Turf wars

A friend saw photos I posted of a Bluebird pair that is nesting in a box we put up in the back yard and she said, “I’ve had a Bluebird box in my yard for years, but all we ever get are House Sparrows.” Another friend saw photos I posted of our resident Purple Martin society that, this year (only the second year) has nearly doubled in size. He wrote to me saying that he has tried to attract Purple Martins many times, but the House Sparrows usually move in and take up all the apartments.

What I can say about that is – I feel your pain. When I lived in Wisconsin (as a single woman with a 75 mile commute one-way, every day to work) I put up a Bluebird box, too. All I ever got were House Sparrows. The take home message is that nearly everything that is good in life requires some work. I didn’t have the time, back in Wisconsin to actively tend to the Bluebird box to attract Bluebirds.

What I have learned is that attracting the “cool” native species like Bluebirds, Purple Martins and Tree Swallows isn’t about luck. It is about the daily grind of circumventing the complete domination of House Sparrows in all those nice nest boxes you put up. Those boxes aren’t cheap. You need to have a bit of an infatuation about backyard birding to spend money on wild bird housing. After all, you don’t get anything back in return but the sheer joy and pleasure of knowing you have a pair of Bluebirds nesting in your yard. Which for me, is worth it because it does bring me happiness.

Eastern Bluebird pair that recently fledged young from the box on the south fence of my office yard.

Over the past three years we have developed a system to achieve the greatest chance for Bluebirds to share our yard. Eight boxes hang along the perimeter fence of my office patio yard that is about 120 x 75 foot in dimension. There’s also the “center box” which, clearly, stands in the center of the yard. That’s a lot of bird boxes!

Tree Swallows are nesting in the central box in the office yard. They have five eggs.

We don’t expect to attract as many native species as we have boxes, especially since both Bluebirds and Tree Swallows are territorial. I’ve read that Eastern Bluebirds do not build their nests closer to another Bluebird than 300 feet. They will, however, nest fairly close to a Tree Swallow couple. We provide all those boxes in that fairly small yard so that the House Sparrows move in, build a nest and lay their eggs. Then we re-enact a natural disaster that might destroy their nest – like the hurricane that permitted them to populate nearly the entire continental United States and negatively affect many other species, especially those that nest in cavities.

When they discover their nest is gone, the resilient House Sparrows immediately begin to rebuild. We wait until we see eggs, then remove the nest. Sometimes, they try again in that same box, sometimes they move onto one of the other unoccupied boxes. That process leaves open boxes for the Bluebirds and Tree Swallows (and we even have a pair of House Wrens in a box this year – but, they are in a far off box at the edge of the front yard.) If the House Sparrows continue to move into the “planned parenthood” apartments, we can make a bit of a dent in their population, at least on our property.

A couple of days ago I captured a very interesting encounter between the resident Purple Martins and a House Sparrow pair that appeared to have every intention of taking control of a nest hole in the Red House. Below I have posted the photos, in series, of the events.

The first thing I saw which was amiss, was a couple of House Sparrows sitting on the fence just beneath the Purple Martin Red house. That was not normal.

The Purple Martins were engaged in their normal activity which consists of ebbs and tides of them spending time together in the box and then flying off, mostly together, to hunt insects in the sky.

Then, it happened. Assault Number One. The female House Sparrow flew directly up towards the house. You can see her on the lower left corner of the next photo.

She was followed by her mate. They fluttered around, seemingly trying to evaluate the situation. All the while, the Purple Martins did not seem to react.

The House Sparrows assumed their position on the fence top just below the Purple Martin house. They, the female flew back up to the house. This time, the male Purple Martin on the gable end of the house took notice, and began to vocalize. The female took a position on the very top of the house.

Then, the male House Sparrow followed.

In the last shot above, you see a Purple Martin flying in. It was that bird which caused the female to retreat from the top of the house. Other Purple Martins follow the first. I thought that the House Sparrows would retreat at that time.

To best view these photos, click on them and scroll through the viewer. Some pictures are wider than others and the action is cut off in the Gallery setting.

Then, a few minutes later, the male House Sparrow flew up to the house, again.

He was met with much stronger resistance than earlier.

I thought that the Purple Martins had made a good case for their lack of welcoming of the House Sparrows. But, the sparrows were not done trying.

The House Sparrows reassembled on the fence beneath the house.

Several Purple Martins assembled in the Pear tree that is about 20 feet from their House pole. There, they observed the House Sparrows.

The nature world is an interesting place to ponder why humans behave the way we do.

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