Cut broom in bloom, and boot the house sparrow out

Jeff Rietkerk

Submitted Article

Wednesday, May 13 2020

Gabriola is a haven for birds, and birdwatchers. The physical distancing and isolation realities of the Covid19 pandemic may have helped some of us to take more notice of the birds around us; seeing the resiliency of the residents, like Towhees and Juncos, waiting for and noticing the arrival of migrants, like the swallows and warblers, and just seeing the benefits of living with birds, as the Barred Owls eat rats and mice and Cooper’s Hawks eat rabbits. Controlling insects and rodent pests, pollination, seed dispersal, and connecting us to the environment with their song and colour and lifecycles are some of the ways we benefit from living with native birds. Of course, habitat is an issue, as we work at balancing the necessities of managing fire hazards and development with the needs of birds and other wildlife.

Invasive plant species have been in the spotlight for several years now, and the island geography allows for us to track and control plants like Scotch broom, daphne and English ivy. The bird population has its own version of invasive species, and like plants, they threaten to take over the native species and habitats. The European House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and European Starling (Sternus vulgaris) are invasive birds whose impacts on native birds is well documented, however they are not as easy for the untrained eye to see as ‘broom in bloom’, or an ivy vine climbing up a tree. And like ivy and daphne, house sparrows are sometimes being mistakenly encouraged to flourish by some who might not know their impacts. 

The house sparrow is common in most urban centers around the world – you’ll easily find them around Nanaimo, usually living close to people and infrastructure. You can’t miss them around the entrance to the Nanaimo Aquatic Center, and they are often living inside large buildings such as the Costco warehouse. There are relatively fewer in rural landscapes, where their preferred habitat of buildings and human habitation is limited. Their impacts on native birds can’t be understated – they will outcompete and overpower native birds like swallows and songbirds for increasingly rare tree cavities. Driving them out of their nests, and short of destroying eggs, killing chicks and sometimes adults, they can stress birds enough to disrupt their breeding behaviour. This often goes unnoticed by us, and unaware of their impacts, some people are enamoured by these little birds and allow them to nest in boxes, or provide preferred food. 

The rural nature of Gabriola has made it tough for house sparrows to take hold, but this is changing. Densification, and encouragement by some has allowed several colonies to start, where individuals are feeding them and providing nest boxes. If you like birds and want to help them, learn to identify the house sparrow and the starling and discourage them from your feeders and nest boxes. They are not protected by the Migratory Bird Act, which protects all other bird species, including their eggs and nests. The European Starling has similar impacts on native birds, although they are larger and compete with different species for habitat, including woodpeckers and the smaller owls. 

Famous for their ‘murmurations’, there are more of them on Gabriola than house sparrows, but they are arguably harder to find as they are more wary of humans. 

The link below provides lots of information about the impacts of both species and how to manage them. 

https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/managing-house-sparrows-and-european-starlings