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My Yard Birds

I have good neighbors, for the most part. We live on a short street, only a block long, and know pretty much everyone on a first name basis. That includes my yard birds. That’s where “for the most part” comes in, though. A few of my yard bird neighbors aren’t as welcome as the others. That’s largely because they don’t get along well with their other avian neighbors. Readers of this column will not be surprised to know that English sparrows are among the most quarrelsome and potentially destructive members of the group. They have been particularly troublesome this year. I blame them for not being able to keep any bluebirds around, in spite of daily attempts to discourage sparrow use of their boxes.

English sparrows, or house sparrows as they’re sometimes known, aren’t really sparrows at all. They’re a kind of European weaver finch. They prefer to nest in enclosures like bird houses, but nearly any enclosed area will do. They’ll even build their massive ball-of-trash nests in more open situations, like on top of the barn swallow nest near my front door earlier this year. It took weeks of daily discouragement of a very persistent pair of sparrows before my more welcome barn swallows got a chance to use their favorite nest site. English sparrows are even known to peck incubating mother birds to death in order to take over their nest cavities.

I wrote about my lovely little barn swallows a few weeks ago and am happy to report that they were able to successfully fledge two little ones early last week. That’s a small family for them, since they usually raise four or five at a time. Their mud nest has raised quite a few baby swallows over the past several years. They have indicated their desire to build a new mud nest a couple of times in the past, but always chose sites that just weren’t going to work out. My wife, Sue, finally agreed that the old nest was OK to leave where it was, since the mess they leave under it was at least off to the side of our front step. She was won over by their tameness, grace and happy chatter, too. She wasn’t OK with a nest smack on the middle of our front door, though. I washed accumulating mud off the door several times before they returned to the old nest to raise another brood in past.

The swallows again made their desire for a new nest known after the first two babies fledged. Fresh mud began appearing just above the door again. I washed it off. I had begun to worry that the swallows weren’t going to renest for a second brood when they stopped trying to build a new nest on the door. Our garage door stands open many days when we’re at home. I soon discovered that they had chosen the light fixture above my pickup truck in the garage as their new nest site. The top of the truck was already covered with spatters of mud and grass that had fallen from their growing new nest. That site wasn’t going to work, either, since we need to close the garage door when we’re not going to be home. I removed the growing nest and started closing the garage door. Every time it opened for several days the swallows would dart in and head for the light fixture.

In desperation, and hoping that I could keep them around at a nest site more to my liking, I built a simple little platform out of scraps of wood. It’s only about four inches wide and five inches long. I screwed it to the wall a few inches under the soffit overhang in front of the garage at a place where their accumulating droppings wouldn’t be as much of a problem. I’m happy to report that my swallows agreed to that site and now have a nearly finished nest built of fresh mud on top of it. I sure enjoy being able to look up only a couple of feet over my head and say goodnight to my swallows as they rest shoulder to shoulder on a little wire perch I made just for them near the nest site.

(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.)

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