A peaceful summer day. A glittering, blue lake and a sky full of billowy clouds. And on the path below, a young woman rollerblades. She zips from side to side, enthusiastically mouthing the words to “Baby Got Back.” Then, out of the corner of her eye, a glint of something dark followed by a loud squawk. Close. Too close. Suddenly she feels wings in her hair. Razor talons scratch her scalp. She flails and hits the ground hard. But this bird (birds? an entire flock?) is relentless. So she scrambles to her feet and blades away.
A deserted stretch of highway. A lone biker pushes up a long hill. The woman passes a telephone wire thick with dark birds, their expressions inscrutable. Suddenly, one descends and begins pecking at the small of her back. Is it after the energy gel she has stashed there? Long after the ride is over, she can’t stop replaying the horror of that day.
A mother and daughter on a country road. They’ve been down this lane before, so they know the risks. Each carries a hefty tennis racket for protection. When the birds come, they’ll be prepared.
These four women* come from different places and lead very different lives, but they are united by being the victims of a common assailant: Agelaius phoeniceus, the red-winged blackbird.
Songbirds have a reputation for being melodious pushovers. That may be true if you’re talking about, say, a chickadee or a finch. But red-winged blackbirds have hearts blacker than their coal-black feathers, hearts fueled by murderous rage. These terrorists may be tiny, but the mental and physical anguish they inflict can be immense.
Joggers are particularly easy marks. One Chicago resident was running near the lakeshore when a blackbird swooped down and grabbed a lock of her hair in its claws. “I felt something dig in, and it scared the bejesus out of me,” Phoebe Lancaster told the Chicago Tribune. Another Chicagoan has seen so much bad bird behavior she now refers to red-winged blackbirds as “nature’s assholes.” “The female will sit there on the nest and then the male tries to muscle out the humans — the whole time the female is watching, egging on her man. ‘Get ’em, baby. Get ’em good,’” she told a local news site. Vicious and vindictive.
Did you ever wonder why four and twenty blackbirds got baked in a pie? That is the only proven method for killing a blackbird. And do you remember the end of that poem? A blackbird snips off the maid’s nose.
Ornithologists will tell you that most red-winged blackbird attacks are perpetrated by males trying to defend their territories during breeding season. (A 1956 article referred to this behavior as “aggressive intolerance.” I would use stronger language.) But I don’t buy the self-defense argument. Isn’t it also possible that male blackbirds are choosing territories that overlap with well-trafficked human habitat because they LIKE attacking us? In fact, a handful of studies support the idea that red-winged blackbirds preferentially select territories that include jogging paths, park benches, and nude beaches.
While you probably can’t entirely avoid being attacked by a blackbird — they’re the most abundant birds in North America — the internet is full of tricks for reducing the risk. One TV reporter cutely advised using an umbrella during nesting season. Experts generally recommend direct eye contact as the best way to stave off an attack. But that only works if you can see the bird coming. Most attacks come from behind. Luckily, one man has come up with an ingenious fix. “Tape fake eyes to the back of your helmet. Plasticized cardboard works great. Problem solved,” he wrote in response to a triathlete frustrated with blackbird attacks. Chicago ornithologist Douglas Stotz also endorses the eye contract trick. Or if that fails, he said, bark like a dog.
*one of them is me
Blackbird photo thanks to Patrick Myers of the National Park Service.
Blackbird pie illustration via Wikimedia Commons.