Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” might be a fantastic fictional tale of avian-based horror, but there’s plenty to really fear when it comes to these winged pests and food safety. Birds can carry more than 60 different diseases, including Salmonella, histoplasmosis, Clostridium, E. coli and Listeria.
“Birds, by and large, are huge transmitters of some of the worst types of food safety pathogens and microbes,” said Shannon Sked, an entomologist at Western Pest Services in Philadelphia, Pa. “The things that microbiologists are very scared of — birds are swimming in.”
Although most birds aren’t cosmopolitan pests such as rodents or certain insects, they can pose serious risks to food facilities if they get in.
“Birds are something where maybe you deal with it once in a while, or you’ve got a persistent problem that you can solve through exclusion,” Sked said, “but when it does occur and you do get a bird in a food facility or even a warehouse section of the facility, it’s a five-alarm fire.”
With the enactment of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), more attention has been paid to birds as potential hazards to food safety, something that Sked said wasn’t always the case.
“A lot of this conversation about bird prevention had not been done before,” he said. “Actually considering the steps to mitigate birds prior to when you have a problem is something I’ve always tried to get people to think about.”
Jeff Watts, a bird control specialist at Bird-B-Gone, which makes bird control products, agreed that birds can be an afterthought when developing a pest control plan. He reiterated that birds are a pest and should be included in an overall pest management plan.
“They do need to conduct a bird audit or develop a bird plan before the birds get inside the facility,” he said. “Obviously, prevention is a lot more successful than trying to drive an existing bird issue out.”
Getting an existing issue out when it comes to birds is also trickier than with rodents or insects because many birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects more than 1,000 birds, covering the animals, their nests and more.
“You can get in a lot of trouble if you’re messing with them or their nests,” said Cory Gellerstedt, co-president of Nixalite of America, which makes bird control products. “Mud swallows, which are a common bird, build nests up in corners of buildings, and they’re protected. You can’t just go up there and blast their nest down with a pressure washer.”
Sked, Watts and Gellerstedt provided the following practical advice and tips on how to deal with bird issues, what to watch out for and more.
Assess the Issue
Before calling in a bird control expert, Gellerstedt advised to do your own site survey. Take photos of any birds you spot around your facility and try to make an identification ahead of time.
“Make sure you find out what type of birds you’re having a problem with,” he said.
Take note of any open food or water sources, including standing puddles on a roof, as those will typically draw birds in.
“If it’s a mud swallow, and it’s an active nest, you’re going to know right away that you can't mess with that unless you get a permit [since it’s protected],” Gellerstedt said.
“Birds are something where maybe you deal with it once in a while, or you’ve got a persistent problem that you can solve through exclusion.” — Shannon Sked, entomologist at Western Fumigation
Next time your pest control operator visits your facility, ask them about their bird options, show them what you discovered and make a plan to deal with the issue.
“That’s a perfect time to bring it up,” Gellerstedt said. “They’re already there. A lot of pest control companies are offering bird control services, or they’ll contract out with a specialist.”
Be on the Lookout
The three usual suspects you’ll want to be on the lookout for are English sparrows, pigeons and European starlings. All three are not migratory and found throughout the United States, meaning they aren’t protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“They are the ones that come in these incredibly vast numbers where the higher the pressure, the higher the risk associated with pathogen transmission,” Sked said.
Starlings and sparrows nest in trees, but they’re both just as likely to nest in holes or cavities in buildings. Pigeons almost exclusively nest in or on buildings.
“The more buildings we build, the more homes there are for the pigeons,” Watts said.
Sked also advised keeping an eye on seagulls and Canada geese. While they’re both protected, they can be found around food facilities and warehouses. Seagulls will use manmade structures to nest, albeit infrequently visited ones such as underpasses.
But Sked has even seen seagulls nest on rooftops equipped with solar panels, since the arrays produce heat during winter months.
Canada geese, on the other hand, nest on the ground, usually in quiet spots. But if one nests near your facility, watch out.
“I have seen one actually nest right by the steps going up to the side entrance of a warehouse,” Sked said. “Once it made its nest, they claimed that area. Once a bird nests, you’re dealing with a different animal. It’s Jekyll and Hyde.”
Set Realistic Expectations
There’s a reason birds are bugging you. Just like any other animal, they need food, water and shelter. If they think they can get any of those out of your food facility, they’re going to swoop in.
And because many are protected, there’s only so much you can do to remove them. Watts said it’s important to set realistic expectations for controlling birds. For example, instead of removing them completely, it’s more likely that the birds can be enticed to move away from sensitive areas.
“We can’t necessarily make something a bird-free facility unless we put a gigantic dome over the plant,” Watts said. “Sometimes it might not even require bird control products. It might require sanitation.”
Understand Bird Behavior
One challenge posed by birds is that they aren’t the bird brains you think they are.
“They’re more like you and me,” Sked said.
“Once a bird nests, you’re dealing with a different animal. It’s Jekyll and Hyde.” — Shannon Sked, entomolgist at Western Fumigation
He looks for three bird behaviors — roosting, loafing and nesting — before figuring out which control tactic is best.
“The reason why it is so important that I identify that behavior correctly is because my control tactic is going to be based off of what I see,” Sked said.
For example, if Sked sees roosting (a hunting or feeding behavior) or nesting (a breeding behavior), he knows that sound or visual deterrents won’t work.
“I’ll use exclusionary practices — things like netting, ledge guards or changing the architecture of the building so that it can’t be utilized by a bird anymore,” he said.
If Sked sees loafing (a social behavior), sound deterrents will be more successful. He said it helps to compare the birds’ behaviors to our own. For example, if you’re meeting friends out at a restaurant or bar (a social behavior), and when you get there, it’s boarded up, you’ll try to find somewhere else.
“But if I was coming home, and there were boards on the windows and a chain was on the door, and the last time I saw my wife and kids was inside that house — I’m breaking in,” Sked said. “I have very different behaviors based off what I use that space for. Birds are the same exact way.”