For the Birds Radio Program: Angry Birds
Every year when the bird breeding season begins, the news starts covering stories of birds that valiantly defend their nest and chicks against nearby humans. I suspect this year there will be even more stories than usual because of the popularity of the iPhone game, Angry Birds. Sure enough, this week, I received an email from a fact checker for National Geographic, about the nature of “angry birds,” and bird attacks on humans. Specifically, he wanted to know if the world champion angry bird was the Northern Goshawk. He noted that the female of this species, when protecting her nest, can be very dangerous to humans, and that biologists working near goshawk nests wear protective clothing to ward off bloody attacks. And he added that Attila the Hun decorated his battle helmet with the figure of a goshawk. Goshawks are certainly dangerous. I called David Evans, the bander at Hawk Ridge who spends much of his summer banding young hawks and eagles in the nest while trying to survive their mothers’ attacks. He said that goshawks are actually not that dangerous, because they yell so loud when they notice him that he has plenty of warning. Great Horned Owls, Bald Eagles, and even Osprey can also pack a wallop, but they don’t necessarily warn him that they’re coming. I observed Peregrine Falcon banding in Duluth a few years ago, and watched as the mother slammed her talons into the head of one of the banders. Fortunately, he was wearing a hard hat, because she hit it with a loud thunk.
If we’re looking for anger and ferocity that can actually injure a human, a bird of prey is definitely worth considering. But if we’re looking for anger and ferocity per ounce, we might look at some smaller species. Mockingbirds have made national news for their attacks on people walking anywhere near their nests, including when they nest in a metropolitan area near busy pedestrian walkways. I’ve seen them attack bird-killing cats so fiercely that the cats have slunk away. And I wonder if anything is more angry than a male hummingbird. I’ve watched them attack Bald Eagles—a feat far more impressive than a goshawk attacking a human. A female goshawk weighs about a kilogram, over one percent of what a 150-pound person weighs. A hummingbird weighs 3.5 grams, or less than one tenth of one percent of what a small male Bald Eagle weighs. It’s that kind of feistiness against all odds that might inspire a cardinal or goldfinch to be catapulted into glass and brick to bring down some egg-stealing pigs, except that hummingbirds do this in real life, not on an iPhone app.
When I was a teacher, I used to bring my students to my favorite park in Madison, Wisconsin. I knew where a pair of Black Terns nested, and every spring I would challenge my students to see if even one of them could walk ten paces down a particular trail without flinching. One or two kids would invariably try it, but the moment one of the terns noticed, it would fly in, headed directly for the kid’s eyes, and of course the kid would duck. Then I’d walk the trail, holding steady, and every time, at the last possible moment in our game of chicken, the tern would veer off, never once actually hitting me. My students were mightily impressed with my bravery, but it was just a matter of knowing Black Terns, who might have been angry, but weren’t kamikaze pilots or iPhone app birds. We may dismiss bird brains, but I’ve yet to meet a bird who’s mind, heart, and courage weren’t worth reckoning with.