the only songbirds I saw in my Chicago neighborhood when I was a little girl. As an adult, my love is tempered with knowledge.
In extremely urbanized environments, House Sparrows may not pose a hazard to native birds, but anywhere woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, or other cavity-nesters live, House Sparrows pose enormous dangers. They may not bite the hand that feeds them, but they kill woodpeckers and other birds to take over their nesting and roosting sites. I may be emotionally attached to them, but it really is wisest to avoid subsidizing them. American sparrows, from little chippies to chunky juncos, will be glad you did.
Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe. This article appeared in the February 2014 issue. Laura is a co-author of National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and the author of Laura’s Birding Blog. On the blog Laura’s Conservation Big Year, she describes her attempt to find and photograph species of conservation concern.
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