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Bird Habitat, Aisles 1 Through 8

The store -- er, house sparrow. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

Said Fergus: "You hardly find them in the wild anymore."

They have flourished in suburban America, bouncing around among backyard bird feeders and the shopping centers that provision them. In several cases, retail-savvy sparrows have learned how to trip automatic doors, prompting some stores, including Lowe's, to recalibrate the sensors so the birds can't get in.

"They're very curious, and they have more of a problem-solving ability than most other species," Fergus said. "These birds learn."

The animals' smarts and persistence have helped fuel the rise of a vast bird-control industry, a lucrative branch of the nation's $6.75 billion pest-management market. Terminix, Orkin and other large companies more commonly associated with termites and roaches train specialists in catching and removing birds. Smaller brands such as Bird Barrier, Bird-B-Gone and Birdevictors.com peddle a dizzying array of avian-fighting products, including bird-proof gel and large, psychedelic balloons designed to resemble owls, as well as an assortment of spikes, nets and traps.

Of course, the birds would have simply been shot in the past. House sparrows are not a federally protected species, and some bird-control technicians say the pellet-gun method hasn't been entirely abandoned. But major retailers and pest-management companies say they do not intentionally kill birds, instead using nets, traps and deterrent methods. With one's environmentally sensitive image at stake, some companies even transport the birds far from the stores before releasing them.

"We don't want to harm them," Orkin's Harrison said. "But it is a big problem."

Uric acid levels in the birds' feces can be as high as 50 percent, Harrison said, strong enough to eat through product packaging -- even paint. Bird droppings can land on food and store displays -- or customers' heads. The excrement will "sporulate" as it dries, Harrison said, and in high concentrations, it creates the risk of histoplasmosis, an uncommon but dangerous respiratory disease.

What's more, "house sparrows can be quite aggressive during mating and can swoop at people in stores," he said.

All good reasons for blocking the development of an aviary above your merchandise.

And yet, efforts to discourage bird incursions are undermined by the need to maintain the kind of wide-open, welcoming store environment that human shoppers find pleasing. So some large retailers are inclined to opt for symbiosis, barring shopper complaints.

"While we don't encourage birds to make the garden center their permanent home," Lowe's spokeswoman Karen Cobb said, "we peacefully coexist with the birds until our customers say they've become a nuisance for them."

And some customers like a little wildlife above the shelves. "I find it relaxing," said Teresa La Rosa, a Manassas resident browsing through a Home Depot in Prince William County last week. One set of sparrows was romping through the garden center while another, smaller flock had settled indoors above the patio furniture and the stainless-steel gas grills.

"I don't feel like I'm in a store when I hear them," La Rosa said. "I feel like I'm outdoors, in nature."


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