A Messy Situation

Bird infestations used to be frustrating simply because facility managers had to waste money cleaning up after a renewable source of mess. Today, managers have to deal with the threat of lawsuits as well as the day-to-day infestation problems. Besides leaving behind visually unappealing droppings, birds create dangerous environments.

Studies show that over 60 diseases can be transferred from birds to humans, with some resulting in fatalities. A build-up of bird droppings has the potential for slip-and-fall lawsuits, not to mention every facility manager’s nightmare--OSHA, the USDA, local health boards or other governmental organizations citing and fining the facility or shutting it down due to bird infestation or bird mess.

As difficult as it is to admit, OSHA might actually be doing managers a favor in a situation like this. Bad press and fines aside, if facilities are permitted to operate while contaminated by bird droppings, there is a chance that someone entering the facility may contract a serious disease and sue. Worse yet, the person affected might be one of your co-workers (or you). While most people have heard of avian flu or West Nile virus, histoplasmosis and Cryptococcus have maintained a low profile, despite showing up in the news as well. This low level of awareness keeps people from taking measures to protect themselves, leaving you responsible to protect them.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that:

“Areas known or suspected of being contaminated by H. capsulatum, such as bird roosts, attics, or even entire buildings that contain accumulations of bat or bird manure, should be posted with signs warning of the health risk. Each sign should provide the name and telephone number of a person to be contacted if there are questions about the area. In some situations, a fence may need to be built around a property or locks put on attic doors to prevent unsuspecting or unprotected individuals from entering.”

We tend to brush off bird droppings as merely an eyesore, but they are the main source of disease transmission between birds and humans. While most people do their best to avoid direct contact with fecal matter, bird droppings turn to dust as they dry, and people in the environment may inhale the fungus and bacteria they contain.

Consider The Facts

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC explain:

“[Histoplasmosis] hurts your lungs. Sometimes, it hurts other organs too, and it can be fatal if untreated. Anyone working at a job or close to places where the fungus is in the air can get this disease if you breathe in enough of it. … some jobs and hobbies that increase your risk [are] bridge inspector or painter, chimney cleaner, construction worker, demolition worker, farmer, gardener, heating and air-conditioning system installer or service person, microbiology laboratory worker, pest control worker, restorer of historic or abandoned buildings, roofer ...”

This list of elevated-risk jobs is fairly extensive and by no means inclusive. Diseases transmitted through airborne particles can affect anyone. For example, The News-Herald in Southgate, Mich., published an article in September 2004 about a police officer who had been hospitalized after working in a township hall. Knowing that people “could be infected just by walking inside the facility,” warning signs were displayed explaining the building’s contamination due to bird and bat droppings. For the officer, however, the warning came too late. He “had to have a portion of his lung removed. Tests were positive for histoplasmosis.”

If only one person contracts a disease and sues because of birds in a facility, a lawsuit can be truly substantial. In Palm Beach, Fla., a teacher won $1.2 million in a settlement when he contracted Cryptococcus while working at a school. The district was advised to settle because it feared a judgment could exceed $3.7 million (South Florida Sentinel, March, 2001). The article reported that the virus may live in a person for years then suddenly become symptomatic when the individual’s immune system hits a low point.

Additional Risks

The dangers that droppings produce do not stop with the possibility of disease. Droppings contain both ammonia and high levels of uric acid. The acid content causes the droppings to eat away at surfaces when left over time. When the droppings dry out, they turn into a concentrated salt which, when combined with water and the existing ammonia, creates electro-chemical charges that cause steel to rust. This can ruin machinery and cause a facility to endure permanent damage that scars its appearance forever. Furthermore, if bleach is added to any bird droppings as a way to clean them, the ammonia will interact and spur the release of a toxic gas.

Another frightening reality is that the weight of accumulated droppings can put unanticipated stress on structures and cause them to collapse. This can happen quickly, as one pigeon can produce about 25 pounds of fecal matter in one year. A tragic example of this was reported by The Sydney Morning Herald. On December 9, 2007, an Australian man was killed when an awning collapsed, causing the attached wall to crumble on top of him. The collapse was caused by an accumulation of pigeon excrement.

When the dangers of droppings are combined with birds downing power lines, getting caught in machinery, contaminating pallets of food or drugs and using insulation for nesting material, it is clear that ignoring a bird infestation is not only a waste of money and time but also an occupational hazard. In addition, the more time birds spend on your property, the more stubborn they will be when you try to get rid of them. A timely and educated response is extremely important to effective bird control.

Take Action

Understand that the problem you must solve is not the presence of birds or their droppings; the problem is that the environment is appealing to these birds. Even if the current infestation is killed off or chased away, a new flock will fill the void if the environment is not altered to make it unappealing. Effective bird control does not include lethal methods or trapping, as these strategies will only prolong the frustration of the situation, and require a regular investment as birds return.

And there will probably be legal repercussions for using lethal methods as they can unintentionally affect the vast number of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Then you might even find yourself dealing with a new infestation--protestors. Plus, the health issues that dead birds present make this approach both inefficient and dangerous.

Instead, take some time to research the nuisance birds. Work out what they like about the property (food, warmth, shelter, nesting materials). Place repellents near the source of these comforts. Clean up the droppings (using proper equipment to keep the particles contained and out of the lungs), nests, dead birds or anything else that might signal to the birds that the area is their territory. Figure out where they come from and where they go when scared from their original location. If it’s on your property, prepare that location as well to prevent a second infestation.

Once the nature of the infestation is understood, explore the available technology, and choose some strategies. In selecting products, remember that birds (like humans) are multi-sensory. Using products synergistically to address more than one sense ensures the birds will have a much stronger reaction.

Products break down into the following categories:

· Auditory devices--Ultrasonic devices produce sound waves that are inaudible to the human ear, but extremely bothersome to birds, bats and rodents. Sonic devices are audible to birds as well as to the rest of the world. They might feature distress calls or predator noises.

· Visual devices--These products scare birds away visually, and include strobe lights, bird-scare balloons, holographic tape and predator decoys.

· Taste/Smell--This liquid deterrent uses methyl anthranilate (derived from Concord grapes) to give birds a similar sensation that humans experience around bleach.

· Roost inhibitor--These are physical barriers to roosting sites and make take the form of sticky chemicals, spike strips or netting.

Anyone who manages a facility has a responsibility to keep the work environment safe for themselves and others. Clearing a bird infestation can make a huge difference in terms of economics, morale and, most importantly, safety. Remember, if the choices are overwhelming or you do not know where to start, there are always bird-control experts who will be happy to help.