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Man vs. Nature

January 26, 2011

I haven’t come across any wetas at the farm lately, but I have been engaging in a running battle with (normally) harmless sparrows.  The property used to be a dairy farm and there is an old milking shed which we decided to convert to a plant nursery where we will grow seedlings.  The conversion was done in April and May of last year.

Near the end of the project, I did a walk around with the builder and pointed out some gaps around the roof.  I’d seen a lot of birds flying around and suggested that he patch up some of the holes so the birds wouldn’t decide to take up residence.  He told me that birds wouldn’t be interested in a building because there were too many trees around for them to nest in.

Fortunately, he was a better builder than ornithologist.  Because as soon as he had packed up his tools and left, four families of sparrows built nests in the very gaps I’d shown him.  In no time, word was out and all their friends and extended families moved in.  It was a veritable bird condominium.

I have two big issues with bird infestations.  First, they poop a lot.  And everywhere.  They may not foul their own nests, but they think nothing of fouling every square inch of the adjacent area.  Second, birds don’t like people and every time I walked into the nursery it was like I was entering a cave filled with bats at dusk. 

Not only that, it’s hard to distinguish between a panicked bird who is trying to get away from you and an extra from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

However, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.  They had already built nests, and presumably laid eggs and I’m not heartless enough to make expectant bird families homeless.

So for the past several months I have dodged birds and related bird bombs and watched proud parents feeding their babies.  More recently, I’ve noticed the little birds flying around and lately there have been only the occasional visitations.  This is where the term “empty nest” came from.

It seemed like a good time to make the nursery unfit for birdie habitation.  I’d studied the problem and had a plan of attack for taking back the nursery. 

The fatal flaw in Plan A was that it involved nailing or screwing long boards over the gap between the wall and the roof while standing on a ladder.  To the extent it might be possible, it would probably require two people, one of whom would be me, and maybe two ladders.

Always happy to find an excuse not to get on a ladder, I thought long and hard and came up with what I thought was a better, totally natural solution!

One of the biggest threats to our revegetation program is the Australian possum which was brought to New Zealand in the hope of starting a fur trade.  In Australia, the possum is endangered and protected but here it is considered a major pest because they love New Zealand native plants.  It is estimated that around the country, they eat 21,000 tons of vegetation every day.  In order to prevent possums from undoing everything we’ve done, we have installed bait stations around the property which I regularly stock with pellets that the possums find irresistible but which are hazardous to their health, to put it delicately.

Not only do possums eat vegetation, they also love bird eggs and baby birds, so controlling them also helps with our native bird population.  Plus improving the vegetation will make it more appealing to birds for nesting so they stay out of the nursery!

My brilliant insight was that if possums eat baby birds, then adult birds probably don’t like possums and would try to avoid them.  Of course I wasn’t going to do anything as foolish as introducing a possum to the nursery for sparrow control, but I figured that a reasonable facsimile of a mortal enemy just might convince the sparrows that the neighborhood was in decline and that it was time to move on.

The possum bait comes in big bags that feature a picture of the meanest, ugliest possum you ever wanted to see.  I reasoned that if I were to cut out the pictures from a few bags and stick them to the eaves near where the birds come and go, I would have a clean, green, no impact solution.

My theory was that the birds would instinctively avoid what they (should) recognize as a predator.  I was also counting on them not having sufficient cognitive skills to observe that the fearsome predator seemed rather flat.  And that it hadn’t moved since their last approach.

I got to work with scissors and tape (and ladder) and soon had made the area as inhospitable as possible. 

Ignoring the ridicule of my sceptical wife, I sat back with a cold drink, admiring my handiwork and hoping to see it in operation.  I was looking forward to watching a sparrow hurtle toward its erstwhile home and suddenly come to a screeching aerial halt upon seeing the possum leering from over the entry way.

Initial observations were encouraging.  Although I didn’t see headlong flight, it was clear that the birds knew something was amiss.  Instead of entering, they swerved away and sat on the roof.  Two or three seemed to be having some sort of council of war.  I imagined that their agitated chirping translated into something like “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

After a while, I got bored, declared victory, and got on with other tasks.  Later that day we packed up to head back to town.  I was hearing a lot of chirping and saw a lot of sparrow activity over by the nursery so I decided to check things out and enjoy the havoc I’d created.

And I was the one who got the nasty shock.

Those chirps I was hearing had actually been laughs of derision.  They had really been saying, “Is he kidding?  Who is that supposed to fool?  Ooooh, I’m soo scared!” 

Hoards of sparrows were flying in and out of the forbidden zone with impunity and dancing merrily on the very spots I had put possum pictures.  Not only that, one picture was flapping in the breeze hanging by a single piece of tape.  I’m convinced it had been gleefully pecked loose by the creatures it was supposed to be terrifying.

My wife was trying, unsuccessfully, to not join the birds in their mocking laughter.  I decided to let the birds savor their victory.  I still have Plan A up my sleeve.

And we’ll see who laughs last.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2011 12:02 am

    Let me get this straight—you literally taped a picture of a possum to the top of a shed in hopes it would scare sparrows away??

    I confess I briefly considered taping cat pictures on my kitchen walls to get rid of my mice. The difference is, I was sufficiently in touch with reality to refrain from actually following through.

    Like your builder, I’m no ornithologist, either, but my hunch is that whatever deterrent effect traditional scarecrows may have stems from the fact that they’re 3D. You may want to try a little plush possum from a toy store; ideally a battery-operated one that makes authentic possum sounds.

    • January 27, 2011 12:20 pm

      Well, when you put it that way it does sound a little bizarre. However, thinking back on past brushes with creatures, this is one of my more rational approaches!

    • January 27, 2011 12:43 pm

      Speaking of battery-operated, a Dick Cheney effigy with a hunting rifle should work, too. Scares not only birds but lawyers as well, so you’d be rid of two pests with one Cheney.

      • January 27, 2011 6:45 pm

        Yes, and I could play “Hunt the Wabbit” from Bugs Bunny at the same time–victory would be total!

  2. January 27, 2011 1:09 am

    Folks here sometimes put up plastic owls to scare smaller birds. I’ve also heard of people putting up cheap rubber snakes liked you’d find at a toy store. You could also get a cat. Or, you might want to just surrender now. 🙂

    • January 27, 2011 12:21 pm

      I’ve thought of the rubber snake plan but there are no snakes down here so the birds might not be afraid of them. It would be an interesting experiment.

  3. January 27, 2011 2:12 am

    If you are looking for a way to be morally OK with killing the birds, you can do what my old roommate did when he had a mouse problem: just declare war on them. Apparently killing these mice in a time of peace was against his moral code, but once he officially declared war he was free to kill any mouse he came across. I’m not sure if you need to provide the animals with a written declaration. That will be at your discretion.

    • January 27, 2011 12:22 pm

      Not only that, I can convince myself that they started the war by showing up!

  4. Len permalink
    January 27, 2011 3:10 am

    My neighbor used a plastic owl near his chimney and it worked very well for him. Also it eliminated the bird droppings from our yard.

  5. January 27, 2011 3:35 am

    Good luck, if only the pictures would work I would plaster the outside of my house with cat pictures to keep the mice from moving in. Perhaps a sound approach would work better. Play tapes of offending sounds to keep them away. My neighbors might object to cat sounds projecting from my home 24/7 or just lock me up.

    • January 27, 2011 12:23 pm

      Those cannons they use at airports would probably work but you’re right, the neighbors may wonder what’s going on.

  6. January 27, 2011 4:28 am

    We’ve tried the owl thing too and it worked, so your picture made sense. Any chance of getting a toy possum?

    I agree with you. ladders are vastly over rated!

    • January 27, 2011 12:25 pm

      They have ridiculously cute stuffed possums–it would be worth it to see the birds rip one to shreds! Sounds like the owl idea has merit and I might try it before I go up on the ladder.

  7. January 27, 2011 4:39 am

    I got such a giggle out of this, Tom! Pictures of possums? Really? I don’t think sparrows are very smart!

    Todd’s idea of the plastic owl might work…at least it’s three-dimensional!


  8. January 27, 2011 7:45 am

    Even in NYC we use plastic or plaster owls to keep other birds away, and it works- for three or four minutes. Even if the birds do believe it is a real owl they soon believe it is a real but immobile owl with no interest in them whatsoever. I don’t know what a possum sounds like but I would try playing a recording of possum sounds.

    Or maybe you could just hire someone to fix the roof? It doesn’t sound like a professional is needed, maybe a local youth looking to earn some extra money?

  9. January 27, 2011 7:46 am

    Almost forgot- like the picture of the sparrows. Very nice.

  10. Gail permalink
    January 27, 2011 4:22 pm

    Tom, I have friends who swear by hanging teddy bears in trees to keep possums at bay – in Australia they are protected- maybe the appropriate toys would be the way to go. Seriously though I doubt it – sparrows are sparrows and seem to have a law unto themselves. cheers Gail.

    • January 27, 2011 6:46 pm

      Thanks, Gail. I think you’re right–they have such a short attention span only lots of screening will do the job.

  11. January 28, 2011 3:42 am

    I sympathize. I fought a losing battle with squirrels in my attic for years. Funny how seemingly innocent little creatures start to look malevolent. After the new roof with the metal edges didn’t do the trick, I ultimately solved my problem by moving. (Well, there were other reasons for moving as well!)

  12. January 30, 2011 10:46 am

    hahahahaha! Thomas, definitely one of your best. btw…nature always wins! 🙂

    • February 2, 2011 4:07 pm

      Thanks Cindy! We just got back from a weekend at the farm and all my possum pictures were gone! I’m sure the sparrows did it.

  13. February 5, 2011 10:29 pm

    When I see hundreds of sparrows I can only think of George Stark and his black Tornado from King’s ‘The Dark Half.’ For some reason that stuck with me more that Hitchcock’s aves.

    The old, Spanish farmers around here all use plastic grocery bags. It’s ugly as hell but I guess it works.

  14. Dug permalink
    February 26, 2011 7:54 pm

    I reckon these Sparrows are Larking you about??

    • February 28, 2011 5:29 pm

      Yes, but it’s past tense now! I’ll be posting a victory announcement shortly!

  15. Len Skuta permalink
    January 4, 2012 11:12 am

    Wear a hat..Place clear plastic over the openings.Watch as their frustration builds.

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