Do sparrows have squatter rights?

selective focus of two birds on concrete beam

There has been much news lately about squatters moving into temporarily vacant residences in California and New York and then refusing to leave when the rightful owners show up.

The squatters claim that they have legal rights to remain on the premises indefinitely and because there is usually a lawsuit somewhere along the way, evictions take forever in the human world.

Believe it or not, there are “squatters” in the bird world, too, but you don’t hear much about them because these evictions don’t get dragged out in lengthly courtroom battles.   

They usually get resolved rather quickly, perhaps with a well-placed peck here and there, without any fear of getting sued by some lawyer.   

That type of eviction has played out often over the 40 years that Annie has owned her horse barn. The squatters at Annie’s barn are the English sparrows, the dregs of the birding world.   

And in case you didn’t know, English sparrows were imported into the US beginning in the 1850s from Europe primarily because European immigrants, believe it or not, were lonesome for the birds they grew up with. So over they came.   

But once these non-native English sparrows arrived in this country, they proved to be the “vigorous colonizers” and “invasive bullies” that many feared they would be.

Among their obnoxious tendencies was the commandeering of nests built by other birds.

The barn swallows at Annie’s barn have had nests inside the barn for years, with many swallows today using the same nests that they were born in.   

Barn swallows are model citizens. They catch tons of mosquitos and other obnoxious bugs from dawn to dusk. They mate for life and they seem like such cheerful creatures, chirping all day long as they go about their business.   

Both partners are attentive to their young and go out of their way to protect their nests from cats, snakes, rodents and other critters.   

But sooner or later, toward the end of summer, and without any fanfare, the swallows leave in mass overnight for Central America and beyond, and once again, the barn becomes strangely silent for the next six months.

Normally, our barn swallows return in mass by early April. But this year, for whatever reason, there still were no swallows by April 10 and we were beginning to wonder what was going on.  

Over the winter, some English sparrows had moved into the swallows’ nests. Finally, during the third week in April, four swallows showed up at the barn.  

Maybe these early swallows were here to give an eviction notice to the sparrows — a verbal one at that — to the effect, perhaps, that they had a week to get their stuff and get out.   

And sure enough, this past week, in the middle of the day, Annie heard a swishing sound and saw two dozen barn swallows zooming in mass into the alley of the barn from the west, and then out the other end, where they regrouped in the sky overhead in a swarm.

Then they came roaring back in — only this time they paired off into the nests in the rafters until all of the swallows had a nest of their own.   

It was a remarkable sight.

And the English sparrows who had been squatting in those nests? Were they hanging around chattering about their squatter rights?   

Nope, they were long gone.   

Wouldn’t it be nice if all lawful evictions could be handled with just a chirp or two?

(Bill Hoagland can be reached at

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