Parasites like fleas and ticks affect a wide range of warmblooded species in the wild, and birds are no exception.
Wild birds carry fleas, ticks, and other parasites. They’re able to control these infestations through preening and other coping mechanisms, but these parasites can nonetheless cause serious health problems for birds, especially young birds.
Do Wild Birds Get Fleas or Ticks?
Birds are hosts for a wide number of pests, from ticks, fleas and lice to bed bugs and mealworms.
These parasites like attaching to birds because birds will transport them over large distances and allow their populations to rapidly grow over a large area.
Farmers and gardeners often try to deter wild birds from disturbing their crops because of the pests that they carry.
These pests can also have an impact on livestock, as chicken mites can spread from wild birds like starlings and pigeons to domestic chickens.
Parasites can also cause very serious health problems in birds, and often require veterinary attention.
Read on to learn more about the parasites that most commonly affect birds, both internally and externally.
Bird fleas are small, brownish insects that survive on the blood of birds, and are especially prevalent in the spring during nesting season.
The larvae of bird fleas feed on nesting materials, and then the grown adults attach to the young birds.
The fleas travel by jumping, and can travel a long distance from the original nesting spot.
Another common pest for birds is the tick. They tend to attach around the eyes, bill, and head, areas that are difficult for the birds to preen.
They’ll attach, feed, and then drop off the bird, without causing any long term consequences.
Scaly face mites and feather mites are the two most common kinds of mite infestations in birds. Scaly face mites disproportionately affect budgies, but are also common to find on canaries and finches.
Evidence of scaly face mites includes white, scaly growths on the beak, nostrils, mouth and eyes, or on the legs. This can cause birds to lose feathers and have deformed beaks.
Feather mites most commonly affect blue jays, cardinals, and other songbirds, and are killed through the act of preening.
However, since birds aren’t able to preen their heads and necks, you’ll often see birds affected with feather mites with bald, featherless heads.
When mites infest the nest of young birds, they can attach to the young birds and cause anemia and even death, and can force the parents to abandon their young as a way of avoiding infestation.
Some species of lice feed on a bird’s feathers and skin, while others suck blood. This can cause baldness, itching, and anemia, and can be fatal for young birds.
Lice appear as small, brownish colored insects that travel through the feathers.
Giardia is a bacterial parasite that affects the gastrointestinal tract and causes diarrhea, weight loss, and dehydration.
It’s spread through contaminated food and most commonly affects budgies, cockatoos, cockatiels and macaws.
This infection can also be spread to humans, so you should be careful handling an infected bird.
Aspergillus is a parasitic fungus that affects a bird’s respiratory system, causing difficulty breathing, diarrhea, weight loss, nasal discharge, and eye crustiness.
Aspergillus is most common in pet parrots and in wild ducks, as well as captive hawks and falcons. It is most commonly associated with dirty cages or proximity to decaying matter like garbage or compost.
Salmonella is a bacterial parasite that most commonly affects feeder birds like the goldfinch, robin and sparrow.
It can cause diarrhea, lethargy and ruffled feathers, and can be fatal.
When infected birds visit a feeding station, they can quickly spread the infection to other birds through their droppings.
Do Birds Eat Fleas and Ticks?
Many birds are known to eat fleas and ticks, as well as other parasites. Guinea fowl, turkeys and chickens all eat ticks, and have been considered a form of pest control in agricultural environments.
However, these species have not been proven to be effective at combating large tick populations, and are more effective on a smaller scale.
And small birds like robins, starlings and grackles love to pick fleas out of the grass for consumption, plus will remove their own fleas through the process of preening.
Many birds have also been known to eat fleas and ticks off of other animals in a process known as heterospecific cleaning. Heterospecific cleaning benefits both the birds and the other animals involved, usually mammals.
See the following example of heterospecific cleaning involving the oxpecker eating ticks off a buffalo:
Other birds that are known to eat ticks off other animals include ravens and crows. The clients are typically mammals, including cows, rhinos, wallabies, wild boars, camels and the sambar deer.
Some clients will reposition themselves to allow the birds better access while cleaning, while others, like the wallaby, are resistant to the intrusion, even though it’s beneficial.
How Birds Deal With Parasites
Birds are prone to a number of external parasites, including fleas and ticks. Eating these parasites is just one way that birds rid themselves of these irritants.
Birds preen themselves and each other as a way of getting rid of parasites.
The birds who have pointed beaks have an easier time taking care of parasites while preening, whereas birds with hooked bills like parrots are not as capable of eating their own parasites.
While preening, birds also secrete and spread a preen oil, which contains bacteria that are toxic to many parasites.
Unfortunately, there is one downside of preening. While external parasites can be killed by preening, internal parasites like tapeworms can be spread through the process.
When birds preen each other, they’re able to remove more parasites because they can reach more areas on the body, like the head and neck.
This is typically a part of pair bonding, and a way to establish hierarchies.
Birds also kill parasites by scratching themselves with their feet. This is one way that birds that can’t effectively eat parasites with their bills are able to take care of pests.
Many of these birds even have specialized, comb-like pectinate claws that allow them to effectively target parasites.
See the following example of a barn owl scratching:
Many birds intentionally ruffle dirt and sand through their feathers as a way of drying out parasites. Here, the kind of dirt used makes a difference in which parasites will survive and which won’t.
For example, clay-based dirt is more effective in taking care of lice than a sand-based dirt.
Another way that birds kill parasites is by basking in the hot sun, which overheats parasites, dries them out, and exposes them to ultraviolet radiation.
Additionally, sunning encourages the parasites to shift positions on the feathers, making them more vulnerable to preening.
Birds will also combat parasites by anointing their feathers with crushed ants, caterpillars, beetles and some plants, all of which act as pesticides.
They do this both actively, by crushing and smearing the substances directly, and passively, by lying on anthills or other insect-infested places.
Some birds will spend a considerable amount of time clearing their nests of fleas and other parasites by eating both the larvae and the grown adults. Great tits and blue tits are especially well known for this behavior.
Other birds, like house wrens, will take care to remove old nest materials from nest-boxes before building new nests, as a method of sanitation.
Birds can also rid their nests of pests by including fresh, green vegetation with aromatic fumes, line pine greenery, that are toxic to various pests.
Wild birds carry both fleas and ticks, as well as other parasites. They also eat these parasites off themselves and each other, although the parasites still pose a risk.
Some parasites can cause serious health problems in wild birds, especially young wild birds.