For the Birds Radio Program: Mites!

Original Air Date: Oct. 10, 1989

When Laura Erickson suddenly found mites or lice crawling on her crow, her starling, and herself, she had to to something about it. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


(Recording of an American Crow)

Last week every time I looked down at my arm, there were a half a dozen tiny lice or mites milling about on my arm. These microscopic parasites were annoying since I’m not used to anything crawling on my skin, much less repulsive little critters that I couldn’t squish—every five minutes or so I’d go down and wash up, but then as soon as I handled Calpurnia the Crow or Mortimer the Starling, I’d get a whole new bunch.

If they were an annoyance to me, they were a real problem for Callie and Morty. Apparently Calpurnia was infested when she came to my house, but there weren’t enough of them to notice at first. But with her broken wing, it took her a while to feel well enough to preen and care for her plumage, apparently giving the mites plenty of opportunity to increase and multiply.

Mites, lice, fleas, and ticks are all considered ectoparasites—they suck blood or chew skin, feathers, or fur. Fortunately for bird rehabilitators and anyone else who handles birds, few of these are capable of attacking both birds and mammals. That’s why the ones crawling on me weren’t biting—they were just hanging on for the ride until they found a better host. Ticks and mites are arachnids, related to daddy long legs and spiders and having eight legs, but lice are full-blooded insects with six legs. The ones on me were so small that I wasn’t able to count their legs, even with a hand lens, but I finally decided they were probably red mites.

Many species of feather mites and lice can only parasitize a single species or genus of birds, though my particular suckers apparently could munch on crows and starlings both. They apparently didn’t cause too much physical distress to Callie, though Morty was scratching to beat the band by the time I figured out the problem. Both lice and mites carry diseases from one bird to another, and sometimes the irritation from their bites causes a scratching bird to seriously damage its skin or plumage. In rare cases the biting or blood sucking can lead to anemia or destroy the plumage so badly that the bird becomes hypothermic. Obviously I had to do something quick.

The problem was, what? At first I tried bathing them. That shook a lot of parasites off—the only problem was that they were shaken off onto me and everything else in the room. Even with daily baths, keeping the cages meticulously clean, and vacuuming all around every day, the number of bugs just wouldn’t go down, so I finally decided to use a poison—pyrethrin, which is a natural pesticide found in chrysanthemums.

Any dusts or sprays strong enough to kill parasites are toxic to other species as well—and since little research has been done to determine exactly how these pesticides affect crows and starlings specifically, I had a hard time figuring out how much to use. I have three little children, so I also had to be careful about where in the house I used them, and where I brought the birds after dusting. I felt awful bringing any poison home at all, but the problem got so bad that I didn’t feel I had any choice. Now I haven’t had any bugs in several days. Some may be incubating somewhere in the house, so I may have to deal with a second outbreak in a week or two, but meanwhile Callie, Morty, and I have all finally lost that creepy feeling that something was crawling over our skin.

(Recording of a American Crow)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”