Quick tip: To deter House Sparrows from feeders, put up a magic halo equipped with hanging, weighted hobby wires. They are NOT sparrow-proof, but they help. DO NOT use fishing line on the halo (it can wrap around incoming birds.) Also avoid feeding cheap seed mixes with millet and cracked corn. UPDATE: I can't find anyone who is currently manufacturing Magic Halos, so you would have to make your own.
an ongoing attempt to reduce English
House Sparrow (HOSP)
populations near my small bluebird trail in northeastern Connecticut, I learned about the "Magic
Halo" developed by the University of Nebraska. (I
have no association with the manufacturer.) In
my experience, it is very effective. Another person who used
it said "It's like kryptonite - amazing!" However, over time, when HOSP populations are high and local food sources are limited, HOSP may overcome their fear of it (especially juveniles) and still use the feeder (although perhaps in smaller numbers.)
Click on drawing above for a larger version of an experimental wire arrangement to repel HOSP from a platform feeder.
It can be purchased online or via mail order. I
bought a Magic Halo and use it on a tube feeder with seed
tray (see below). I use the hoop
plus four hanging, weighted hobby wire lines. (Hobby wire is
more lightweight than picture hanging wire. It's available in hardware
and hobby stores.) It is difficult to jerry rig it to fit on a tube feeder, however see a homemade version below.
I did not see a single HOSP feed there
from June-October 2003. In late October 2003, I saw a few HOSP
at the feeder, but most continue to avoid it, fluttering anxiously
when approaching the hanging line. In
2004, I have seen pretty much zero HOSP at the feeder. It does
not seem to bother chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, purple/house/American
goldfinches, mourning doves, Harris' sparrows, juncos, white-throated
sparrows, song sparrows, downy woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers,
Black-capped Chickadees; or some Northern cardinals and grackles. Blue jays
and some cardinals may avoid it. My in-laws had a pair
of HOSP breeding nearby (unfortunately), and both the male and
female adults overcame their fear of the halo to respond to
the nestlings' demands.
According to the University of Nebraska
research paper on the Magic Halo, as with all deterrent methods,
it is important to evaluate efficacy over time, as birds may become
accustomed, or behavior may vary from season to season (e.g., breeding
vs. fledging vs. roosting). For example, HOSP have been known
to get used to monofilament line over time, or will accept it if
nesting competition is severe. However, the Magic Halo was
field tested by the U of Nebraska over a two year period and they
did not see a change in its efficacy on hopper type bird feeders.
Platform Feeders: Jon and Kathy Hayden are having good success with repelling HOSP from a platform feeder using a zig-zag copper wire over the platform. See photo with wire arrangement highlighted in red. HOSP are avoiding these feeders even when loaded with millet! They noted that "although its long-term effectiveness has yet to be determined, it has produced HOSP-free results for over two full months in our heavily infested backyard." They reported it seemed to lose its effectiveness after about a year.
Sources of Magic Halo: I can't find any sources right now - it's possible Bird-X stopped manufacturing them.
WARNING: When the hoop is too small, or with monofilament too close to
feeder, I think there is increased risk of a bird (e.g., finch, woodpecker) flying into
the line and getting it wrapped around a wing/or their neck. TO PREVENT ENTANGLEMENT: Use very fine (28-30) gauge wire (e.g., for model airplanes)
instead; or tie the line/wire to ground stakes or a second
ring on the ground; or tie the line to springs attached to a stake or nail in the ground. If hobby wire lines are hanging free, use something heavy (a metal nut or fishing weight) to weight them
ATTACHING TO TUBE FEEDER: The magic halo was originally designed to attach to a flat top or regular feeder with a roof, but it can be attached to a tube feeder. See drawing.
Someone who purchased one recently said they now include a loop on the bottom of the halo for hanging feeders. You just need a key ring or the like to
Left: Tom O'Connor of Chicago drilled small holes in a squirrel baffle and tied thin hobby wire at the top and used 1/2" nuts for the weights. The local desirable birds have no problem with flying between the wires.
Food: as discussed under HOSP
Management, HOSP generally (though not always) prefer millet
and cheaper seed mixes, but shy away from straight sunflower,
safflower or thistle. Switching to straight seed, rather than
mixed seed, may eliminate most HOSP from the bird feeder, and
will not affect other birds like cardinals. You will also have
less waste, as sunflower and safflower are preferred by some
birds that generally scratch out the millet and toss it to
the ground in search of the few prized larger seeds. However,
note that in some areas, HOSP eat just about any seed.
A homemade halo on my mealworm feeder was penetrated by just one pair of HOSP - I think the halo might have been too small. Also, it looked pretty crummy and was a pain to make. The bluebirds did not have any problem navigating around the hobby wire extending from the hoop down several inches below the feeder.
I got an e-mail from someone who made a homemade halo
out of one of those umbrella hats you
can buy at a dollar store. They attached the line, using duct
tape between every two lines to keep them from getting tangled.
It worked like a charm, and for the first time birds normally
intimidated by HOSP are visiting the feeder. She also said it
worked to deter starlings from a suet feeder.
The Magic Halo, Wildlife Society Bulletin 22:461-470,
1994, Monofilament Lines and a Hoop Device for Bird Management
at Backyard Feeders. The hoop used on a hopper feeder consistently
repelled 98% of male and female HOSP during spring and summer. Blue
jays were repelled in spring
but not summer by the hoop plus monofilament. Common grackles,
Northern cardinals and blue jays were not repelled by the hoop
alone. The researchers hypothesized that the lines might
interfere with rapid escape from sites where there is a predation
risk, but it is unclear why some species (e.g., HOSP) respond
and others do not. This theory does not make sense to me
as HOSP will enter a ground trap, which would certainly interfere
with escape. The hoop is 9 gauge, 80 cm in diameter, attached
like a halo to the top of the feeder. Four clear 0.46mm
monofilament lines are installed vertically along the hoop, spaced
at 60 cm intervals, approximately 20 cm from feeder perches. When
used with a ground tray, lightweight springs connected lines
to the tray to maintain tension, and deter HOSP from feeding
on seed spilled from feeders.
From Wild Bird Habitat Store (affiliated with Bluebirds Across Nebraska): "Get
the most out of your wild bird feeders. The true original, patented
Magic Halo. Repels up to 99% of House Sparrows at your feeding
stations. Works on hanging, stationary, tube, or hopper feeders.
Developed by a major university. Effective with or without the
lines. Doesn't deter other song birds." Also see their tips
controlling House Sparrows at feeders.
Backyard Wildlife Tips for Success: Another option
for excluding House Sparrows is a hoop device developed from
research at the University of Nebraska and now marketed as
the patented Magic Halo. This device is a specially
designed wire circle about 30 inches in diameter that is placed
like a halo over the feeder. During research studies, this
hoop effectively repelled adult House Sparrows from elevated
feeders. It didn't interfere with other bird species, and it
allowed House Sparrows to feed on spillage under the feeder,
a possible attraction to some shy bird species that may rely
on the wary House Sparrow to signal danger.
The option of hanging four clear monofilament
fishing lines from the hoop device downwards (spaced 24
inches apart), which increased the repellency to House Sparrows, also repelled blue jays and discouraged common
grackles. But use caution: Adding the lines also
discouraged Northern cardinals in some situations. If you
should decide to add lines, think about the potential effects
in relation to your goals and bird feeding situation. And
consider that the hoop device, without lines, deterred
only House Sparrows and allowed other birds to come and
I also use monofilament on nestboxes to deter
House Sparrows - see Managing
House Sparrows for configuration. It doesn't seem to bother
any native cavity nesters.
Gene Wasserman makes a Magic Halo type contraption for nestboxes called the Sparrow Shield - it is available from the Michigan Bluebird Society store, and is very easy to install.
Mylar strips (sold as Bird Scare Tape) are used on the very effective Sparrow Spookers you should use on nestboxes, but I don't recommend them on feeders, as they will probably scare off multiple species of desirable birds.
I did try putting wooden dowels in a star shape on the roof of my purple martin house (no purple martins
in my area yet), with weighted wires hanging down, to keep it from turning into a HOSP ghetto.
It deterred nesting attempts for the first month only. A
pair of HOSP tried nest building on 7/8/03, and were trapped,
with no further attempts since then. In 2004, I've had
no nesting attempts, although I have drastically reduced the
local population through trapping. This note is paraphrased from Purple Martin Society Roundtable: Because the instinct to
find a nest and breed is much stronger than the instinct to
find food (which is more widely available), sparrows may overcome
"fear" of the monofilament and ignore it on martin
Ron Johnson of the U of Nebraska (who did the original research
on the magic halo) was aware of this. The Halo is NOT marketed
for use on martin houses or nestboxes--I just thought I'd give
a variation of it a try.
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