A tree sparrow experiment: safety first

As regular readers will know, my garden is blessed with a large flock of tree sparrows. I’ve lived with tree sparrows now for over eighteen months, but I haven’t really got to the bottom of the question: what do they like to eat?

A tree sparrow making use of my very overgrown hedge

Tree sparrows dominate my garden: this week I’ve counted over forty, while the next most common bird this week is the dunnock at three. And they don’t just come for the food. My house backs onto a field and I have a long and very overgrown hedge, which they love. Throughout this winter the minimum tree sparrow number has been forty. The maximum number of the next most numerous bird was wood pigeon at a (very unusual) twelve.

The tree sparrows love the hanging feeders, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that a lot of the food gets chucked on the floor. Are they just messy, or are they chucking out the bits they don’t want to eat? I decided to find out by trying a food experiment.

I buy my bird food in bulk from Vine House Farm. They don’t do a sparrow mix and their standard mixed seed is relatively low in millet, which sparrows are supposed to love. So I buy red and white millet separately and mix it into the standard mix. If sparrows don’t eat sunflower or wheat, given that they outnumber my other visitors two to one, I’m probably buying the wrong feed.

My cunning plan was to place piles of seed on the patio where I can watch from my office window, while still feeding their regular mix from the feeders. They completely ignored the piles for nearly a week, by which time the blackbirds had scattered the piles all over the place.

Experiment 1. The mixed seed was eaten first (mainly by the blackbird) and the white millet was hardly touched. The tree sparrows were so unsettled by the experiment they went camera shy on me

I tried again. The piles were: black sunflower mix, white millet, red millet. The dunnocks were first to try, and showed no preference. The blackbirds were next and preferred the sunflower mix. The tree sparrows. Well, they ate from whatever pile of food their friends were feeding from. And they seemed really spooked by the food piles.

Could my sparrows really be scared of a change in seed mix? I scattered some mixed seed on the patio to find out. With this return to normal routine they flocked in.

I tried my experiment again, this time using the hanging feeders.

I filled one feeder with sunflower mix, one with white millet and one with red millet. It took about three days before the sparrows would go near any of them, and they went to the familiar mixed seed first. Once they’d got used to the feeders they showed a slight preference for the red millet. But only slight. However, there was much less wasted seed under the millet feeders.

Experiment 2: to a tree sparrow, eating together is far more important than eating the best food. It's possible the dominant birds got to choose their preferred feeder, but either all the feeders were used or none of them were!

So what have I learned? Have I answered the question: what do tree sparrows like to eat? I’m pretty sure they like red millet the best, but they didn’t show the strong preference I was expecting. What I did learn was that for a tree sparrow, other things are much more important than sampling their favourite food.

Tree sparrows don’t like change. They don’t like novelty. They like things today to be the same as they were yesterday. They like to do things together. None of them wants to be the first to try out something new. Only once the bravest birds have checked out the new food or feeder will they get properly stuck in…

…I think the tree sparrow motto is definitely “safety first”.



About Yasmine

After working with horses for many years I came to my senses and got a 'proper job'. I now live in Weardale with My Taller Half, a mad border collie and 5 chickens. Still wishing I could spend all my time in the great outdoors
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3 Responses to A tree sparrow experiment: safety first

  1. That’s a great post!-loved your pictures and experiments. I’ve been mixing the feed mix too! Goldfinch have been flocking to my cherry tree in huge numbers. I now have the RSPB’s ‘Premium Mix’ in all but one feeder. I’ve noticed greenfinch appear to enjoy the company of goldfinch. Here’s a link that might be of interest. http://shop.naturesgrub.co.uk/

  2. Val Erde says:

    Hi, I’m over here from Keith’s blog (northpenninegallery).
    I don’t think we have tree sparrows – or not that I’ve noticed – but we seem to have everything else (I’m in rural Wales). We care for the wild birds here a lot and have got to know many of them as individuals. Each has its own taste, even amongst the same family of birds.

    One thing is for sure, most birds dislike change. They are frightened by or suspicious of anything that’s new. I bought some chopped peanuts for them a few weeks back and despite them loving it in their ready-prepared mixes, they wouldn’t go near it for quite a while when we put it out on its own. I think it’s the look of it more than anything else.

    The bravest of the birds are usually the blue tits, they’ll have a try at nearly anything new after just a tiny bit of hesitation. I suspect it’s because they have much faster reflexes and are away faster than most birds if there’s a sign of a predator about.

    So it might be that your tree sparrows actually like everything you’re putting out for them, but aren’t used to it on its own.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that for the birds, Spring seems to have Sprung early and they’re all a-quiver about other stuff than what is on the menu at the local restaurant. They’re getting ready to do nesty-duties and are getting interested in those nasty birds they’ve spent the rest of the year chasing away!

  3. Yasmine says:

    Thanks Keith and Val

    It’s interesting Val that your birds get spooked by change too. Tree sparrows are more cautious than house sparrows, but maybe they’re not that nervous relative to other species? I don’t have any house sparrows at the moment. Would the house sparrows have tried the new seed first? I wonder!

    I did have one very brave bird this year. For a few weeks during the snow a reed bunting visited. He was bold as brass, feeding very close to the window and not at all camera shy. At the same time I had yellowhammers visiting the back garden – they wouldn’t cross the boundary line between the field and the garden, and I got the feeling they were very uncomfortable coming so close to housing.

    Whatever they are, birds are always fascinating!

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