What Happens When Birds Invade Stores?

To deal with feathered squatters like doves and sparrows, businesses turn to rescue and removal experts.

A trip to the grocery store is the opposite of a refreshing tromp through nature. But for those who appreciate birds, it could be a chance to check out sparrows, starlings, pigeons, doves, and other staple species as they flutter across aisles and lay siege to the rafters.

For the most part, the creatures coexist with shoppers, cashiers, and those angels with free cheese samples. At the same time, they can inadvertently pose sanitary hazards through their feathers, poop, and salmonella cells. Let’s just say, when there’s a “cleanup in aisle three,” it isn’t always a human's fault.

Encountering birds indoors isn't only limited to food stores, but seeing them does raise all kinds of questions. How did they get in here? What do they want? Will they be stuck in Costco forever? (I've lost countless friends there.) 

The first answer is simple enough. “Typically, the birds you find going into stores are already lingering near the entrances,” says Brittany Leick, a rescue and relocation specialist with Safe Haven Bird Removal in Michigan. “They’re your common invasive or overpopulated species,” like House Sparrows and Laughing Gulls. These birds don’t just encroach on others species’ ranges; they invade human territory as well.

When birds move into malls, shops, and other indoor spaces, they do it for the same motives we do: They’re seeking food, water, and sometimes, a place to build a nest. “The reason they may be expanding into stores and public areas could be that they lack territory to cover their needs [in the wild],” Leick says. (That's why you never see birds in record stores or haberdasheries.) Once they get comfy, they might train their young to nest inside buildings, too, starting a splinter population of second-generation squatters. 

Fortunately, businesses tend not to let the birds linger for long, which is where Leick and other skilled removers come in. Her go-to is to use mist nets on poles to scoop up birds in the rafters. “Our strength lies in our ability to get the nets up fast to avoid scaring the bird,” she says, “because fear causes them to change their behavior, making them more difficult to catch.” Once they’re in the nets, though, the animals can be moved at will and freed in the wild—far away from the building, of course.

Getting birds to leave big-box stores like Costco, Walmart, and Target can prove more difficult. The higher ceilings mean even more airspace to avoid traps. So, these places bring in companies that specialize in large-scale interventions. Chris Cook is one of their mavericks; he’s the general manager of Fly Bye Bird Control, a Washington-based outfit that conducts safe and non-lethal avian removal. After 25 years of being in the business, he’s found that a combination of live traps, mist nets, and audible and visual deterrents works best for winged “pests.” He’s also noticed that employees tend to call him in more when upper management is planning to visit.

With every case, Cook follows a similar process. “A typical scenario is to do a site evaluation to gauge how the birds are getting in and out of the facility,” he says. “After identifying the species of bird, you have to look at why they are going inside. If it is for food, then you eliminate the food; if it is water, then you get rid of that.” Mist nets and live traps can then be employed for safe release.

After that, it’s all about turning the building into an indestructible shield against birds. But preventing entry is harder than simply posting a “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign. Stores need to keep the entryway clean of crumbs or trash, plug up holes, and keep doors closed as often as possible. Workers should also check the carts before they're brought in at the end of the day, Leick says. (Birds have been known to linger in them like Greeks in the Trojan Horse).

Automatic doors can be another tragic flaw: Some infiltrators actually wait for them to open and close “to move in and out with ease,” Cook says. There’s no word yet on how they handle revolving doors.

If all else fails, stores can pull out the Terror Eyes. Easily the most frightening bird deterrent, these basketball-size balloons are meant to mimic natural predators, with giant, holographic peepers that create the illusion of a predator on the lookout. If I saw one of these hanging outside a store, I’d run away and shop elsewhere, too.

While Cook claims he’s never failed to coax a bird out of a store before (the only time he’s ever had to give up is when the customer decided not to pay for the service anymore), he admits that his targets can be tenacious. “Birds are smart. People do not give them enough credit on how they can adapt to their surroundings,” he says.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of structures that will always have a supply of avian tenants. “As far as landmarks, take your pick,” Cook says. “Capitol buildings in Washington, D.C.; any major bridge like the Brooklyn Bridge or underpass; the Alamo in Texas.” U.S. airports spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year clearing birds out of terminals and off of tarmacs. If they don’t, they can face even heftier costs to cover the damages.

But birds don’t care about all that. They’re just looking to lead a simple life—inside of the biggest birdhouses they can find. “They’re getting everything they need to survive inside the store,” Cook says. So, the next time you run into a feathered shopper, let them be and respect their hustle. Just try to avoid the dairy section if you can; we hear there’s an uprising brewing by the eggs. 


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