Thursday, July 15, 2010
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.