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S&S Control Techniques

OK, so you are convinced. Your Purple Martins are outnumbered at best, “out-beaked” at worst. You have decided that all is fair in Love and War, and it’s WAR! You have gone through all this effort and as soon as you get martins to nest, the Starlings and English House Sparrows (S&S) show up and the martins exit, stage left. Though SREH (starling resistant entrance holes) work great for starlings, sparrows are immune to such efforts and are just as deadly (despite their small size).

You have to consider, with habitable purple martin housing at an all time low, the martins arrive and are desperate for nesting space. All the younger SY birds arrive and all the prime spots are full of ASY (after second year adults) birds. What is a strapping young pair of Martins to do? Well, they can wait until later in the season. Then they have to deal with hot summer temps and the disaster that can spell for nestlings. OR they can nest in housing that’s infested with (S&S) Starlings and Sparrows. The landlords will usually note that a pair started to nest, maybe even laid a few eggs but then “just disappeared”. True, several things can make a pair just vanish but I’ll bet you it’s ALWAYS some form of predation. And S&S are like cockroaches; for every one that you see, there are a dozen watching and waiting to take its place.

Enough talking. What are your trapping options?

Well, you have 3 options.

Bait trapping: Wire cage using food or nest material to lure S&S into a cage. Usually more effective with HOSP than starlings.

Nest trapping: Traps S&S within the nest compartment. Is not selective and will trap ANY bird. MUST be monitored frequently to prevent harming native birds.

Shooting:Great option for the outdoors-man who likes hunting. Takes some practice, but not as much as one might think. ALSO: check with local ordinances when it comes to discharging either a firearm or pellet gun in your area.

So lets get into this.


Bait traps can either be repeating or not. By repeating that means it re-sets by itself. A real time saver. Some of these have a holding are that you can place a bird or two-separated from the trapping area.They work a LOT better when you have at least one bird in this area as it serves as a lure for investigating birds. But since native birds can and do get caught in these traps you must monitor this type of trap and release natives ASAP.

Cheap bird seed (lots of proso millet), white bread and popcorn make great bait for these traps. During active nesting a few feathers and nest scraps make a great lure also. Try pre-baiting an area for a day or two to get the S&S accustomed to feeding in this area before you introduce the trap. But if you have martins, a day or two can be enough to cause huge losses so weigh your options. If you don’t have the luxury of pre-baiting an area…don’t worry about it. Bait your trap and get going. These bait traps are available at PurpleMartins-R-Us for a good price. There are also traps called “funnel” or “V” traps that have no moving mechanism and work on the principle that birds aren’t the brightest bulbs. (Hence the term bird-brained) These type of traps work better with sparrows but are used quite successfully on a large scale with Starlings. Basically, a narrow entry allows entry but is difficult for the trapped birds to relocate in order to escape.

Nest traps  can either be on the Purple Martin’s housing or at a separate location that the martins would not be interested in. Such as close to a tree or under a house eaves. Traps within the Martin housing have a tripping mechanism that must be reset after each catch. Unless you make the entrance hole to the compartment containing the trap smaller, you can catch sparrows AND starlings AND MARTINS! So monitor closely. We carry several nest traps and insert traps of this kind, depending on what type of house or gourd you are using. My personal favorite type of nest trap is a repeating nest box trap. It automatically resets after each catch. The bird enters the “nest” and drops down into a holding cage. Since you can place this trap closer to trees or a building the chances of catching a martin are slim but woodpeckers love mine. I release them quickly. So again, they must be monitored frequently to prevent harming native birds.

Shooting success is based on your skill level. So practice is essential. I, personally, am not comfortable with my level of expertise but its an easy and effective way to dispose of S&S in one easy step.

Note that though nest tear outs (of Sparrow nests) are important, I do not consider it a control technique as the sparrows will return every day without fail until the male sparrow is captured.

So you trap these S&S and what do you do with them? First, make absolutely sure its a European Starling or an English House Sparrow NOT a native look-alike.
male HOSP head shotFemale HOSP head shotMale and female HOSP

Well, I do NOT recommend driving them somewhere and releasing them. Unfortunately you will just waste gas and they will fly right back or give some other poor birds grief. So what can you do to quickly and humanely euthanize the S&S you trap? I HIGHLY suggest visiting one of my favorite sites  for great detailed info on your options who I thank for the HOSP photos. The link will take you to their page which outlines numerous legal and non-legal techniques that people use. Whichever technique to trap and dispose of S&S I wish you luck. Remember, that being a Purple Martin landlord is an active endeavor. It is a hobby in which your success is often a direct measurement of your actions and in-actions. If you are fortunate enough to be in a situation where you are protecting your martins, please send a prayer to all those striving landlords that are doing everything right. Unfortunately, due to the damage inflicted by S&S on Purple Martins, many purple martin houses sit empty. Those houses sit, waiting for those fortunate enough to wage the good fight with the S&S. To tip the scales and re populate the skies with the graceful bird we all love…the Purple Martin.

Article © 2008

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