Close encounters of the fluttering kind: a rise in bird attacks

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

US Postal carrier Keith Cooper is used to dogs sneering from behind metal gates. He's used to uncivil people who expect to find something in their mailbox and then don't.

But this week, as he trundled across Boylan Heights in this Southern city, he ran into a new problem: rambunctious birds. "I was ducking this way, then ducking that way, trying to get away," Mr. Cooper says, recalling a few frenzied seconds where beaks flashed like tiny daggers. "I had no idea what was going on."

It turned out to be an entire Tippi Hedron day. He wasn't divebombed just once, but three times in three different parts of the city.

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Nor is Cooper the only one seemingly in the flight path of B-52 birds these days. For some inexplicable reason, from Houston to Washington, it's been the year of aggressive mockingbirds, crows, hawks, and even woodpeckers.

To a noticeable degree, especially by those getting strafed, it seems like Alfred Hitchcock, the reality series.

Some of the incidents are, admittedly, a bit scary. One Houston lawyer this spring found himself getting pecked in the face. Even worse, police had to close down an entire downtown Houston street in late May after gang of grackles attacked pedestrians, knocking some of them down.

"Birds, they're on the sidewalk, but they're usually not attacking people," says Bea McCann of the Houston Police Department. She notes that the recent attacks were the first she's ever heard of in the city.

In Washington, bloggers last week were busy cataloguing the adventures of an aggressive hawk that was buzzing cars.

In upstate New York, a high-strung woodpecker has destroyed dozens of car mirrors - angered, apparently, by his own image and racking up insurance premiums.

"There's been an increase in the number of times that people report incidents like, 'I had this weird thing happen where a bird attacked me,' " says Alicia Craig, director of the Bird Conservation Alliance in Indianapolis.

Why you should look up

As it turns out, experts do have an explanation for the increase in bird-man encounters. The spread of wood-shaded and bird-friendly suburbs has added to friction between the two species during nesting season.

For a few weeks in early summer, when eggs crack open and open-mouthed fledglings chirp and caw toward the sky, parent birds go on the offensive.

"We're seeing more and more inevitable clashes due to a lack of space," says Ms. Craig.

But certain species are definitely more Red Baronesque than others. Mockingbirds, crows, bluejays, Arctic terns, and even seagulls are known to divebomb.

And, more often than not, they have good reason to feel secure in their missions: Humans usually duck and run when ambushed by birds.

Since bird attacks are more of a novelty than a danger, no official tallies are kept of such confrontations. But ornithologists say that suburban nesting is certainly on the upswing. Indeed, some species prefer what may seem like inconvenient, even illogical, places to nest, close to human activity.

Moreover, though it may be of no comfort to people like Cooper, birds have good reason to be aggressive. While a mockingbird in the country may raise its children in relative peace, an urban mockingbird has to protect the brood from a host of dangers - from cats to redtailed hawks to curious humans.

"Last time I had mockingbird nests in my backyard, I had to hold an umbrella over my head to go to the mailbox, I was so afraid of attack," says Craig.

Birds in mythology

Birds, of course, are both romanticized and reviled in mythology and popular culture, from their tiny singsong chirps and eager pecking of crumbs in "Mary Poppins" to their flapping hordes in Hitchcock's film.

Mythology is full of them. And humans confront their beauty - or their unsavory parting gifts - in one way or another almost every day.

It's not surprising then, that they've been frequent, even complex, characters in literature and film. Director Mel Gibson, for one, used vultures to disturbing effect as they crowded around Jesus on the Cross in "The Passion of the Christ."

To be sure, the significance of an attacking bird has deep folkloric roots.

Some cultures see birds as souls occupying the liminal space between heaven and earth. Others consider them harbingers - often of doom.

"To Taoists, for example, birds indicate the violent uncontrollable primordial willfulness of the 'barbarians,' " says William Doty, a religion professor at the University of Alabama and the editor of Mythosphere magazine.

To Cooper, the point isn't something philosophical about the barbarians. It's just a matter of delivering the mail free of danger or ... doo-doo.

He vows that neither snow, nor sleet, nor songbird will keep him from his appointed duty. And he's developed his own pragmatic way to deal with any threats from above, through experience.

"My advice if you're attacked is, just take a step back and move slowly away," he says.

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