Q: Three years ago we put up two bluebird houses and had instant success. Since then, it has been a fight between bluebirds, sparrows, and wrens. This year no activity whatsoever. Any ideas?
— Bill R., Lenox
A: Actually, the sparrows you mention are named house sparrows, and not true sparrows, that were first introduced into the Boston area in 1868 to control spongy moths (gypsy moths). These aliens are not protected by federal or state entities and are bad actors. Several years ago, they destroyed bluebird nesting at our place, once killing the female bluebird sitting on the nest and another year destroying the eggs. In the third year, as soon as I saw the house sparrows, I removed the boxes and gave them to one of our daughters who lives in remote Sheffield where no house sparrows were. Since then, I learned of a trick from a friend that deters the house sparrows and allows the bluebirds. Wrap some wire loosely around the opening of the box that allows the bluebirds entrance but frightens or confuses the house sparrows. This spring I noticed the bluebirds entering the box and now it is in use by the bluebirds.
Wrens are another problem; we can't get away harming these rascals; they are protected by both federal and state entities. (I have never had wrens in our yard, so a bit on the lucky side.)
Q: It is recommended that bird feeders get cleaned often. I've used the same bird feeder for years and years without cleaning it. The birds don't seem to mind. What gives?
— Paul G.
A: Of course the birds don’t mind, as long as they get fed, and who knows if they are getting sick, or passing pathogens along. It is the same as not washing your dishes after lunch, the dishes might not look so bad but what might be hiding on the tongs of the fork? You should sanitize your bird feeders from time to time just as you should sanitize a pet’s food and water dish from time to time or follow each meal if you are fastidious. As for bird feeders to ensure that there is no disease and or mold spreading, feeders should be washed in a mild bleach to ensure there is no disease lingering. Look at the bottom of your feeder. Moldy or decomposing seeds and hulls that accumulate on feeder trays can make birds sick. Bird droppings and other contaminants may also spread bird diseases.
And hummingbird feeders should bed rinsed in hot water with a bottle brush. Do not use a detergent or soap to clean your feeders as they can be hazardous to the birds.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's AllAboutBirds.org offers How To Clean Your Bird Feeder: “Moldy or decomposing seeds and hulls that accumulate on feeder trays can make birds sick. Bird droppings and other contaminants may also spread infectious bird diseases. Clean your feeders about once every two weeks, more often during times of heavy use or wet weather or if there have been reports of salmonella in your area or you have seen sick birds in your yard. To clean your feeder, take it apart and use a dishwasher on a hot setting or hand wash either with soap and boiling water or with a dilute bleach solution (no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water). Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling.” (allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/)
Q: I just read your article on garlic mustard, and I’m horrified. I found large masses of it in my yard including around a stream we have on the property.
— Matt K.
A: You are justified in being careful around your stream. They are called garlic mustard because the leaves have the garlic smell when one crushes its leaves. This Poor Man’s Mustard or Garlick Root is an invasive now found throughout the Northeastern and Midwest as well as Southeast Canada.
Pull it up, bag it, and dispose of it with the trash. If this is not possible, and for another year, mow if you want to provide NONE of the blossoms are ripe!
After pulling up the plants, resist the temptation to burry or toss on the compost pile; burn them! Or bag them and toss them out with your trash and garbage. It is labor intensive and not just a one-time task; it will take several years, maybe up to five years, fewer each year, though.