New Zealand

Is poisoning pesky sparrows the right way to get rid of them?

Auckland’s Daily Bread cafe is facing customer backlash for poisoning birds outside its premises, and the SPCA has confirmed it is investigating. So what other options are there for dealing with unwanted feathered guests?

High-end Auckland bakery Daily Bread, which has been inundated with negative reviews online after wild sparrows were poisoned outside its Point Chevalier cafe, said this particular pest control method was “a last resort”. The SPCA has confirmed it is investigating the poisoning, with a spokesperson saying they were concerned about pest management methods that could “lead [to] prolonged death and suffering” of animals. Nine of the poisoned birds were taken to wildlife hospital BirdCare in Green Bay, where eight were saved.

Claims that the birds had been poisoned first cropped up on social media on Wednesday when a concerned customer posted a video showing “many sick sparrows wobbling about [and] unable to fly” outside the cafe. Daily Bread’s owners said the state of the birds was the result of a controlled cull carried out by a third-party pest controller two weeks earlier.

It prompted a backlash on social media, leading some customers to say they would be boycotting the business entirely. “Absolutely disgusting, inhumane, cruel behaviour,” wrote one person on Facebook, while another added “I hope you go out of business.” The most recent posts by Daily Bread on both Facebook and Instagram have been taken over by similar customer complaints, with some claiming the cafe had deleted the most negative comments. Daily Bread’s Facebook rating now sits at 3.6, following a number of one-star reviews.

The original Facebook post that sparked the complaints

Are sparrows really a problem?

In an email response to a customer who complained, Daily Bread said the birds “risk the contamination of food, ingredients that we have stored in our venues and the general venue space where our guests dine”, while the large nests they built could pose a fire hazard and spread bird lice, “so we deem removing them from our venue a positive solution for the safety of our customers”.

A statement subsequently posted on Daily Bread’s social media added, “We have a duty of care to our customers and their wellbeing is why routine pest control is undertaken, including birds classified as pests. We assure you that our pest control practices, commonplace in our industry, not only comply with stringent food safety standards but also specifically address potential health risks associated with bird population. We’re actively working with our partners to find alternative ways to handle pests.”

Ministry for Primary Industries’ deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle confirmed sparrows could be harmful for health. “Birds, including sparrows and pigeons, can carry harmful pathogens such as E.coli and Salmonella that can make people sick. Food businesses are responsible for effective pest control, which is essential to ensure food safety for consumers,” he told The Spinoff.

Daily Bread had a council health inspection on Wednesday and received an A grade, the Herald reported, with co-owner Josh Helm saying that if a bird was spotted inside during a health inspection, the business would have received a D health grade.

But Mervyn Chetty, Auckland Council’s licensing and environmental health manager, told The Spinoff a business would be “unlikely” to fail an inspection due to the presence of birds, unless it was a reoccurring or worsening issue. But, he added, “all premises must have an effective pest management programme in place”.

Is poison the answer?

Evidently, customers do not want Daily Bread to be poisoning sparrows. It can be assumed they also do not want bird droppings in their doughnuts. So what is the correct way to get rid of pesky (or pesty) birds? Because when Countdown was facing a rodent problem, nobody seemed to be concerned about the wellbeing of the rats. 

Auckland Council told The Spinoff it did not condone any action that may “harm birds or animals”, including bird poisons. “Although birds are not often found inside premises, if a bird is present during an inspection our staff will advise the operator on how to best manage this. Our advice does not include advocating the use of bird poisons,” said Chetty.

“Instead, we will recommend action to prevent birds from coming inside like adding screens or directing air towards entrances. We’ll also advise the staff on what to do if they see a bird enter the premises – keep all food covered, thoroughly sanitise equipment and clean surfaces.”

This would be followed up with a written request for action to address the problem.

Pest controller Heiko Kaiser of Alpeco told The Spinoff poisoning sparrows wouldn’t be his first port of call. Pest control was often about setting up defences first, he said. “It could be spikes, it could be electric wire, it could be shock tape… the cheapest way is someone goes out and buys some bait and throws it on the floor. What it takes to do good pest control is it takes a bit more, it takes investigation – why, what and how? We need to look at all aspects.

You can capture them – that means caging,” said Kaiser. “If you want to reduce numbers, people can shoot them and, sure, there is poison like for rats and other pests,” he said.

In 2010, the University of Auckland hired someone to shoot sparrows on campus with an air rifle. The method was received about as warmly as Daily Bread’s poisonings. On another occasion, Auckland Zoo admitted to poisoning sparrows around its cafe because of the risk of salmonella for customers.

Kaiser said poison was particularly low on his list for food businesses. “The biggest key in a restaurant is you have an obligation to look after your customers as well and it’s very tricky to do both, there’s always a risk of cross contamination or maybe it’s more customers don’t want to see a dead bird lying around.” 

He said the baiting must be done in a controlled way. “If that’s not possible, which it possibly isn’t in a cafe, you shouldn’t do it,” he said. “You need to maybe start with other defences – that could be netting the areas up… there are many other ways you could possibly do it.”

Daily Bread in Point Chev (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Daily Bread declined to speak to The Spinoff for this story, and would not divulge which pest management company (or poison) was used. But pest management expert Paul Craddock reviewed the footage of the birds and told the Herald their state was likely the result of an over-the-counter product called alphachlorose. He said it was “highly unlikely” the birds’ condition was due to a controlled cull two weeks earlier. “That’s an operation that has taken place in the last couple of hours. You wouldn’t be seeing that number of birds drop out of the sky if there hadn’t been an operation within a few hours,” he said.

The Ministry for Primary Industries told The Spinoff five products containing alphachloralose had been approved “for control of certain bird species in agriculture and horticulture situations”.

Alphachlorolose is advertised as being able to stupefy, or effectively knock out, common pest birds like sparrows and pigeons. It’s not described as being capable of killing them, though an overdose would result in death. It’s widely available through outlets like King’s Plant Barn and is described as the only legally approved method for controlling bird numbers without a licence.

“Alphachloralose is a narcotic and when used in concentrations of less than 2.5% it will anaesthetise birds rather than kill them. Comatose birds are then collected and the pest species humanely killed,” reads a notice shared by the Hawke’s Bay council. “Comatose birds can be humanely killed by being placed in a freezer overnight.”

A spokesperson for BirdCare, where nine of the poisoned birds were treated, said people could buy alphachlorose “anywhere” and birds were often brought into their care after it had been used. 

Pest controller Kaiser acknowledged that sometimes baiting really could be the only option, especially if it ensured the birds could not pass on any illnesses to humans. “If you sit there and have a meal and a bird shits in your meal, you can get very sick and die,” he said. 

Food for thought.

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