There are surely few things more upsetting to a proud boat owner than arriving for a nice weekend on the boat, only to find the decks covered in bird droppings! This happened to us on a regular basis, because where we kept Britannia, in Westland Marina, Titusville, Florida, is next to a public park with lots of trees. They are full of hoards of blackbirds, starlings, crows and pigeons, which roost and feed on the berries, then they fly over and do their dirty work all over our boats. This is a serious problem at this marina, because if the acidic excrement is not washed off, decks can be permanently stained, paintwork and varnish will discolor and canvas, sails and ropes will rot. The obvious answer is to try and deter the pesky critters from landing on your boat in the first place, but this is easier said than done, especially on a sailboat with so many perfect perches.
Britannia is a schooner which has twice the potential landing sites as a sloop, including a triatic stay between the masts. Sometimes I would see twenty of the little darlings on this stay, all chirping away merrily. Below this, in the direct line of their fire, is my new roller furled ‘tweenmast staysail.
Small birds are not the only nuisances. I have disturbed pelicans perched on my davits, and they really know how to poop! As do cormorants. There is also a resident osprey who once pecked my wind-vane to pieces and it cost $70 to replace, and he lives in a fine nest on top of a nearby telephone pole, provided by the City of Titusville, rent free!
An initial search on the web for “bird deterrents for sailboats” brings up a withering display of products, all of which claim to deter birds. There are also independent reports and forum threads dealing with specific products, which are not quite so effervescent as some manufacturer’s claims. Products range from the ubiquitous plastic owl, (which I have actually seen a real bird sitting on), to sophisticated devices like an imitation peregrine falcon kite, designed to swoop in the breeze from a fifteen foot pole. Many devices must be removed when you want to go sailing. You obviously can’t sail with something rotating around on your main or mizzen boom, so these type of things need to be easily removable. Other products, which fit on mastheads, radomes, davits or spreaders, etc., can be left in place.
I sent a letter to ten manufacturers, asking if they were interested in supplying any devices they had for sailboats, and I received products from five. (see below). It can be quite complex and expensive to decide which you need to cover each area of your boat.
Beginning at the top and working down:
Mastheads are fairly easy to protect. StopGull and Bird-B-Gone have a series of “spiky rods” which rotate freely and unbalance a bird trying to land. The rods can be adjusted in height to clear a wind-vane and if there is an antenna as well, rods can be removed to still allow the device to move a little. These can also be home-made from stainless wire and attached to the top of a mast.
A different concept is a “spider” supplied by Bird-B-Gone which is a series of thin wobbly wires hanging like spider legs. These prevent birds from landing, but cannot be used where a wind-vane is fitted. Both devices stop birds landing on mastheads.
So far so good.
One thing I had to play with for my 14’ foot long triatic stay was a predatory bird decoy made by StopGull. This is a 24” inch wingspan Peregrine Falcon kite, flying in a very realistic manner from a length of nylon line off a 15’ foot fiberglass rod. I hoisted it to the top of my mainmast using the gantline, which ensured it remained above the masthead and did not tangle with the triatic. The kite flew in even a slight breeze and did deter birds from coming near, even the Osprey. However, I don't know how long it will last in a good blow. It was also difficult to hoist and lower in any wind.
Gullsweep supplied a rotator which hangs upside-down. I hoisted it between my masts in the hope of getting it high enough to frighten birds off the triatic, where I think it would have been quite effective, but my wind generator was in the way. Any two masted rig would need a halyard from each mast, along with a deck tether. Then it would be quite easy to hoist up and down.
The problem of course with all wind driven devices is that they are useless in a flat calm. I guess I will just have to keep my 12-gauge shotgun pointed up at the triatic after all…
Radomes and flat TV antennas:
Here I used one “spiky rod” and one “spider”. I didn't want to drill into the top of either platform, so I glued them on with epoxy. They were both effective in stopping birds landing, but I wonder if they will still be there after the next east coast hurricane.
Britannia’s mainmast spreaders are each 6’ feet long and the foremast are 5’ feet, which is quite a length to protect. StopGull supplied a wire to be attached to the cap-shroud about 3” inches above the spreader and held taught at the mast by bungee cord. This prevented birds landing, but bungee cord does not hold up long in the Florida sun. A stainless spring would be more resilient.
A device with a series of plastic spikes supplied by Bird-B-Gone, fastened all the way along the spreader with cable ties. This also stopped birds landing. A simple DIY version can be made by using stainless brads sticking up through a plastic strip strapped or glued to the spreader. The brads prick the birds feet and they fly away.
Unless you are very agile, (and also brave), you should perhaps employ a professional rigger to install these things. Attaching anything along spreaders requires swinging precariously out along the spar. However, once installed they don't need to be removed.
I also found a flexible electric strip which gives a slight shock to birds when they land on it, but it would be very difficult to install high on a sailboat and I didn't try. Its a pity nobody makes a system to electrify the whole rig with 3,000 volts!! The problem then would be a deck littered with fried birds and perhaps the occasional marina employee, along with a whole lot of vultures, and no doubt lawyers.
Booms, with or without sails or covers:
I found the simplest device to be long rotating arms. These are available 6’ feet and 8’ feet in diameter mounted with adjustable straps on a bare boom, or over a sail/cover. Straps are easily unclipped when you want to go sailing. They were offered by Bird-B-Gone, StopGull, and Gullsweep. They rotate in even a slight breeze and effectively deter birds landing nearby, but only if there is a breeze! Bird-B-Gone offers a solar powered version that works when there is no wind.
Biminis, decks and cabin tops:
If you have clearance above your Bimini, rotating arms would again be an effective deterrent. StopGull offers an adapter which clamps through a canvas Bimini. If you have a solid cockpit top, or for any hard surface, a “sandbag” adapter is made to mount a rotator. This is heavy enough to stay in place and easy to place on any flat surface.
I always spread a simple tarp’ awning over my main boom and Bimini when in port. This protects the boom, the entire Bimini and part of the after-deck against droppings from on high. Plastic tarps are available in many different sizes and relatively inexpensive from hardware stores. They also protect a canvas Bimini against rain and sun in addition to keeping the cockpit cooler, but they can be tiresome to scramble under. If you covered the whole boat it might even obviate the need for anything on your masts.
Shadetree Fabric Shelters supplied a very well made Dacron awning supported by demountable flexible rods passing through it ,from one side to the other to create an arch, clear of booms and sails. It made the aft section look a bit like a Conestoga covered wagon, but allowed easy companionway access. The clearance allowed wind to blow through, between the awning and Bimini and it didn't flap around like a tarp. This worked well but at a cost of $700 for Britannia it iwas out of my budget at that time. Setting awnings up and taking them down can be tedious, especially if you sail regularly but a good rain shower will usually wash bird dropping off awnings.
Static devices placed on decks don't seem to deter birds for long, they quickly realize the owl, eagle or snake is false. It is things which move irregularly that frighten them away.
One package from Bird-B-Gone contained a headless and tailless black cat. After assembly, which consisted of simply shoving its head on one end and its tail on the other on wobbly springs, it became quite a cute little sprog. I placed it on my deck and no birds came near it. However, it still didn't stop them dropping their loads from above, and after a few days the poor thing began to look like it needed a bath.
Rails and safety lines:
StopGull supplied 3’ foot long canvas strips with plastic candelabra looking spikes mounted every 3” inch. These rotate and upset a birds balance when they try to land on them. They can be strapped along a rail, pushpit or pulpit and don't need removing. I fitted one strip on the forward rail of my pulpit, but also fitting them to the sides would have impeded the jib. I fitted two more to my davit arms which effectively stopped birds landing, including pelicans. They are also available in self adhesive single units, to stick on things like navigation lights.
All the above devices only protected sections of a sailboat, but acoustic deterrents claim to cover amazingly large areas, even a complete marina! I tried two very sophisticated looking units supplied by Birdgard and Bird-B-Gone.
A speaker emits different distressed bird calls which cause them to flee the area. These can be programmed to upset individual species or rotate through a number of common types. One unit was solar powered for outside use and sat on the deck. The other had two separate speakers which I ran half way up my masts on halyards. I tried each unit separately. The calls are quite strident and Britannia began to sound like an aviary, where the cacophony soon become as annoying as the real bird cries. Volume and duration can be controlled and they shut off automatically at night when birds are less prevalent. But if you left one of these squawking all day I can imagine there would be complaints—birds or no birds. Birdguard’s model with separate speakers seemed to be more effective overall, but both units frightened the smaller birds which contaminate Westland Marina. Incredibly though, the resident osprey actually seemed to be attracted to the calls and they also seemed to upset two Jack Russell terriers on a boat a few slips away.
These devices are much more expensive than individual products, (in the region of $200-$400), but upon adding up the cost of all the separate devices needed to protect a sailboat completely, the cost came to about the same.
There are many other products: imitation snakes placed around the deck, the good-old plastic owl and other quite impressive bird decoys, shiny disks which flutter in the breeze, balloons, and a myriad of other things. Some of these struck me as more gimmicky than effective, but I did not test them.
Individual devices can prevent birds perching on mastheads, spreaders, radars, booms, rails, etc. and these undoubtedly reduce defecation on decks. But birds still manage to cling to rigging wires, even those which are vertical. When technology allows us to talk to the animals, as I am sure it eventually will, they will tell us how they laughed at our poor attempts to stop them playing around on our boats.
The acoustic deterrents are the only things which cover a complete boat and are easy to set up and remove. But even these didn't stop determined birds landing during the one or two minute intervals between calls, and they definitely are noisy.
I finally came to the conclusion that the only way to keep a sailboats decks entirely free from droppings is with awnings, which don't rely on wind and are also silent.
During this fascinating review Britannia also attracted much curiosity with all its appendages, especially the flying falcon and spinning arms, which made it look like a drone ready to lift off.
The disgusting bird droppings problem eventually became so annoying that I decided to move Britannia to a cleaner marina. After all, that's a benefit of having a boat, if you don't like the locals or the surroundings, you can always move..