Birds find a good life in the big-box stores

There's room in the rafters, seed on shelves


The birdhouse has gotten super-sized.

A variety of fowl are homesteading inside big-box megastores, enticed by the safe environs and possibly free food - in the process enhancing the experience of shoppers on the prowl for gas grills or lawn spreaders.

"There's a nest up there you can see," says Rachel Woodall, nodding toward a glob of grass and twigs wedged between metal roof rafters at the Home Depot store in Timonium.

"And there's a bird on top of the light fixture!"

Sure enough. That's a nest. That's a sparrow.

Woodall, an assistant manager, is on an early-morning nature walk of sorts. At 6 a.m. Home Depot is as much wildlife habitat as retail space, especially in the garden department where she is now stepping among potted ficus and ferns, flushing a few lazy birds out of bed.

"You very rarely see them down the other end of the building," says Woodall. "I guess they like the plants and the bird seed."

Actually, they love the plants and the bird seed. Come wintertime these birds don't migrate to Wal-Marts in Florida. They're loyal Home Depot birds. Born and bred. One assistant manager says there might be as many as two dozen active nests inside the store and in the outdoor nursery.

House sparrows. House finches. Mourning doves. Wise-acre starlings. Pigeons. The occasional visiting crow or wayward wise owl.

For the most part the birds fall into the loose category of "common birds," says Janet Millenson, president of the Maryland Ornithological Society. Characteristically aggressive and adaptable, as Millenson notes, "Birds that are used to nesting in buildings, light poles or traffic signal poles."

These aren't classic songbirds. The morning air in Home Depot is filled with simple nattering and tweeting, peeps and coos. But to tin-eared suburbanites, that can be as sweet as the background music of any rain forest.

"It's kinda neat," says Michael Mitcherling, who works in the paint department. "It gives you that springtime effect in the store."

The birds of Home Depot swoop down aisles and carve stealth-bomber turns over patio furniture displays, perch on overhead beams and watch nutty humans compare prices on cans of insect repellent, and pause to quench their thirst from water puddled at the base of an $89 Globoso spruce.

Given that birds are small, quick and smart enough to have figured out motion-detector technology (they'll hover near store entrances waiting for shoppers to trip the sensors), large public buildings make inviting shelters. Birds find their way inside shopping malls, supermarkets, even airport terminals. They usually present no health hazard because those structures get cleaned so often.

"If you go into any open warehouse store, you're going to have what I call `interlopers,'" says Gary Thompson, a supervisor in the disease control division of the Baltimore County Health Department. "I don't know if it would be any more dangerous than birds that nest over your deck or porch. From a health department standpoint, there [only] would be some concern in a food store like BJs or Giant."

If fresh food figures into the retail mix, zero tolerance applies. Giant has pest-control specialists on staff. Birds occasionally gain entry to a store but are "never" allowed to linger, says company spokesman Jaimie Miller. Likewise, birds drawn to the atrium of Westfield Annapolis mall are quickly shown the door.

"That's sort of a priority of ours: not to have live animals in the building," chuckles Marketing Director Scott Degraffenreid.

Thompson thinks of home-improvement centers such as Lowe's and Home Depot as "birdie Hiltons." They're the size of airport hangers and have high, unfinished ceilings. The extra-wide doors are constantly in use. Yummy grass seed and bird seed are product-line staples. Plus no predators to speak of. What's not to like?

And the landlords are bird-friendly.

"We have a catch-and release policy," says Don Harrison, sounding more like a fish-and-game warden than a spokesman for Home Depot corporate headquarters in Atlanta. "We don't use any poison or anything."

Some stores trap pesky birds in nets. Some have started stocking seed that's packaged in hard-plastic containers instead of bags. Others hang artificial owls as a deterrent. But birds are generally welcome to stay as long as they don't become a nuisance. In fact, a majestic red-tailed hawk once took up residence inside a North Carolina Home Depot store and became a media folk hero. He developed a fan base.

"People would come in and say, `Where's the hawk at?'" Harrison recalls.

Jim Sowards, manager of the Lowe's in Timonium that's just around the corner from Home Depot, says he used to get higher-quality store birds when he worked in Kentucky: lots of blue jays and cardinals. He also notes that a few customers think the stores are stocked with birds the way ponds are with fish: "They'll ask, `How do you bring the birds in here?'"

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