By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Like any discerning shopper, the common house sparrow knows where to go for a good deal in the suburbs. At Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other keepers of vast birdseed stockpiles, the only thing standing between worry-free opulence and the travails of outdoor living is an automatic door.
Not that it's much of an obstacle. Thanks to the leafy, well-watered garden center -- now a standard appendage of the large retail layout -- clever birds are finding a niche in the big-box ecosystem, much to the chagrin of store managers. Check the ceiling of any large store with a high roof and a birdseed aisle, and there's likely to be more than a few of the feathery critters frolicking in the rafters.
"Most birds want to hang out, sleep, hop around and look for food," said Rob Fergus, a senior scientist with the National Audubon Society. "If they spend enough time in a big-box store, they'll learn it's a safe place to be."
The birds' adaptation to the retail lifestyle is as much a result of suburban evolution as any avian one. While bird-control technicians are summoned to all types of buildings these days, the territorial expansion of the big-box store and its alluring combination of birdseed, human food, plants and warehouse roosting space make for a blockbuster attraction. It's Club Med for the winged set.
"I can't say there's many of those stores that don't have birds in them," said George Rambo, a veteran bird catcher who owns two Critter Control franchises in the Washington area. "They're wide open, with tall shelves, and that type of construction is really attractive."
Bird-watching in Washington area stores is mostly a matter of listening for their merry chirping -- just audible over the piped-in smooth jazz -- and heading straight for the outdoor and garden section. At a Home Depot in Manassas last week, one sparrow gang was twittering around above the lawn mowers; in a nearby Wal-Mart, a solitary bird perched unruffled over big sacks of millet, not far from the skateboards and the beach towels, as if waiting patiently for all the customers to go home.
"They're amazing," said one Home Depot employee who wasn't authorized to speak to reporters about birds or any other subject. "I like watching them fly around."
Stores typically draw two types of bird patrons, according to ornithologists and pest-management experts. There is the accidental visitor, a migrating finch, for instance, that, lured by bright lights and wing-tired from weeks of exertion, strays into a Kmart and can't figure out how to get back on track to Florida.
Then there's the more common variety, the habituated retail client -- usually a house sparrow. To these squat, Twinkie-size birds, big-box stores are the horse barns of the 21st century: warm, predator-free and packed with tasty morsels. Once liberated from the menace of house cats and Cooper's hawks, the boisterous little birds can live indefinitely in the store environment.
"It's a smorgasbord for what their needs are," said Ron Harrison, a scientist and director of training for Orkin Inc.
And it's no fluke that house sparrows have taken a liking to our favorite retail outlets. The species hitched its fortunes to human settlements several thousand years ago in Eurasia when the first farmers began storing seed, according to Audubon's Fergus. The birds were introduced in New York in the 1850s to combat a caterpillar infestation.
Incidentally, they didn't care much for the grubs but quickly took a liking to the seed-rich horse droppings scattered on the streets of Brooklyn. The sparrows' range expanded with the nation, following the railroad tracks and fanning out to farms across the continent, impelled by a kind of a seed-seeking Manifest Destiny.
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."