Nesting in New York: House Sparrows

House sparrows, those gregarious, aggressive, busy little foragers, are extraordinarily well adapted to city life.  Seed-eaters that first evolved in the Middle East, the birds thrived with the development of agricultural societies, following along as agriculture spread into Europe, Asia and North Africa. They’re now thought to be the most wide-spread bird species in the world.

House sparrows are nothing if not adaptable. In New York, some House sparrows nest the old-fashioned way, in natural tree holes, like this little fellow in Riverside Park.

The location can’t be beat.

This Riverside Park tree is home to at least two House sparrow nests.

Other House sparrows choose to continue their cozy millennia-long association with humans by nesting in the ornate facades of the nineteenth-century townhouses and apartment buildings of old New York.

Neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights offer plenty of free housing for the enterprising sparrow.

Male house sparrow looks out over Riverside Drive, the park and the Hudson River.

Leaving the nest to forage.

Female house sparrow sitting on nest (look to the upper left of nest).

As always in New York, space is at premium, and a terrace is a welcome luxury.

Nest stuffed into a six-inch crack between buildings.

Any little nook will do, really.

Apartment living.

This narrow gap between buildings was filled with nests.

And for those House sparrows not lucky enough to find a Riverside Drive house address, or looking for a bit more privacy, there remains a vast number of suitable man-made housing options.  Virtually every corner offers a perfect nest hole in the open pipe of a traffic light.

House sparrows were intentionally released in North America in the nineteenth century, and quickly spread throughout the continent. Sadly, they pose a significant threat to less aggressive native species, including Eastern bluebirds, which they out-compete for nesting sites.

If only a few more members of those shyer species would come and share our urban living.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2012, Birds, In the City, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Wildlife/Natural History

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9 Comments on “Nesting in New York: House Sparrows”

  1. Paul Gallo Says:

    I put a bird house on my terrace in riverdale Bronx
    Every year for the past three years the sparrows have nested there
    I never disturbed them but last year I used my iPhone to video
    Baby chicks with their mouths wide open thinking I guess for food
    Excuse my lack of knowledge but how does one set of sparrows lay claim to a nest or is it first come first served
    They are out there now preparing the nest


    • Hi Paul, How great that you were able to get video of the chicks! As for your question, I believe it’s generally first come, first served on nesting sites, but not without drama. Birds will fight for a good spot to raise their young, and House Sparrows can be notoriously ferocious in competing for a good nesting site like your box. Here is some info and advice from the Humane Society website:

      Sparrows will use birdhouses we may intend for other species. They fiercely defend their nests, so they are vilified for edging out more popular native species, especially bluebirds.

      Some believe there are fewer native birds because of competition from sparrows. Certainly, there are instances where individual native birds came out the losers against house sparrows. And bluebirds did decline in the early 1900s when European starlings and house sparrows were getting established. As a result a few nest-box providers resort to extreme measures—killing house sparrows for the perceived crime of occupying nest boxes.

      But, the idea that house sparrows are causing widespread declines in native songbird populations today is not proved. In fact, house sparrow numbers have been declining across the United States over the last few decades while eastern and mountain bluebird numbers are up. And, bluebirds are as successful fledging young where they have sparrows as neighbors as where they do not.

      If you want to offer nest space only to birds who are not house sparrows, there are several things you can do.

      Use nest boxes designed for your preferred species. Place them where that species likes to nest and where there’s plenty of their favorite food.
      Feed what appeals to the birds you wish to attract to your yard. Many native species enjoy black oil sunflower seeds, but house sparrows do not. Avoid foods sparrows favor, such as millet, milo, wheat, and cracked corn.
      Place nest boxes away from human activity and buildings (about 300 feet). House sparrows strongly prefer to nest near buildings; bluebirds prefer to nest farther from buildings.
      House sparrows stay put all year while native songbirds migrate. So, sparrows can get a jump on claiming nest boxes early in the season. Some nest box providers wait until migrants arrive to install boxes. Or they keep the entrance holes plugged until migrants get to the area.
      Put up two next boxes between 5 and 15 feet apart. Some nest box providers believe that if house sparrows claim one box, these territorial birds will keep other sparrows from using the other leaving it free for another species.

  2. Morgan Says:

    Great blog!

    It’s true, these little guys are everywhere! I always love watching them, but it amuses me that most people never seem to give them a second glance, especially at outdoor cafes where the birds are practically bussing tables in their quest to grab some tidbits. Kind of reminds me of the oxpecker birds who ride on oblivious rhinos. Instead, teeny little sparrows flitting around equally oblivious diners, engaging in furious little squabbles with each other over a french fry that go completely unnoticed. I’ve tried pointing out the drama, but my dining companions just look at me like I’m crazy.


  3. Great post on the House Sparrow’s ability to make a home almost anywhere. We had them in our roof for a few years, but they have moved elsewhere now.

    Sadly the House Sparrow is in serious decline in the UK (http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/h/housesparrow/index.aspx) with a 70% decline over the last 35 years, so sorry to hear they are displacing natives stateside.

    I suspect we would gladly have them back!

  4. Charlotte Says:

    Love the tree hole!

    it’s true, sparrows are incredibly aggressive; it always surprises me when i see them in a tussle; I feel somewhat deceived: but you look so cute…!?

  5. Barbara Says:

    Wonderful post – love the sparrow in “the apartment complex” what an great display of house sparrows’ ingenuity. I have about a dozen that live in and around the trees and shrubs that surround my home in a wooden church in the country. They are ancestors of the ones that have lived here forever as far as I can tell. The previous owner calls them weaver finches, house sparrows being too common a name perhaps… but their cheerful chatter all day long is a lovely backdrop to my day. They don’t hold back either if I’m late putting out their meal of sunflower seeds.

    Fortunately they seem to stick close to home, and don’t venture near the 13 bluebird nest boxes any more. Only once have I seen the destruction they can cause inside a box… with tree swallows, not bluebirds.. but it was pretty amazing that such a small bird could be so aggressive and persistent to actually kill another bird bigger than itself. Survivors they certainly are. Love this post. Great detective work to find these little guys!

  6. Liz H Says:

    A wonderful post showing a superbly adaptable species – love the choice of the swanky Riverside address. They sure have got around the world! We have the same species here in the Cape – Passer domesticus, also introduced in the 19th century. It’s sad that they displace the less aggressive ‘natives’ – unwittingly our forefather’s actions have many unintended consequences.

  7. p hoey Says:

    Wonderful sparrows, wonderful blog–I particularly liked the
    resourceful, alert-looking star in the narrow space. Survive by adapting, then adapt some more…Manhattanites in small spaces,
    take note! Melissa, your photos get better and better…

  8. Sally Says:

    I love this! Thanks!


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