The Joys of Owning a Home: House Sparrows in the Roof Cavity

Yes, we had house sparrow in the ridge cavity of our gable roof. We’ve apparently had this issue for a number of years without realizing.

It may seem irresponsible to some that we hadn’t known, but our home is over 35 feet tall with a 45-degree gable roof. The entry points and yard spaces are on the opposite side of the house from where we learned that these pests were getting in. Maybe there was some naiveté involved as well, in thinking that because our shingles looked in good condition that the rest of our roof was fine as well, however, the truth is, we should have been having regular roof inspections completed all along. Like us, many homeowners may not realize that you should have your roof inspected regularly to ensure that it isn’t damaged or allowing pests access into your home.

How often is “regularly”? Some of the advice available predicates this on the age and condition of your roof, however, you’ll find that many insurance companies recommend having an inspection completed at least once a year, whereas many roofing companies actually recommend having an expert perform an inspection twice a year. With all of the expert advice varying to some degree, it’s difficult to know which advice is in your best interest. It is important to factor your home owner’s insurance policy into the equation when considering a roof inspection schedule that works for you. Make sure you are familiar with your insurance policy, what it covers and under what circumstances. There are some circumstances under which roof damage generally covered by your policy becomes a non-covered event.

How we finally found out…

It was actually not the birds that tipped us off to our problem, but rather black carpet beetles. My oldest child came to me in my office very disturbed one day to tell me that there was a bug on their bed. It was a tiny larva of some type of bug. I knew that my kid had been sitting outside on the lawn with a friend and then subsequently sat in bed playing on their phone. I reasoned that it probably hitched a ride on their clothes, so I told them not to get in bed with street clothes on anymore. I removed and flushed the bug and together we shook out the sheets and made the bed.

About two days later, they found another of these larva on their top cover at the foot of the bed. This time, knowing they had not been outside yet, I immediately began researching exactly what type of bug this was. Most of the information on finding these common types of beetles inside of a regularly cleaned home indicates an isolated problem that can be taken care of in most cases with deep cleaning and vacuuming. I immediately abandoned whatever I had been doing, stripped the bed and started washing everything on high temp. I mixed a Lysol cleaning solution together, grabbed a couple rags and the vacuum and set out. My oldest child and I worked until dark cleaning every inch of their bedroom. I did nine loads of laundry on high temp to make sure none of their clothes or any of the folded blankets in their closets were concealing bugs and vacuumed every inch of carpeting no fewer than six times. Before putting furniture back in place, I sprayed in-home pest control in the corners, along baseboards where the dog wouldn’t go and throughout the closets. I then emptied the vacuum outside, sealed the bag of contents and put it with the trash. When we finished that night, I felt pretty confident that we had nipped the problem in the bud.

Little did I know, the bud was attached to a full-grown rose bush.

After our cleaning frenzy, I made sure to repeat the vacuuming process in that bedroom every day over the next several days, including underneath all furniture. Less than a week later though, my child came running downstairs to tell me they found a different kind of bug this time. Only when I saw it, I knew that it was not a different kind of bug but the same kind of bug presenting in a different stage. It was an adult black carpet beetle and it was again on the bed. Even then though, I was not ready to recognize what was really going on. So, once again, I stripped the bed and washed everything on high temp. And once again, I vacuumed every inch of that bedroom several times.

As frayed as my nerves were, my kids’ poor nerves were all but eroded. My husband and I checked out their room that night before bed and as we were leaving, my twelve-year-old stopped me and while crying asked, “Mom, do you think I’m dirty because I have bugs?” I could have died. I could not reassure them enough that these were regular outdoor beetles and had nothing to do with their hygiene. I cried that night as I lay in bed wondering why it happened again.

Just three days later, we found another adult beetle and over the course of the afternoon, there were five more. I knew then that we had a big problem. As soon as my husband got home, we set out to find out where they were coming from. The first thing we did was strip the bed and again throw it all into a high-temp wash cycle. I didn’t think that there was anything dwelling inside the mattress because we always keep a really good mattress protector on it but because the possibility was still there, we pulled the mattress off of the frame and inspected it very carefully. We found nothing amiss with the mattress (there is no box spring with this style of bedframe). However, while we were doing that my husband’s gaze fixed on the ceiling fan light fixture over the foot of the bed. He stood up to take a closer look and pointing at the globe over the light asked, “Could those possibly be larvae shells?” We took the globe down and found a larvae and pupa shell cluster.

Still though, we were not ready to see the problem from all angles. On the contrary, I was happy because I thought we had found the source. I figured that an adult beetle had gotten in via the window, laid eggs in the ceiling fan and that the larvae had then been sustained by dust or something. It also finally explained why we had only found larvae at the foot of the bed, directly beneath the fixture. We had been wanting to replace that ceiling fan for a few years anyway so, we hopped in the car and headed out to pick up a new ceiling fan. On the way, my husband worried aloud about what we would find when we removed the old one. He was working his way to the root of the issue but I think he could tell at that point that I really wanted to be optimistic. We picked up a new ceiling fan from a nearby hardware store and I was really hoping to just bag up the old one, install the new one and never see another carpet beetle again. All my hope and optimism crumbled though when we removed the old ceiling fan and my husband plucked a leaf stem out from around the fixture support box. When we removed the fixture support box to get a better look, bird nesting material was all we could see. We removed the knee-wall access panels to see if we could get a look up inside of the ridge space but it was totally inaccessible.

It was only after we had found the nest debris that I remembered reading that these beetles prefer to deposit their eggs in old bird nests which provide enough organic sustenance for the long duration of their larval stage. I was devastated. My illusion that it was no big deal shattered and with horror, I realized that my baby had been sleeping beneath that stuff. Immediately, we sealed the hole and moved our kid into the family room on the lower level. Out of guilt, we took their entire bedframe and mattress so they’d be as comfortable as possible. Trying to assuage our guilt, our kid said, “I’m just happy it wasn’t caused by something I did, that it’s not me.” That made it worse for me though, by not paying enough attention to our roof, we made our child worry that they were dirty enough for bugs. Our twelve-year-old was already not the messiest tween in the world but I wouldn’t be surprised if this affects their cleanliness habits for the rest of their life.

Fun fact: both the house sparrow and the black carpet beetle were imported from Europe to North America in the 19th century.

Solving the Problem…

What was most worrisome was that we had no way of knowing the extent of the damage first-hand. My imagination ran wild with images of the entire roof ridge cavity just totally packed, front to back, with nesting material. We didn’t even know what kind of birds we were dealing with yet which is a big hurdle because there are many laws that protect most bird species and govern disturbances of these bird’s nests. So, we chose to think carefully and do some research before taking any quick action. Our approach seemed to go forward naturally in four steps.

  1. We felt our first step was to determine what type of birds we were dealing with.

Because of the way our house is built, it is impossible to see the entire roof while standing on our own property’s footprint. We figured the most likely access points were our box vents located on the west side of the roof, opposite the entry doors and yard space which are on the southern and northern gable ends and east side of the house. I have since learned that the type of box vents we had are commonly problematic areas of pest access. Some homeowners/builders even opt to install wire caging, like this, around them to block pest access to them. We are friends with our neighbors that live to the west of us so we were able to get permission to observe our roof from their yard for as long as we needed and enlist their help in keeping an eye out.

We found that house sparrows were the only bird species that were gaining access to the roof ridge cavity of our house. This news felt like a big break for us because house sparrows are explicitly excluded from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and are therefore not protected from nest removal acts.

  1. Our next step was to research what our available resources were.

A quick check into our insurance coverage confirmed beyond doubt that any home damage resulting from pest access, especially prolonged, is excluded from coverage.

We found several organizations, like this one, which services the Southeast and Central Michigan areas, that provide solution services that are specific to this type of problem. Had our problem been related to any protected bird species, I definitely would have contacted this type of organization first to develop a solution.

Reputable roofing companies are a great and often necessary resource for these problems as well. Regardless of what type of birds we had found to be accessing our roof ridge cavity, our plan all along was to involve a roofing company with a good reputation simply because our roof is too dangerous for anyone to traverse without experience and proper equipment.

  1. The first real action we took was to contact a highly rated roofing company.

Because our bird infestation problem did not involve any legal red tape, we determined that our first move was to remove access from these invasive pests by having our roof repaired. I also thought that if we could get a more accurate description of how extensive the damage to the insulation was, we could then make a more well-informed plan of action to clean up the mess and eradicate any remaining carpet beetles.

Early one morning, about two weeks after the first larva had been found, I did a GPS search for roofing companies within a reasonable radius of our address and began reading reviews from there. I called the company with the highest star rating that also had the greatest reviews to back it up, Roofing Above All by Ridgecon Construction, Inc. I contacted them that morning to schedule a service call to determine what needed to be done to keep pests out and whether there was any unknown roof damage. There was a card hold deposit of $100 required in order to schedule the visit, which I was all too happy to comply with because it meant involving someone that might have far more experience with a situation like this than we had. Once that was taken care of, I was assured that I would be contacted within a day by either Matt or Sheldon, depending on their respective schedules.

It was Matt who contacted me later that day to schedule an exterior roof inspection. He was very professional and all agreements we reached were always texted to me in full detail, including cost, requesting that I reply in assent. I try to be very thorough and to me this was a great step because it ensured that we both always had a written record of agreements.

During his initial ground inspection, Matt also saw house sparrows exit the ridge space via the over hangs of the bathroom dormer so we agreed that once he got onto the roof, he would thoroughly inspect all twelve box vents as well as the overall roof surface and that he would block off the dormer overhang access with matching aluminum flashing. The agreed upon cost of these services was set at $650.

During the roof inspection, he found evidence of bird access and could see nesting inside of three of the ten main box vents but determined that the two box vents above the bathroom were still in great shape and not allowing access. The subsequent work proposal that we agreed on was that he would address the ten main box vents along the ridge, replacing the type of box vents we had with this type of vent, which would not allow any further pest access, and that he and his crew would remove whatever nesting material that could safely be reached. The agreed upon cost of these services was set at $1,265.

Because this was at the peak of roofing season and weather had been unseasonably rainy, he was not able to schedule our repairs until 20 days later. On the day of the repairs, we asked and Matt and his crew agreed to take pictures both before they began cleaning the nesting and, most importantly, after so that we could make an informed decision about what our next move would be.

What they found was actually more reassuring than I expected it to be. First of all, these pictures confirmed that the entire front-to-back ridge cavity is an open space, essentially meaning that these birds had access to all of it, regardless of where they got in from. However, that being said, there were only two very large nests found. One of the nests had been built around the fixture opening of our oldest child’s bedroom while the other had been constructed around the fixture opening of the loft area. The rest of the insulation was unaffected with the exception of minor bits of debris sitting on top. Furthermore, there were no nestlings or adult birds found inside the cavity.

This first picture is of the nest which was found over our kid’s bedroom, before any of it had been removed. The second picture is of the nesting which was found over the loft space, before any of it had been removed.

Bird nesting in roof cavity over the bedroom, looking southward toward front of the house
Bird nesting in roof cavity over the loft area, looking southward toward front of the house

The following pictures are of the the rest of the ridge cavity space, which was found to be relatively unaffected with the exception of minor debris.

Unaffected insulation over loft area, looking southward toward front of the house
unaffected insulation with minor debris over second bedroom, looking northward toward rear of house
Unaffected insulation with minor debris over child’s bedroom, looking eastward toward opposite side of roof vent boxes
Unaffected insulation over loft and second bedroom area, looking northeast toward rear of house, opposite the roof box vents

It was very reassuring to know that most of the insulation was salvageable. However, although the roofers were able to remove roughly ten pounds of nesting material, because of the limited access allowed by the ventilation openings, the material left behind and the condition of the insulation was still alarming.

Nesting material left over bedroom
Nesting material left over loft area
  1. Our final decision was to clean up the aftermath on our own.

Once we were certain that only a limited number of insulation strips needed to be replaced we decided to do this ourselves. We chose this solution because I felt that this would cause the least amount of further upheaval to our family. I’m very small in stature so I knew that I would be able to fit into these spaces, whereas because of the limited amount of space, a contract company would likely have felt it necessary to remove the ceiling drywall beneath the affected areas and replace the insulation that way.

Our plan was carried out this way:

  • We cut an access panel into the ceiling just outside of the bathroom directly between the two affected areas, entering into the area with the most head room, which was the dormer cross section of the bathroom and stairwell. We found this YouTube video to be the most informative of the process. We used a drywall saw because we already owned a good one with a sharp tip. We also found a 2×4 beam across the access opening, as in the video, however, we left it in place because I was still able to fit into the space provided.
  • Wearing protective gear, I then climbed into the space, while my husband – who is 6’6” tall and therefore unable to get safely into or out of such a small space – handled all outer activity. On either side of the dormer section were triangular trusses leading through to the cross beam running the length of the ridge, roughly 12 inches above the ceiling and with about 24 inches of head space above it. I was able to lay on the length of that beam and inch my way forward and backward while I worked, reaching my arms down.
  • I rolled up all affected insulation with the paper side out, thereby confining any debris inside the rolled material, and slipped each roll directly into a contractor bag which I then fed down the access to my husband who took each bag directly out of the house.
  • I swept up any loose debris with a small hand broom and deposited it into a contractor bag.
  • Outside of the house, my husband then prepared four-foot-long sections of new insulation by rolling them tightly and tying them with twine, so that they could be carried through the house without losing fiberglass along the way and would fit through the access.
  • I then took each new section of insulation, set them in place, cut the twine to release the roll and laid them out, using a yard stick to push the insulation into the tight soffit space against the side of the opening furthest from me.
  • Then I went through and peeled the fine top-most layer of any insulation with rogue nest debris or bird waste that was not otherwise damaged.
  • I then sprayed any bird waste on wood beams with an enzyme bird waste cleaner.
  • Finally, we framed the access space with wood trim and placed the ceiling panel back in place.

Personal protective gear:

  • Safety glasses
  • N95 masks with cool-flow respirator
  • Protective gloves
  • Long-sleeve thick shirt and long pants

Tools and materials:

  • Stud finder
  • Measuring tape
  • Square
  • Pencil
  • Drywall saw, jigsaw, or other cutting tool
  • Contractor sized garbage bags
  • New attic insulation
  • Spool of Twine
  • Scissors
  • Yard stick
  • Bird waste enzyme remover and spray bottle
  • Trim molding to frame new access panel
  • Electric circular saw to cut angles on the trim pieces
  • Nail gun and hammer
  • Finishing nails

I don’t want to gloss over how difficult this job was, I want to highlight that it was a tight space and I got pretty bruised up on my arms, legs, and breast bone from inching along the beam. I would not recommend doing this if you are in anyway bothered by confined spaces. My husband had to completely open the contractor bags before handing them up to me open-side-up because there was not enough space to have done so inside the cavity.

With that caveat out of the way though, I am very glad we were able to do this part ourselves because I now know firsthand what the layout of the ridge cavity is and that the space is as clean and healthy as I want it to be. Because we already owned the tools necessary for this project (with the exception of the nail gun which a close friend lent us), and only needed to purchase the insulation, bird waste remover, and access trim pieces, we only spent just under $200.

We finished the ridge cavity cleanup 45 days after we saw the first black carpet beetle larva. Because the ceiling fixture and furniture was still removed from our twelve-year-old’s bedroom, we decided it was a great time to put a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling and walls. I am happy to say that throughout the entire three days my husband and I spent repairing and painting walls – as well as the five days our happy tween has spent back in their bedroom – we’ve not seen a single carpet beetle.

The following final pictures were taken after replacing the insulation, before cleaning the bird waste by peeling it from the insulation and spraying the enzyme cleaner on any waste found on wood construction.

Cut access hold in loft area, just outside of bathroom, looking westward
View of roof cavity after insulation replacement, looking northward through triangular truss into space over loft area
View of roof cavity after insulation replacement, looking southward through triangular truss into space over the affected bedroom
Completed framed access panel, ready to be caulked and painted!

Thanks for reading!

Remember to always make a conscientious effort.

Categories: Home Improvement & MaintenanceTags: , , , , ,

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