Aviary Pitfalls #4 – Pests and Predators

Infrared Bird

No aviary can be hermetically sealed to keep out every conceivable external threat. At some point something is going to float, crawl or slither in and pose problems for your birds. I didn’t see any of them coming, but they came. And some were deadly.

Although some pests and predators will arrive at an aviary just because it lies within their roaming range, every one of these intruders will be opportunistic foragers or hunters that are simply adhering to the food chain they find themselves on. If you keep in mind what eats what, you can do a lot to curtail the presence of unwanted guests.

Here is a list of the aviary pests and predators that we had to face over the years, from smallest to biggest. Being in South-East Asia, our unwanted guests may differ slightly from yours, but there is probably some overlap so I hope this is helpful.

Ants

Individually they are nothing, but once an enemy or food source is located you will see a long line of them moving to and from the target. Although ants aren’t especially attracted to nuts and seeds which have shells on, they love things like cracked, unfertilized egg yolks and the sweet scent of chick droppings.

The greatest risk to the health of your birds from ants is therefore when very young chicks have just hatched. If ants home in on the nest box early enough a tiny chick can be overcome with multiple ‘bites’ as it won’t be able to defend itself.

To avoid ants, pick up any cracked egg shells and keep an eye out for lines of them along a wall near a nest box. I haven’t seen ants bothering mature birds of any species, although if you supply fresh soft fruits to your birds then this will attract ants so you could either only leave fruit out over a limited period of time each day or place the fresh fruit bowl on a stand in a shallow pool of water to keep the ants at bay.

One other more eco-friendly solution would be to introduce a species into the aviary which actually eats ants. In my experience, small quails have performed this function effectively, but remember that quails are flightless so you would have to put food on the ground which could attract other unwanted guests if the aviary isn’t appropriately sealed.

Beetles

I don’t know the exact species of beetle we have been getting, but its tiny (3-5mm?), black, flightless, nocturnal and multiplies fast. It seems to like staying in damp areas eg under water bowls and likes eating seeds or bird feed pellets. It also loves to hang around nest boxes which have chick droppings in them.

Black Beetle Aviary Pest
Next to a human hair for scale, this loves damp hiding places in the daytime.

There hasn’t been a clear physical threat to the birds in the aviary from this pest although they may moult, leaving behind their shells which are an allergen. Their faeces can’t be beneficial either, one would imagine.

Avoid leaving food on the floor of the aviary to discourage this species from spreading, unless the food on the floor is for quails (or other insect eating species), which will absolutely love exterminating every single beetle in your aviary whilst getting fat and healthy at the same time.

Mosquitoes

Humans living in hot or humid climates need no reminder of the potential hazards of mosquitoes, and they are no less of a threat to birds, especially when they are chicks newly hatched in a nest box. They can carry something called West Nile Virus which can effect humans (usually non fatal) as well as birds (usually fatal) and is found in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, south Asia and Australasia.

Birds infected with the virus will often fluff their feathers up, stay low to the ground and appear to be unbalanced or not able to stand. Death would follow in a few days.

Mosquitoes will be attracted to the aviary if it is in a shaded area with a constant presence of standing water, which can be used by mosquitoes to breed. For this reason it is useful to empty and refill the water bowl every day. If there are small ponds near the aviary you should stock them with small fish which will eat the mosquito larvae.

Another possible measure is to try and attract or actually stock those types of birds which eat mosquitoes. These include robins, mockingbirds, purple martins, swallows, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

Mice

Small, agile, nocturnal and some might even say cute, mice can represent a formidable problem if they establish themselves near or inside an aviary. They will initially stumble across the aviary on routine forays to find food, and any bird food lying around on the floor is a welcome snack.

Particularly fond of seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables, mice love to eat pretty much everything most birds like also. And if – as in our case – you leave nesting materials like straw or wood shavings scattered around the floor of the aviary the mice will simply use it to make a nest of their own within which to breed. Mouse nests are just dome shaped piles of whatever loose, dry detritus they can find, preferably near a food source, including bird feathers.

If you are unable to detect the presence of mice visually during the night time hours, your first clue of their presence will probably be the small brown elongated droppings they leave behind. You might also be able to hear them squeeking to each other occasionally.

Although we have had mice intermittently come into our aviary there has been no evidence that they ever physically attacked any of our birds. But that’s not because they wouldn’t be able to reach them. Mice can run along the narrowest of branches, climb vertical walls as long as they aren’t perfectly smooth, and even jump up to 12 inches horizontally to reach ledges and suspended feeding stations.

The main threat from mice is in the faeces and urine that they leave behind, which can come into contact with the remaining bird food and be ingested by your birds. These vectors carry infectious organisms such as salmonella and hantavirus.

Once mice have established themselves in or around your aviary, there are few easy or pleasant ways of getting rid of them so its much better to prevent them taking an interest in the first place. This is best done by keeping food out of their reach. Place food bowls high up on smoothly painted walls at least a foot away from the nearest branch. Sweep the floor of the aviary regularly to prevent bits of food dropping down and attracting them. And if you have a flightless bird species which requires food to be o n the floor, ensure the aviary is well sealed with the correct gauge wire mesh to prevent mice getting in at all. They can squeeze through the tiniest of gaps so you should get a mesh with suitably small holes where necessary.

If you do have to get rid of an existing population of mice, our experience suggests glue traps and poison are the most effective methods although both can have drawbacks. For a start, don’t put either in the aviary unless you find a way for only mice to come across them, not the birds. I was able to deploy both in the aviary by putting them inside a thin, flat cardboard box, eg a box that may have contained a laptop computer. These boxes will let a mouse in but birds, even small ones, won’t venture into them.

Glue traps can be messy and somewhat traumatic for all involved. Poison is cleaner and also very effective but it usually takes a few days for it to work and you need to be fairly confident that the mouse will not finally die in a place close by but where you cannot retrieve its body because it will smell awful for a good 3 days or so.

Best advice – don’t attract mice in the first place. Don’t leave food lying around.

Geckos

Tokay Gecko
This is the Tokay Gecko that terrorized our aviary for weeks.

OK so this may not be a threat to aviaries outside of southeast asia but I’m gonna include it here because…wow…what a predator! The particular species of gecko we’re talking about here is the Tokay Gecko. It is large, nocturnal, very aggressive and quite spectacular looking.

Your first – and perhaps only – clue as to the presence of one of these guys is the distinctive and loud mating call. It is a two-pulse ‘to-kay’ sound, which gives rise to its name. It has no interest in the food you may leave out for your birds but it will gobble up insects such as cockroaches which may be attracted to such food. And the threat to your birds is very direct. It will kill them at every opportunity.

Our experience was that on two or three occasions in the morning when I went to put food in the aviary I would find the gruesome sight of the body of either a zebra or gouldian finch lying dead on the ground with its head almost entirely severed or missing entirely. At the time I still didn’t know what was doing this but decided to make regular checks of the aviary with a torch at night to see if I could spot anything. In the event, I had popped out to 7-11 one evening at about 10 o’clock and when I got back home my son had been awakened by the sound of a commotion in the aviary.

I shined the torch in through the glass and the circle of light immediately framed there on the back wall a tockay gecko with a white zebra finch hanging out of its mouth. The birds’ head was in its jaws and it was already dead. To me, this was proof of how the other birds had died earlier.

The method I used to eventually dispatch the gecko is not something I am proud of but it involved an aerosol and a lighter. It was the only way. If I let it go it would just come back and kill again. If I tried to trap it, it would have bitten me. I actually thing it is a beautiful creature but very sadly it had to go.

This gecko is quite big so you need to make sure your aviary is properly sealed with strong wire mesh. Listen out for the mating call and inspect the aviary at night now and then to make sure this lethal predator doesn’t cause you heartache.

Cats

In many neighborhoods this will be the highest ranking member of the local food chain. Whilst traditionally enjoying the thrill of chasing down and killing birds, cats will also home in on your aviary if mice have been attracted to it.

If a cat gets into your aviary, the results can be devastating. And it happened to us. Attracted initially by mice into the cavity between the ceiling and the roof, a cat found the bird room (aviary) and set about bending and pulling the wire mesh I’d put up. Eventually, whilst we were away on a week long holiday, it broke in.

Forced entry into aviary
The hole that the cat made to get into the aviary.

My daughter came one day to feed the birds and was greeted with the sight of the black moggie trying to find a way back out of the aviary. Scattered around were the remains of 3 quails, 1 gouldian finch and 1 java finch. All 7 zebra finches, all 3 cockatiels and 1 Java finch survived but were emaciated as they had evidently been locked in the aviary with the cat for at least 48 hours which meant they couldn’t descend to eat from the food bowls.

Cat in aviary
Done with its killing spree, this cat is trying to break back out of the aviary.

Once we’d got the offending cat out, I made further reinforcements to the wire mesh so that this could never happen again. We never replaced the quails since it was mice attracted to their food on the ground which in turn attracted the cat to the aviary. Since this terrible disaster the cockatiels have added 3 to their number and the zebra finches have added 4. We are getting full!

 

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