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Information and Advice on Common UK Bird Pests

Feral pigeon, Columba livia var

Biology: Descended from domesticated strains of the rock dove, and found throughout Britain, the feral or town pigeon is closely associated with humans and is common in urban environments. Feral pigeons nest in or on buildings or other structures, where they are usually found on ledges or in hollows – often under eaves or on girders. Peak nesting time is between March and July, although pigeons are capable of breeding throughout the year.  
 
Public health: pigeons carry a range of diseases, some of which may be transmitted to humans if droppings contaminate foodstuffs. For this reason their presence cannot be tolerated in and around food premises. They also carry mites which can cause skin disease, and dust from their feathers can cause respiratory problems.
 
Damage: pigeon droppings are not only unsightly but are acidic and can cause damage to buildings and machinery. Nesting materials, droppings and feathers can block gutters and air vents. Slippery droppings can compromise safety on pavements and fire escapes.

Seagull, herring gull, Larus argentatus

The Herring gull can be distinguished from other gulls by its large size and grey upperparts, which earn it the alternative names of 'silver back' and 'silvery gull'. During summer, adults have white heads, but in autumn they become streaked with brown. They have bright yellow bills with a red tip, and pink legs. Juveniles are greyish-brown; the grey upperparts do not develop until after the second winter. A number of vocalisations are produced, including the well-known raucous 'laughing' call.

The herring gull has a complex distribution throughout the northern hemisphere, and consists of a number of subspecies. Main areas of population are north-west Europe, eastern Arctic Russia and North America. The population occurring in Britain, Ireland, France and Iceland belong to the subspecies Larus argentatus argenteus. Herring gulls breed around most of Britain's coasts; they are absent from some areas of eastern England, but are widespread inland during the winter. This species breeds in a range of habitats, including cliffs, beaches, small islands, inland sites and even buildings. They also exploit rubbish dumps, particularly during winter.
 
The herring gull is a supreme opportunist and scavenger, feeding on discarded fish offal, refuse, bird chicks, mammals, eggs, worms and other invertebrates. It breeds in colonies and the nest is usually an untidy heap of grass, seaweed and other vegetation. Two to six eggs, variable in colour and patterning, are laid after April; incubation, which is carried out largely by the female, takes between 25 and 27 days. Both parents share paternal care of the downy chicks, which fledge after around 30 days.
 
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects all wild birds. It is an offence to kill or injure any birds or their nests or eggs unless acting under a licence and only in compliance with the conditions of that licence. Noise from birds, that they leave droppings or the fact that they open rubbish bags are not reasons under the Act and, therefore, killing or injuring birds for these reasons is an offence and offenders can be prosecuted. More detailed information and expert advice on current legislation on this is available from DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 0207 904 6000 or at: http://www.defra.gov.uk
 
There is no instant solution to getting rid of seagulls effectively and action is best focused on prevention. There are limited public health grounds for seagull control and surveys undertaken by various institutions have shown culling is mainly unsuccessful and that shortly after a cull the numbers increase back to the original optimum number. We would therefore recommend the use of deterrent devices such as seagull spikes, which prevent the birds building their nests i.e. bird-proofing measures. Work should be done outside the nesting season as interfering with their nests may be considered illegal. Because the gulls are powerful and determined, proofing can be both difficult and dangerous and is best undertaken by a responsible, accredited Pest Control Company.

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

Adults are about 21.5cm long. The plumage is blackish with a green and purple iridescence, especially in summer. Pale spots seen in winter fade away by spring. Juveniles are dull brown in summer but moult in autumn to adult plumage.

Starlings are distinguishable from blackbirds by their shorter tails and triangular shape of wings in flight. Their chattering mimicking song often sounds like several birds and can imitate other species. Damage results from both the starlings' feeding and roosting habits, and consists mainly of fouling and food removal. In rural roosts, which are usually in dense thickets, the combined action of large quantities of starling guano and the weight of birds on branches can eventually kill the trees. In cities, droppings foul pavements, disfigure buildings and monuments and erode stonework.

Starlings occasionally take grain from winter cereal stores, and at intensive animal husbandry units they may take a considerable proportion of animal feed. In addition to these problems, there is the possibility that starlings may act as vectors of disease. 

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

The House Sparrow is primarily a grain eater, feeding on ripening grain in fields, however, in urban situations the sparrow has learned to exploit food stores, especially of soft groceries such as cakes, where they will feed directly or after penetrating thin packaging. As a result of these feeding habits, sparrows can cause fouling of foodstuffs, with associated breakdown of hygiene. In gardens, house sparrows may peck at the soft spring growth of vegetables, and may also disbud fruit trees.
 
Photographs from Wikimedia Commons (from top): Christian Jansky, Mogor, John Haslam, Paul Lomax, Andrew Butko