Thursday, July 15, 2010

household: dealing with bird mites

Bird mites? Bird mites!!

Housefinches win you over with their pretty songs and their teamworky, mom-and-pop approach to building a home and raising the babies. But then one day you come in from the garden, and you feel an itch, or just a little tickle on your arm. Investigation reveals one, two, three, barely visible little bugs.

A cursory Google search proves indubitably that bird mites are gross. And although I don't claim to be an expert on these abominable arachnids, a minor infestation is an ordeal that I've lived through. (Allen lived through it, too, but most of his trauma stemmed from my behavior, not the bugs.) Here's how we dealt with the problem.

I was outside, on the front porch (where the finches had recently flown the coop), for maybe a minute. Back inside, the itching began, followed by paranoia, then visual confirmation of the things, then more specific paranoia. Having read, last year, a caveat concerning bird mites on Apartment Therapy, and having watched the finchlings fledge a few days prior, I suspected bird mites immediately.

I climbed up on a ladder and used a long shovel to remove the now-empty nest, and as soon as I nudged it, the mites started swarming. I can't describe how appalling it was to know for sure what had been crawling on my arms. I never touched the nest, yet when I'd tipped it from the shovel into a plastic bag, my arms were crawling with mites.

I called every exterminator in town and asked each if they had experience with bird mites. Then I begged the candidates to come the following morning. One technician agreed.

Meanwhile, I sprayed down the entire front porch with a hose. Both the inside and outside front-door mats were sacrificed and placed in a sealed trashcan out by the street. I removed everything else from the front porch, too, sprayed them down individually, and continued to spray the columns and beam affected by the nesting avians until no visible trace of mites remained.

We bought 20-Mule Team Borax, recommended on several online forums. It sounds to be pretty benign to people and pets, but it's deadly for mites on contact. Allen and I sprinkled the powder on all our rugs and upholstery. Then we vacuumed it all up, sealed the vacuum bag in a plastic zipper bag, and threw it out.

Next, we washed all the pillows, blankets, pillowcases, and tablecloths from the front two rooms of our house, and dried them on high heat (heat helps to kill the bugs). As an extra precaution, add a bit of Borax to your wash (it's actually a laundry-booster product).We also mixed Borax with water and a hardwood soap to mop the wood and tile floors.

We were leaving for a trip early the next morning, but my sweet mom met the exterminator at our house the next day - and he found no trace of mites at all. He sprayed the house anyways, but we'd apparently done a pretty thorough job with our crazy Borax binge.

As much as I hate banning the birds, which return every year to hatch their babies, we're not risking another mite infestation. When a couple of finches reappeared this week, I ran them off (with a broken heart), and put bits of cut wood in the column cavities they like to occupy.

Finding these things will make you a crazy person. I'm predisposed to crazy in the first place. We're ten hours from home, and have a clean bill of health from a licensed exterminator; yet I feel phantom bugs traversing my limbs as I type this. As I keep telling Allen, you'd be a crazy person, too, if you saw the bugs I saw in that nest. And now I view birds (Birds! Which we put on our wedding invitations!) in a completely new, paranoid light.

The internet doesn't help. Contrary to what the exterminator (and various state health websites) said, messageboards are full of homeowners who say they've eliminated the birds and the nests, yet have suffered with bird mites for years. (Most government web sites agree that bird mites can only live a very limited time without a bird host). These are the people who insist that they've had to move, burn all their possessions, and start afresh in a new state to banish mites from their lives.

So I shan't rest on my laurels. When we get home, the house will get the full Borax treatment once again. But the moral of this cautionary tale is that an infestation of parasitic bugs, while scary, is treatable. Don't wait to send a specimen to a special lab - if it looks like a bird mite and crawls like a bird mite, it's a bird mite. Removal of the source and a thorough cleaning with a safe household product are a commonsense approach, and one that likely saved us from a much deeper infestation, and a costlier treatment.

Update: I actually wrote this post a few weeks ago, and I wanted to be sure that our methods worked before posting it. When we returned home, we did indeed repeat our anti-bird mite cleaning campaign. We saw one more mite, and we took advantage of the exterminator's one-month guarantee, so he came back and laid down some more poison. He assured us that the mite we saw was a temporary survivor of a doomed populace: the mites need birds in order to reproduce, so now we were just waiting out their two-week lifespan.

We have been bird mite-free for three weeks.


  1. whew! I was worried when I saw this post that perhaps the saga wasn't over! Glad to hear otherwise. :)

    1. I have had them for 3 months. Can not get rid of them. Someone please help. I my hair and biting all nite long. No sleep

  2. I'm glad, too, Anne. There's no way Allen could have handled that level of craziness from me for any longer. I'm so sad about the finches, though - they keep trying to come back, and I continue to thwart them, heart-broken all the while.

  3. Going to file this one under "infestations not to tell invited party guests about until several weeks after said party".

  4. I read this post and have to say it is most helpful for my current situation. It's good to know that it doesn't have to be as bad as some say. I feel I caught it early since we weren't even getting bitten yet when I noticed them on my daughter's windowsill. I actually found something at Lowe's with boric acid and made (it's a powder) lines all around the perimiter and windowsill to keep them from spreading untill (it seems to have worked) the bird nest removal guy comes today. Armed with vacuum cleaner bags,Borax (didn't realize it was a laundry booster untill I read your post) and gloves I'm prepared for war!

  5. Does anyone know, what kind of mites can infest you and your home for over 6 months even though you have moved and threw out most of your belongings. They are not as bad as before but about every two weeks new bites on face and neck and ankles and feeling them in my shoes, they bite leave small red pin marks of blood. We have no animals.
    We thought it was rat mites because the other home had rats in attic but its been 5 months since we moved out of that home and believe me we have done all the deep cleaning, borox bathing throwing out, bagging, ect for months..what kind of mite survives months??? I HATE THEM! What is it?

  6. Be very careful, because I lived in a place that had a mouse infestation that was so bad that I was unable to kill the mites or the mice. The population of both increased together and the mites chewed me up good. (I still have areas of discoloration where the tiny bites marks healed.) I moved out of that place as fast as I could, but I then began to use very harsh products on my skin. I would sometimes shower with dishwashing liquid because I couldn't shake that horrible itchy feeling. Blue Dawn was one of the milder chemicals that I actually used as a body wash. I left my clothes and everything in that infested house & bought new things, but by the time I went to the dermatologist my skin was worse than before. The doc told me that I had stripped important, protective layers of skin by using harsh chemicals & that I would need to return to using only things indicated for skin. I had actually caused a dermatophyte overgrowth on my entire body & caused my self to itch even more. The dermatophyte overgrowth rivaled the mite attacks in intensity & the discomfort, & it took a whole month for my skin to go back to normal. The medical student at the derm clinic brought in the Chief of Staff to evaluate my bites & to deliver a diagnosis. So, I knew I was in good hands.The internet can be a wonderful resource to help combat external pests, but if you're still itching please go see an EXPERIENCED dermatologist. That's my advice solely based on my own experience.

  7. Bird mites and rodent mites ( I tell you from experience) can live about a year without feeding. They infest clothes and are are to be taken extremely seriously. We went through the ordeal for a year. Even when we moved, took them with us ( through clothing). You have to treat it like a contagion. Entomologists will tell you all this misinformation that they don't like human blood and yada yada. Such BS and this is what is getting people in trouble. They easily live on human blood. We had rats from hoarders next door. That's all it took and we had to sell our house because we couldn't rid of them and rid of all possessions and furniture. It's the equivalent of your house burning down if aggressive action isn't taken immediately. We were misdiagnosed with scabies and fleas for five months.