Nature's Beauty Spoiled by Pest Birds

Pest bird pigeons in a park in London, England
Pest bird pigeons in a park in London, England. Elliot Neep/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Birds can be a beautiful part of our natural environment, but that beauty can be spoiled by populations of pest birds that damage homes and property with their droppings, spread disease and disturb our peace with their loud caws and non-ending cheeps. The three common species of pest birds in the U.S. are pigeons, house sparrows, and European starlings.

Pest Bird Damage and Disease

Most birds, along with their eggs and nests, are protected against non-permit trapping or killing under the Migratory Bird Treaty and Endangered Species Act. However, neither U.S. federal nor any state law holds protection against control or elimination of the nuisance bird species. However, local ordinances may apply so should be checked prior to any control effort.

Pigeons, house sparrows, and European starlings are considered pests because:

  • These birds are not native to North America and have no natural predators in the U.S.
  • Large populations of pest birds can have significant adverse effects on human health and safety.
  • Birds can carry and transmit disease including toxoplasmosis, encephalitis, and Salmonella; and breathing of their droppings can cause further disease, including histoplasmosis and cryptococcosis.
  • Bird droppings can also cause significant damage and deterioration to structures and vehicles.
  • Bird nests can clog pipes, cause electrical outage, and attract secondary insect pests, such as mites, gnats, mealybugs, and slugs.

Pigeons as Pests

Pigeons are often called flying rodents because of the filth they carry. These birds are the largest and most damaging of the pest birds.

  • Identification
    • Pigeons are up to 11 inches long and about 13 ounces in weight.
    • Their bodies are grayish with two black bars on each wing, with red feet.
  • Habits
    • Though pigeons prefer grains, they will eat all types of human food.
    • Because they have become dependent on humans for their food and shelter, they will gather in areas wherever they find food.
    • In cities, pigeons gather where people feed them - parks, outdoor restaurants, and around trash bins.
    • In rural areas, they often gather around farms, feed and grain mills, and food manufacturing plants.
  • Damage and Disease
    • Disease transmission includes cryptococcosis, toxoplasmosis, salmonella, food poisoning.
    • In addition to transmitting disease and causing structural damage, bird droppings can cause slips and falls.
    • Pigeons can carry insect pests such as fleas, lice, and ticks.

House Sparrows

  • Identification
    • About 5 to 6 1/2 inches in length and less than one ounce in weight.
    • Light or reddish brown with streaks of black, and a gray underbelly.
  • Habits
    • The sparrows prefer to feed on grains, but will eat vegetables, fruits and flowers, as well as trash and spilled foods.
    • Their incessant sharp cheeping can become a great nuisance, particularly in areas of high populations.
    • House sparrows can very aggressive and year-round pests in many areas of the U.S.
  • Damage and Disease
    • These sparrows can cause major damage in gardens and can displace desirable songbirds.
    • They can be very problematic in rural areas where they will feed on and contaminate livestock feed.
    • Their nests are often built in, on, or near buildings, where they can cause secondary pest infestations and fire hazards.
    • The sparrows' prolific breeding can increase populations from a few spring birds to high populations by mid-summer.
    • Sparrow droppings will deface and damage structures, and are difficult to remove.
    • They can carry and spread West Nile virus.

    European Starlings

    • Identification
      • Starlings are dark in color with faint speckles on their feathers.
      • About 6 inches long and 3 ounces in weight.
    • Habits
      • Starlings prefer to feed on grubs and other larvae, but they will also eat seeds, fruits in trees, as well as trash and spilled foods.
      • Starlings travel in flocks and are commonly found in trees or on clogged gutters, which provide them with drinking water.
    • Damage and Disease
      • As with other pest birds, the starling's droppings can erode structures, and when roosting in flocks, significant damage can result.
      • Droppings can contaminate soil and lead to transmission of diseases such as histoplasmosis.
      • Starlings have been implicated in airplane crashes, caused by a strike with the aircraft.

    For information on pest bird control, see Controlling Pest Birds

    Pigeon and starling descriptions adapted from NPMA information.