For the Birds Radio Program: Attack Birds

Original Air Date: July 17, 1987 Rerun Dates: Sept. 5, 1988

Sometimes real birds DO hurt people.

Duration: 3′08″


Birds That Hurt People

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Last Friday, my five year old son went on record as saying (Joey: “Real birds don’t hurt people, but sometimes people hurt real birds.”)

Before that program even aired, I heard from John Keenan, famous as “For the Birds“‘s own “John Baker.” (Recording–That’s Baker’s Blue Jay Barn–up the shore a ways)

John has learned from painful personal experience that some real birds do, in fact, hurt people. A few weeks ago, while he was photographing a nestful of baby blue jays, the mother sneaked up from behind and stabbed him in the head, hard enough to draw blood. Now a Blue Jay weighs in at 2 1/2 to 3 ounces, and the average man weighs about a thousand times that, but, at any rate, Joey and I stand corrected.

Birds can be fierce when defending their nests–I know of several ornithologists with deep scars from tangling with owls and hawks at the nest. But I’ve never heard of attacks by birds under any other circumstances, except in fiction. Garrison Keillor, in one of his “Buster the Showdog” sketches, once had a California Condor menacing Timmy the sad rich kid and his faithful companion Buster, but, in reality, condors are the shyest, most timid birds alive–if they can’t fly away from danger, the only way they defend themselves is by throwing up on their enemies. Of course, condor vomit is probably at least as unpleasant as an all out frontal attack by a blue jay, but, regardless, at the time that Prairie Home Companion program aired, the last Condor had already been taken into captivity.

I doubt if a Black-capped Chickadee has ever stabbed anyone, but they are known to occasionally draw blood from people. More than one outdoorsman has had a chickadee alight on a scab and nibble at the dried blood. If chickadees weren’t so cute and friendly, they’d probably be known as the vampire bird.

Some birds have poisoned people, but only after the people had first killed the birds and eaten them. Edward Forbush, the state ornithologist of Massachusetts in the 1920’s, noted that Ruffed Grouse become poisonous after feeding on the leaf buds of mountain laurel. When pigeons eat poisonous seeds, they too become poisonous. In winter, many finches eat poison ivy seeds, but since it’s illegal to eat native American songbirds, it’s not known for certain whether the finches themselves become poisonous.

All in all, there are at least a few instances where birds have actually hurt people, although, like Sancho Panza says in “The Man of La Mancha,” “Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.”

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”