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Nest Parasite Control for Purple Martins

bird louse on a purple martin

The bird louse pictured above is one of several nest parasites that can infest your purple martins and their nests. Blow flies, mites, fleas and other insects can make their lives miserable and can kill nestlings. Even ants can swarm into a nest and cause huge problems. Be aware that some treatments are NOT effective on all forms of parasites.

  1. Complete Nest Change: Probably the safest but takes the most time. I would not recommend doing more than a few at any one nest check only because of the time involved and if there are eggs being incubated or young that need to be kept warm, it could deprive other nests of parental care. Nest replacements is the current "endorsed" way to treat parasite infestations of purple martin nests by the Purple Martin Conservation Association. Want to watch a nest change? Click here!
  2. Diatomaceous Earth (DE): The oldest remedy, DE has been used as parasite control by purple martin landlords. Recently, DE has fallen somewhat out of favor for several reasons. It has been shown to cause severe lung issues if inhaled and when 4-6 purple martin nestlings are in an approx 10 inch nest flapping and exercising, lots of DE can get airborne and inhaled. Though not technically a pesticide, it has been shown to somewhat control parasites by 'mechanical irritation'. Basically the ground up matter that forms DE rubs destroys a bugs outer skeleton to the point that the insect dries up and dies. Once wet, the DE is useless.
  3. Sevin 5% dust: available in various strengths or concentrations it is important to only use the 5% available in the gardening section of your favorite store. Used in Poultry and also in dog & cat parasite control, Sevin 5% is a highly effective pesticide. It must be used in minute amounts. 1/4 teaspoon (NOT tablespoon) applied in the nest but not directly on the young is all that is required. Those that oppose Sevin cite the fact that domesticated chickens are NOT purple martins and that evidence (1 study) that showed harmful, though not lethal, effects in non target wildlife (Read it yourself here)
  4. Powder Sulfur: Though used highly diluted on pets as a shampoo frequently and used in gardening. Sulfur is a known eye irritant and if inhaled can caused serious problems. Also as young/ nestlings are without any covering (feathers) the sulfur would be an irritant to the skin. We do NOT recommend using sulfur.
  5. pyrethrin-based bird sprays: Available at pet stores and used on pet aviary birds, pyrethrins are natural insecticides produced by some families of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant. I can not speak for the effectiveness of these products as I have never used them. They are commonly used in the pet industry and are also specifically manufactured for caged birds such as parrots, parakeets and other aviary birds. Let me be clear; I do NOT use these sprays on my Purple Martins.
  6. Petroleum Jelly: Used in conjunction with a nest change, petroleum jelly can help control ants from climbing up your martin pole. Smearing a ring of petroleum jelly around your purple martin pole will stop ants from being able to climb up it immediately but you may have to check daily as some ants will persist and build a bridge over the ring of petroleum. Determining the source of the ants on the ground and the type of ants can help you form a permanent solution. Treat ant hills with any commercially available ant killer that is formulated for that type of ant. Use the insecticide per the recommendations of the manufacturer on the ant HILL (mound) only and not in the nests!
  7. You name it! I have heard folks use tobacco leaves, eucalyptus leaves, rosemary sprigs, cedar shavings with nest checks.
I guess there are several ways to look at it. As a registered nurse I suppose I tend to look at things medically. You can either have the philosophy, to first do no harm. Or perhaps, it is case of the risks v.s benefits. Let me know what purple martin mite treatments you have heard of.

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