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Unwelcome Visitors

No, not human visitors, but animal visitors.

By Tony Brancato

Every bird hobbyist, sooner or later, will have unwelcome visitors. No, not human visitors, but animal visitors.

Rats and Mice
The most common unwelcome guests belong to the Muridae family, commonly referred to as rats and mice. Although they differ in size, rats and mice are similar in many respects. These vermin are adaptable and successful throughout the world. When building an aviary it is nearly impossible to make it mouse or rat proof, but you can hinder these critters somewhat in gaining access to your aviary.

Photo: Tony Brancato
A cat can be a wonderful friend or terrible foe to aviary birds.

When we built our large aviary, I insisted the concrete footing be 24 inches deep. I also had the flights done in ¼-inch hardware cloth. I told our contractor I wanted the aviary to be as tight as possible. Even at that, a mouse can squeeze through a space no larger than a pencil.

Mice and rats can devastate doves. They eat the eggs and young squabs, frighten nesting doves and soil food with diseased droppings. Mice carry parathyroid, a disease spread through their urine and feces, which can be lethal to young doves and pigeons. Controlling these pests is difficult once they have gained access to the aviary. Prevention is easier than eradication. For every mouse you see, nine others are hiding. My preference is to keep fresh bait available at all times. I keep it in areas that are not accessible to the birds. I use 3-inch long, 1-inch wide PVC plastic pipe with an elbow on each end and put bait in the center of the pipe. I usually place a couple of pipes behind feeders or any out of the way place. Doves cannot get into the pipe and I have never had a problem. I also follow manufacturer's recommendations and handle all poisons with caution and care.

Mouse droppings can affect humans as well. The deadly Hantivirus Pulmonary Syndrome is linked to mice and their droppings. Be careful cleaning around these animals and their feces or handling dead mice. Mice have a unique smell to their urine, so I can tell immediately if mice are around. Many people use traps to catch mice alive and then release them somewhere else. I do not like to handle live or dead mice.

Rats are another matter. They are cunning and can kill adult doves. Fortunately, I have never had to deal with rats, but a well-known dove breeder with expensive doves was nearly wiped out by rats. His aviaries are large planted and beautiful, resembling the aviaries at the San Diego Zoo! The rats must like them too, because has never been able to completely eradicate them. If rats are a major problem, get expert help from an exterminator. Remove all woodpiles and junk of any sort where rats can hide. Sometimes it's the neighbors who have the rats. And, sooner or later, they will look for other areas to colonize, like your property.

Whether it's your neighbor's pussycat or a stray tom, cats can cause major problems for dove fanciers. Cats roam around day and night and can frighten birds by trying to snag them through the wire. One-inch wire allows cats to thrust a paw into the pen and snag a terrified dove. Some doves become so frightened, they fly full-force into walls or wire, injuring or killing themselves. The solution is having all flights covered with a solid top. I also use shade cloth on flights. My doves don't panic if they see a cat.

At night when doves are moreapt to become terrified I have night lights in all my aviaries. The lights are on a timer and as long as doves can see, they are less inclined to become so frightened they fly into walls. Another solution is to have an outside neutered/spayed cat live near the aviaries. We had such a cat. For years Alley ran off any cat that came into our yard. Our doves were so used to Alley they would not budge when she wandered around. Alley lived to be 19 years old and was a wonderful pet. Cats are not to be faulted for their behavior. It is the irresponsible owner that allows their pets to roam that are to blame.

Birds of Prey
Various species of hawks and falcons can cause doves to injure or kill themselves trying to avoid them. Many hawks migrate and an aviary full of doves looks like an easy meal. I have tried everything to discourage hawks and nothing really works well. The life-like plastic owls, scarecrows and even a hot electrical wire had little effect. I covered all the flights with shade cloth. The shade cloth reduces visibility and hawks are less likely to attack the wire and frighten doves. Hanging loose fish line seems to keep hawks from getting near the wire because they are afraid of getting tangled (hanging fish line will not endanger hawks because they have excellent vision and avoid going near the line). Laws protect birds of prey and shooting or trapping any of them is illegal. They are beautiful and are not to be faulted for their natural instincts. They are part of the wild kingdom and deserve our support.

Raccoons and Opossums
These animals are nocturnal and are a serious danger to doves. Raccoons are ambidextrous and can open door latches and can reach through the wire to pull apart sleeping doves. Opossums are not the dim-witted creatures we might think they are. Although they have poor eyesight, they make up for it with a keen sense of smell and finger-like paws. Using ¼-inch wire on all flights will make it difficult for either animal to put their paws into the aviary. Opossums never stop growing, so adult males can be quite large. Trapping either raccoons or opossums alive and relocating them has worked well for us. Opossums are even more of a problem in cities than raccoons. Both species are opportunists and are always on the lookout for a free meal. Always pick up cat or dog food after the pet has eaten if you feed them outdoors. Otherwise, the food will attract raccoons and opossums.

Mink and Weasels
These creatures are natural-born killers. They are not merely content to kill one or two birds for food. If given a chance, they will kill every dove in an aviary. Evidence of a mink or weasel kill is finding all the birds dead with their heads removed and piled in a heap. Farm supply or feed stores have traps that are designed for these animals.

In some parts of the country, snakes are a problem. Once a snake gets into an aviary, it can cause untold problems. To keep snakes out, the aviary needs to be very tight. Snakes can easily squeeze through ½- or even ¼-inch wire. Keep grass and weeds mowed around the aviary and remove all woodpiles or other hiding places that snakes might use. Also, control prey animals snakes feed on. Snakes are less inclined to hang around if there are no easy meals. If a large snake gets into the aviary, poisonous or not, get a professional to remove it.

Keeping our doves safe and secure is our responsibility. Doves are the most helpless and defenseless creatures on earth. Old, rotting or unkempt aviaries are disasters waiting to happen. I am amazed some folks spend hundreds of dollars for doves and then house them in sub-standard shelters. Protect your doves the best way you can as they are at our mercy.

[Check with county and state wildlife authorities before doing anything concerning wildlife — Ed.]

If you have a question for Tony Brancato, send him an e-mail care of BIRD BREEDER at We regret that columnists are not able to respond to letters individually.

Tony Brancato has bred doves and pigeons for 35 years. He currently breeds 25 species of seed-eating foreign doves. Brancato lives in the Inland Empire of California.


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Reader Comments
Aviaries are not the only place to deal with rats and mice. I moved from a basement apartment in 24 hours when I discovered the rats were attempting to enter my cages. They'd burrowed underground entering thru the foundation, took up residence under a corner shower and the ONLY signs I had were my parrots unusual screeching in the night, a perch on the floor and a corner of their blanket pulled OUT between the bars. Research that day hit on rats and that night was a long one. We slept in the same room with the lights ON. We moved out the following day. Our gratitude and thanks to the INTERNET.
Carrie, Norton, KS
Posted: 5/30/2010 9:50:55 AM
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