While most wild birds are protected against uncontrolled harvesting under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there are three bird species—pigeons (Columba livia), European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), and house sparrows (Passer domesticus)—that are considered nuisance pests in the United States. They are not protected against control, dispersal, or extermination. These species are non-native to North America and are regarded as invasive birds that can be eliminated at will.
While there are other non-native bird species in North America, these three have been flagged because they threaten the ability of some native bird species to thrive—by consuming foods or occupying nesting or roosting areas that are favored by more desirable native birds.
There are several ways in which homeowners can control pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows, and employing a combination of methods usually provides the most successful results.
6 Ways to Get Rid of Pest Birds
Eliminate Feeding and Watering Sources
To the degree possible, eliminate or reduce water and food sources favored by pest birds. Clean gutters to prevent standing water, and design landscapes to avoid puddles and ponds where birds can drink. If pest birds are a big problem, you may need to forego all birdbaths, as these unavoidably are used by pest birds as well as desirable songbirds.
Never spread out bread crumbs or other food snacks on the lawn, as pigeons and sparrows will take this as an invitation to be permanent visitors. Keep your trash cans covered and garbage areas clean. If pest birds are feeding on the food in the feeders you set out for desirable birds, try changing the type of food used.
- House sparrows: eat mostly grains and seeds
- Pigeons: eat mostly grains, seeds, berries, bread scraps, garbage
- Starlings: favor bugs and other insects, but will eat almost anything
If pest birds are a big problem, it's best to stop using feeders altogether during warm weather.
Eliminate Roosting Areas
Trim trees so they do not touch or overhang your home and other structures. Heavily prune any plants that seem to attract the birds you want to get rid of. House sparrows, for example, are drawn to dense bushes, so keeping your shrubs well-pruned and airy may help get rid of sparrows.
Add obstructions (such as spikes or sticky glues) to any ledges where pest birds roost. This kind of roosting is a favorite behavior of pigeons, and if you make it hard to roost, they will likely go elsewhere. Attaching nylon or plastic netting to the bottom of rafters will close off this area to birds seeking roosting sites. However, some maintenance is required, as accumulated twigs and grass will reduce or remove their effectiveness.
- House sparrows: roost mostly in trees and shrubs
- Pigeons: roost in tight areas along ledges and branches, always near feeding areas
- Starlings: roost in groups, usually in wooded areas
Learn to identify the nests of the birds you want to eliminate, and systematically destroy them as soon as they are built. With these three unprotected pest species, it is entirely allowable—and advised—to destroy nests that have eggs in them. First, though, you should make sure you have the right nest. It's not easy to distinguish between the nests of house sparrows and fox sparrows, for example, unless you see an adult roosting on the nest.
- House sparrows: Nests are loose cups of sticks and grasses, located in hollows, cavities, or the crooks of branches.
- Pigeons: Nests are flimsy platforms of sticks, usually placed on ledges or flat branches.
- Starlings: Nests are made of sticks and grasses, always placed in cavities.
Blocking nesting areas may cause pest species to go elsewhere. Caulk or seal openings through which the smaller pest birds can enter. Sparrows can enter through gaps as small as 3/4 inch and starlings through 1-inch openings. Block vent, eave, and loft openings with plywood, 1/4-inch wire mesh, or netting.
Use Non-Toxic Repellants
Sticky, non-toxic repellents can be placed on areas such as ledges to discourage and reduce bird landing and roosting. These products also require maintenance, as they will collect dust and dirt and need to be reapplied regularly. Repellents are more successful with pigeons that roost and nest on ledges than with other species that favor shrubs and trees.
It is possible, though not easy, to trap pest birds. Non-lethal funnel traps, spring-loaded net traps, and other devices are available. These will allow you to release any non-target birds who are accidentally trapped. Pest birds caught with these traps should be humanely exterminated rather than released, as the birds can find their way back from even 50 miles away or cause problems in other communities. In many areas, it's unlawful to release pest bird species back into the wild.
Local ordinances should be checked prior to any large-scale trapping initiative, as permits are required in some communities.
In rural areas, it is usually lawful to hunt pest species with firearms in any season and without a quota limit. Always use firearms in a safe, responsible manner. Air-powered pellet rifles may be a better choice than gunpowder-actuated weapons for hunting pest bird species. Always check local ordinances; in urban and suburban areas, even pellet guns might be forbidden.
While starlings, house sparrows, and pigeons are considered fair game for many control measures, take care not to cross over into open harassment or destruction of species of native wild birds, as this is not allowed by federal law. And under no circumstances should you hunt or kill protected bird species, except if there is an authorized hunting season.
Hire a Professional
As with the control of other pests, it can be advantageous to contact a pest control professional who has the knowledge, expertise, and access to professional products. The professional will very likely use some of the same methods described here but will have ladders and other equipment that are unavailable or hard to use for homeowners. A professional can be an especially good choice if you face a large population of pigeons.
What Causes Pest Birds?
Starlings, house sparrows, and pigeons can be a problem in any environment where their needs for food, water, and shelter are met.
How to Prevent Pest Birds?
As described above, the same methods used to get rid of pest birds will almost certainly prevent them from taking up residence in your yard. A bird species that does not find its favorite foods, a source of water, or a place to roost and nest, will rarely stick around in your yard.
Is using chemicals possible?
Although there are some "avicide" compounds used to poison or repel pest birds, their use in the U.S. is usually limited to commercial agricultural settings under precise guidelines. Some of these are nonlethal compounds sold as "chemical repellants." These products are applied as foggers, and they cause the birds to respond with great alarm when they inhale the mist. Other compounds are lethal poisons, though their use is carefully regulated. It is never a good idea for homeowners to use chemicals on birds, or any outdoor wildlife species, for that matter. Such outdoor poisoning is usually illegal, since it is almost impossible to prevent pets and desirable wildlife species from being accidentally poisoned.
Do scarecrows and similar devices work?
Although marketed for the control of birds, visual scares, such as balloons, plastic snakes, or fake owls rarely work for any length of time. The birds will quickly adapt to their presence and return to their preferred roosting or feeding site. Sound and flashing light devices can repel some birds from setting up roosting sites, but unless any such device is frequently moved, its effectiveness will be limited.
Where do these invasive bird species come from?
House sparrows were originally native to Mediterranean regions, spreading across Europe and Asia many hundreds of years ago. They are thought to have arrived in North America during the 1850s, brought by immigrants who hoped they would control insects. Within a few decades, house sparrows spread uncontrollably and are now one of the most populous of all species found in North America. House sparrows are regarded as one of the most troublesome of non-native bird species, due to their displacement of native species.
Pigeons (also known as rock doves, common pigeons, or feral pigeons) have a complicated heritage. The original Columba livia species was probably native to western and southern Europe, North African, and parts of southern Asia. The species is a genetic parent to the domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica). The wild pigeons that are so ever-present today are likely feral descendants from escaped domestic pigeons, not the pure C. livia species.
European starlings are native to the temperate regions of Europe and western Asia. They are thought to have reached North America due to the ill-conceived action of Eugene Schieffelin, whose organization attempted to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare into North America. The original 60 or so birds released into New York's Central Park in 1890 have since grown to more than 150 million birds across North America. More than a messy annoyance, pigeons are also disease carriers, capable of spreading E. coli and many other pathogens.
Are there other non-native bird species in North America?
Although they are not subject to uncontrolled hunting and trapping, there are at least four other non-native species of birds commonly found in North America:
- The house finch is a purple-headed finch originally native to Mexico and a small region of the U.S. Southwest. It was introduced to the eastern U.S. in 1939 and is now found across all of North America. Their numbers are not excessive, however, and most homeowners rather enjoy these colorful and cheerful little birds that don't seem to threaten other birds.
- The cattle egret is a type of heron that arrived from Africa to North America in 1941. A substantial population is now found in the southern U.S., where casual bird watchers are often unaware of its foreign origins.
- Eurasian collared doves are sometimes confused for common pigeons, though their soft gray color is quite distinct from that species. The Eurasian collared dove is native from Turkey to Sri Lanka and was released into the wild after escaping captivity in the Bahamas in 1974. There are now more the 400,000 in North America, and it is spreading steadily.
- Ring-necked pheasants, though prized by many hunters, are actually Asian natives brought to the U.S. by settlers in the 1730s. They are known to displace native birds, such as prairie chickens and gray partridges, but numbers are kept in check by hunting and by farming practices that are gradually reducing habitat.
“Nuisance Birds: Damage Management.” Natural Resource Stewardship, Iowa State University
Migratory Bird Permits. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services
Migratory Bird Poisonings. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Zoonoses Associated with Birds (Including Poultry and Pigeons). Washington State University.