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Sparrows Threaten Eastern Blue Birds

Male Bluebird

Greg Park, senior naturalist at the Schrader Center, was recently featured in an interview concerning the threat of European Sparrows to Eastern Bluebirds on WV Public Broadcasting. Check out the audio link here or read the story below.

By Glynis Board, WV Public Broadcasting — May 18, 2012 · According to an eye-witness in Marshall County, a family of Eastern Bluebirds was recently murdered just outside of Moundsville. The mother and father bird are reported as missing but the three healthy chicks, just days before their first lessons in flight, were found with their heads pecked in. The suspect seen leaving the bird house was, of course, a European Sparrow.

The marauding European Sparrow, otherwise known as the English Sparrow, is an invasive species introduced to North America 200 years ago. The sparrow is known for its hostile and brutal nest take-over techniques. The birds were introduced in an effort to control insects despite the fact that 96% of the English Sparrow’s diet consists mostly of grains and only 4% insect. Naturalist Greg Park says in times of heavy horse traffic in cities, the birds were probably helpful.

“There were a lot of road apples,” Park says, “and the English Sparrows would pick them apart to get the grain out of them that was pre-digested, oats and corn and stuff the horse fed on—eating all the fly eggs that would hatch into maggots. So it probably helped. Their population sky-rocketed.”

Today the brown and black sparrows can be found at most any fast food drive-through collecting discarded french fries and bread crumbs. Because they are so aggressive in competing for cavity-style nests, they pose one of the biggest threats to Eastern Bluebird populations—also cavity-nesting birds.

Albert Dague is a retired steel fabricator of 45 years. He took up birding after retirement and today he monitors 50 bluebird boxes in Oglebay Park in Wheeling every week during the spring and summer.

Dague says while sparrows are one of the biggest threats to bluebirds today, the use of insecticide called DDT almost wiped them out completely.

“DDT was introduced in 1939,” Dague says. “They sprayed along road banks, and Bluebirds are ground insect-eating birds, and from the DDT, they basically pretty nearly destroyed, it’s estimated, up to 90 percent of the Bluebird population into the 1960s.”

DDT was eventually banned and since then, Bluebirds have been making a comeback. Today there are bluebird groups and birding clubs that work to protect and foster bird populations.

Dague says he enjoys showing off the birds he monitors.

“Various people in the park will wonder, ‘What are you doing bothering the nest-box for?’ And then when they find out what you’re doing—I’ll open the box and show them the birds—most people will say, ‘I never saw a bluebird before!’ But they’ve probably really never looked for one.”

Both Park and Dauge say that bluebirds are very accommodating and friendly birds and that they get people interested and excited about the natural world and stewardship.

“If anyone wants to start bluebirds you can buy a cheap box that you can open. If you have bluebirds in your area and you put up a box, it might take a while, but you’ll eventually get bluebirds.”

Dauge advises putting the boxes on posts with some kind of tubing beneath them to protect against raccoons and snakes; and Park says you can tell what kind of bird lives there by looking at the nest.

“If you open a nest box and find a really neat little nest made of all grass or else sometimes pine needles and it’s really neat and squared away with nothing else added—that’s a bluebird nest,” Park says. “If you open the box and find all sticks, about four inches long, you know it’s a wren. So you can tell when you open a box who is using it.”

Park says it’s equally easy to identify the nest of an English Sparrow.

“Their nest looks like a teenagers room. It’s just a big mess. There’s grass and pieces of twine and there’s pieces of plastic bags and there’s everything in there. And it’s all in a big mound clear up to the ceiling of the nest-box. There’s no mistaking what you have.”

“And I do whack every English Sparrow I can,” Park adds.

Park says it’s legal to kill non-native birds like Starlings and English Sparrows and because they don’t spread lead in the environment the beebee gun is his weapon of choice.

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