Backyard Bird Nest Drama: An Update on “The Roofer’s Birdhouse”

Remember the Roofer’s Birdhouse? The avian soap opera continues:  We meant to borrow a long ladder and take the box down before more House Sparrows could use it this season, but alas, we didn’t quite get to it. So I decided to make the most of the urban wildlife “research opportunity,” and observe the progress of the nest carefully.

The "Roofer's Birdhouse," when it was new.

Right away in early spring, House Sparrows moved in.  They didn’t mind that the entrance hole was now giant (chewed by a squirrel who had contemplated using the house for himself ), and got busy collecting feathers from the chicken coop, and other refuse from around our house to make their messy nest.  We’ve been hearing the cheeping of the young for a couple of weeks now, and they should be ready to fledge anytime.

Our beloved predator, Delilah, among the backyard buttercups.

In a dramatic turn of events, our domestic predator, Delilah, killed the mother House Sparrow yesterday.  Delilah is officially an indoor cat, but when the weather gets warm, she sometimes slips out the open back door, and we let her wander around the garden with us–since she doesn’t go out much, she’s too scared of the world to stray.  But she reminds me what swift and effective predators domestic cats are.  I’d barely turned my back on her before she brought her recently-live prey proudly into the house.

I suppose if we could teach cats, which are NOT “natural predators” in the landscape–they are naturally predacious, which is different–to kill only nonnative birds such as House Sparrows, maybe there would be some kind of balance, but that is not how it works.  Once, after another of her secret forays into the backyard wilds, Delilah brought me a MacGillivray’s Warbler, one of the few ever sighted in West Seattle.  I was able to release that bird, but can’t know how it fared, as even tiny cat bites are deadly to birds.

In any case,  I gently separated Delilah from her dead sparrow (disappointment!–Delilah did not forgive me for hours); even if this was “just” a House Sparrow, she was lovely in her own right, and I was sorry for her.  I buried her in a shady garden corner.

But things are not all bad for the sparrow family.  While many songbird species leave care of the young to the female, male House Sparrows are active in the feeding of the nestlings.  Mr. House Sparrow did seem agitated and confused after witnessing the loss of his mate, but he “manned-up” right away, and got busy feeding his brood.  This morning I imitated the call of the male house sparrow, and for the first time one of the nestlings peeked out.

The male House Sparrow, tending his motherless brood.

I believe we have two ethical options regarding the nonnative starlings and House Sparrows nesting in our yards:

1.  Try to prevent them–remove their nests or eggs, cover inviting potential nest-spots (both are cavity-nesters, and like things like gutter cornices or heater vents). I never advocate harming individual birds, or their young after hatching.  (See my post on the Roofer’s Birdhouse for more on this.)

2.  If they do nest in our yards, then we should make the most of it.  These are approachable, watchable birds, and we can learn a lot about all birds by observing them closely.  (See my earlier post on House Sparrows for more on this.)

Is there drama in your little plot of urban wilderness?  I’d love to hear about it.



  1. Katherine

    I’ve spotted two fledglings in the past couple of years, first a crow (the parents were so noisy for a couple of weeks -waking everyone up in the neighborhood) – he/she was hopping around under my hostas but then I was a witness to a flurry of feathers in my backyard one morning and some very mournful parents. So sad.

    And again this year, a similar sad story. A fledgling pigeon on my neighbours porch roof, trying to fly but continuing to beat its wings against the roof unable to lift off. It rested for the afternoon and we thought it was safer there than on the ground but racoons woke us up in the middle of the night and the only hint of what they were up to the next morning were some stray pigeon feathers including a few very large ones.

    I have to remind myself that this is the circle of life. We were enjoying two teenage raccoons who hung out in the foliage just a couple of weeks ago. Trying to sleep in the crooks of branches and then climbing down only as it got dark.

    But I do hope I have better fledgling stories next time!

  2. Thanks for this story, and for your sensitive response! I think yours is a rare voice: I’m sure there aren’t many people pay much attention to the comings and goings of house sparrows, and fewer still who know that they’re an invasive species but are willing to pay so much respect to individuals. Pretty inspiring!

    When I started this comment I was ready to report no drama, but sometime between dinner and table clearing a nestling fell out of the nest in our gutter onto the porch. I confess to having enjoyed watching the nest building, so for the sake of the grieving parents I hope the rest of the brood is fine up there.

  3. I just discovered your blog after finishing Crow Planet about 15 minutes ago. What an amazing read. When I looked at your blog I was so surprised to see how many of the themes in your life coincided with themes in mine. From my ( sometimes misguided) love of birds to my art which reflect my love of nature, to the Chickens my husband is clamoring for, to the spinning wheel and knitting projects I am helping my daughter with! There are a lot of us out here trying to make the world a better place. Don’t lose hope! If you have a minute check out my website at and click on the gallery called Natures Treasures to see what I pick up on my walks in and around Minneapolis. I didn’t have a title for myself till just now but I think Urban Naturalist will do just fine…..Looking forward to reading your other books.

  4. Beck

    Love your blog. My dog killed a fledgling of some kind of sparrowish bird the other day. I think the fledgling escaped the nest a little early and was taking shelter under a bush. One pounce and the little bird was fatally injured. I picked him/her up in a washcloth and he/she gurgled a last chirp. It was so sad. I let the little bird lay in state so mom/dad would know what happened, and then buried him in the corner of the yard. Predator dog was quite proud and didn’t understand why I was sad.

  5. After research just a few of the blog posts on your website now, and I actually like your manner of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website listing and will likely be checking back soon. Pls check out my website online as well and let me know what you think.

Comments are closed.