Generally speaking bugs aren’t a major issue for birds. Birds are largely protected by their feathers, which make it significantly less likely for them to be stung or bitten by a bug. There are some exceptions to this though. I’ve written before about my encounters with a parasitic fly – the Hippoboscidae Fly. Another exception would be mosquitoes that might be carrying diseases (especially if you keep a species of bird with exposed facial skin such as a macaw).
Then there are the bugs that target a bird’s food. Ants and fruit flies are probably the most common irritants. There is another though, which has been giving me an exceptional amount of trouble for the last month or so. Today I am sharing my hatred for the European Wasp and how I’m dealing with them. Many of you may know this particular creature by other names. I know in other countries they are known as Yellow Jackets or German Wasps. Their scientific name is Vespula germanica.
European wasps are native to Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. Technically they shouldn’t be in Australia but they were first recorded in Tasmania in 1959 and the mainland in 1977. Apparently they like to stowaway in human modes of transport – so it is likely they got here by accident via boat or plane. All attempts to eradicate them in Australia have failed and been abandoned. They are here to stay.
Ok, so who cares? It’s a wasp not a bird. Birds have feathers and shouldn’t really be affected by them – right? I’d agree if I were only referring to one or two of them. In this particular instance though, I’m referring to tens of thousands of them coming into my yard on a daily basis and from what I’ve seen around Victoria lately, I’m not the only one in my state who is dealing with this right now. This sort of issue can happen anywhere in the world if someone has a nest nearby, or (as in my case) if you happen to live in an area that has these wasps in plague proportions (so the nest isn’t necessarily close).
The European winter actually kills off these wasps. Only the queen survives to start things going again as the weather warms up. That isn’t the case here in Australia. Here the worker wasps can survive our warmer version of winter, so suddenly the nest isn’t starting from one individual each year. A nest can be starting with a new queen and thousands of workers. Consider the additional problem that the natural predators and parasites are not present here – suddenly you have nests that can house 100,000 worker wasps. Therefore the best way to get rid of them is to locate and get rid of the nest. That isn’t always possible though.
European wasps are extremely aggressive. They will act to protect their nest and any food source that they have taken possession of. Their stings do not have barbs, so they are able to sting a victim repeatedly without risk of a barb being caught in a victim’s skin. They also have the ability to release a pheromone into the air, effectively marking anyone who disturbs their nest or them in order to attract other wasps to help attack/protect the nest. So if you upset one wasp by swatting it away from a lorikeet’s food bowl, suddenly you’re being swooped by many. Unfortunately, I’m saying that from experience. I have been battling wasps who have been guarding my aviaries and refusing to let my birds eat.
I have tried and failed to locate a nest on my property. Nests are most commonly a hole in the ground. According to research, after feeding, wasps tend to travel in a straight line back to their nest, which should allow you to follow them. Personally, I’ve found that after feeding wasps tend to fly as though they are drunk, which isn’t shocking considering that I’ve been watching them after they have eaten fermented rotting fruit. I don’t think the wasps around here have any idea what a straight line is. So instead I’ve combed every inch of ground around my house – no nest.
The main trick to keeping wasps away seems to be cleanliness. I’ve removed every scrap of fallen fruit from under my fruit trees. I’ve added more cleaning to an already frequent cage-cleaning schedule in order to accommodate my galahs’ tendency to throw food at anything that moves. Keeping wasps out of food bowls has been my main challenge. It seems wasps adore lorikeet wet food. Even though the weather is getting cooler here, I’ve continued with a summer feeding pattern. Smaller portions delivered with more frequency, so that it isn’t left sitting there for long. If I’ve been out for the day, I try to feed wet foods later (after wasps have already found their main food sources for the day).
Bug spray is out of the question around birds unless it’s a permethrin spray (usually used for mites). Those sprays aren’t strong enough to be quickly effective and bluntly killing all the worker wasps is just too big a job for one person. The queens are producing more workers as fast as I can kill them. I have been swinging an electrified tennis racket around to zap the more persistent ones though. There have been days when wasps have been guarding my lorikeets so ferociously, that the tennis racket is the only thing that has allowed me to get near enough to evacuate the birds.
On the extraordinarily bad days when the wasps are swarming over everything I have resorted to nailing a bucket to my rear fence and dropping fruit in it to attract them. At least this seems to attract/focus them in one area. This also has the added benefit of allowing me to cover the entrance/exit of the bucket with my electrified racket in order to make a dint in their numbers). Similarly, I have friends that have tried similar commercially available traps who haven’t had much success. Killing worker wasps just doesn’t solve the issue.
The real solution to wasp problems is to find and eradicate any nearby nests but when you can’t do that… keep an eye on the impact they’re having on your birds. It is just possible that a weight loss is due to a bird being unable to access its food bowl because of these evil creatures! If that’s the case, you need to take steps to ensure your bird can still access its food.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.