After having been mostly eradicated from the United States after World War II, bedbugs are back in the news. With increased immigration and world travel, the flat brown blood sucking insects are re-colonizing the U.S. and are increasingly found in hotels, homes, apartments, and even hospitals. While these insect pests usually spread by hitching a ride in the luggage of a traveler, some people are wondering if birds may be spreading them as well.
The short answer to this question is, probably not. The common bedbug (Cimex lectularius) is adapted to feeding on human blood, and will only feed on other animals—including birds and bats—when humans are unavailable. Only very rarely would they be in a situation where they would need to feed on birds and have the opportunity to do so. In addition, bed bugs usually don’t live on their hosts—they crawl out of their hiding places to feed for ten to twenty minutes, then crawl away to hide. This usually happens at night. So even if a bed bug did bite a bird, the bird probably wouldn’t transport it. So while birds may occasionally be victims of bed bug bites, the chances of a bird bringing a bed bug to your home is extremely remote.
If that were the full story, we could probably rest easy. However, bats and some birds (mostly swifts and swallows) have their own species of blood-sucking insects that are very closely related to bed bugs. Like bed bugs, these bat bugs and bird bugs only suck the blood of their intended hosts—unless they lose their hosts, in which case they may wander off and bite a human. Bird bugs are not thought to be able to live for extended periods of time on humans, so they probably won’t infest your house. But there is a small chance that you may find one wandering around after swifts or swallows leave an infested nest on your home—especially in the early spring when they awaken from their dormant period and wander in search of their hosts.
To minimize the risk of bird bugs or bat bugs getting into your home, make sure that swallows do not nest on your home, especially near doors or windows which might give bugs access to your home after the birds leave. Bird nests with eggs or young are protected by federal law, so if you do allow swallows to nest on your home, remove and dispose of the nest after birds have left. The area around the nest can then be sprayed with insecticides to kill any bugs that may be lurking nearby. If Chimney Swifts are nesting in your chimney, have the chimney swept after the birds leave, and if the chimney isn’t in use, seal it from below so the nest parasites can’t come down the chimney. If you are afraid of bugs, but want to help Chimney Swifts (which are beneficial birds that are declining across their range), you can cap your chimney and build a swift tower for them away from your home. Bats should be discouraged from nesting on your building by making sure they aren’t able to gain entry to possible nesting places in attics and under roof tiles.
So while bird and bat bugs pose only a small risk to humans, it is best to learn a little about them and take precautions if swifts and swallows nest on your home. Cleaning up nests after the birds leave and using bird exclusion devices such as netting and Bird-B-Gone’s Bird Net 2000 to prevent birds from nesting on your house can will minimize your exposure to bird bugs.
University of Kentucky Department of Entomology (Bed Bugs)
Colorado State University Extension (Bat and Bird Bugs)
Chimney Swifts and swift towers