Brewer’s Blackbird

In Defense of a Secret Nest

text and photos by Dan Gleason, © 2008

male Brewer's Backbird

Each spring, innocent pedestrians walk along city streets, unaware that they may soon be attacked by a bird that they had no idea was nearby. Sound like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” or a low budget TV thriller? Well, it’s really not as sinister as it sounds.

Every year I get calls or see a news story about people being attacked by black birds. Sometimes the avian attacker is so persistent that warnings are posted or, as happened one year, a pedestrian walkway across a street was closed until the birds finished breeding and left. I myself have been the victim of these attacks numerous times, but, unlike most people, I find some pleasure in this event.

The attacker is the Brewer’s Blackbird. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this bird by name, it is the robin-sized black-colored bird that often can be seen wandering underfoot in  grocery store or shopping mall parking lots. The male has a yellow eye and sleek, glossy black plumage that is an iridescent purple around the head and neck when the sunlight hits it just right. Females are brown and not shiny. People from the East or South may be familiar with grackles which look similar, but Brewer’s Blackbirds are a bit smaller, have smaller beaks and shorter tails than grackles, and grackles are not normally found in Oregon.

Brewer’s Blackbirds generally get little attention – until spring or early summer when they sometimes make their presence known by attacking unsuspecting passersby. Why should this  usually passive and timid bird suddenly turn against us when the warm weather arrives?

In reality, the warm weather has little to do with this annual behavior other than the fact that it coincides with spring and early summer which is the breeding season for most birds, including the Brewer’s Blackbird. A Brewer’s Blackbird has nothing against you personally, for an attack simply means that it has a nest somewhere close by, perhaps in a dense hedge along the sidewalk. The nest is well-concealed, unless you make efforts to find it, but you have made the innocent mistake of walking within a few feet of this hidden nest. Your presence is perceived as a threat to these birds, and, like other threats, such as potential predators, they take it upon themselves to drive away such “enemies.” Both male and female blackbird may attack, but the most aggressive attack usually comes from the male. He is so bold that he may strike people on the head or shoulder. He gives little warning and often strikes even before giving any vocal warning. The human victim, often completely unaware of the bird until struck, usually reacts by ducking down and looking bewilderingly around to see why, and from where, she or he is under attack.

Other birds will defend territory or a nest by attacking things they perceive to be a threat as well. You may have seen a Spotted Towhee or a Song Sparrow repeatedly attacking a window or the shiny hubcap of a parked car. This is a territorital “dispute.” The attacker sees its own reflection in the glass or hubcap and interprets the image as being that of an intruder. It does not recognize itself but merely sees another bird of its own kind that must be driven away. Of course, there is no real intruder so all efforts by the bird are futile, but still he persists, often engaging in this behavior for many days. Once his mate is sitting on her eggs, this behavior usually begins to wane and it will disappear almost entirely when the eggs hatch.

Intruders of many kinds are driven away, or attempts are made to do so,by many birds. Crows attack hawks and other predators, but they also attack anything that is larger than themselves. Many kinds of blackbirds do the same thing. Red-winged Blackbirds chase crows, hawks, vultures, and even Great Blue Herons are not spared from such attacks. But around human habitations, it is the Brewer’s Blackbird that is most noted for attacking people. Or maybe we just notice it more because we are often the ones being innocently attacked.

Human reactions to these attacks are quite varied. Some people shriek, and run away, covering their head with their coat, purse or whatever is available. Others swat at the bird to defend themselves from further attack. A few people laugh at one small creature’s attempt to drive away another creature so much larger than itself.

For my part, I am often surprised, but I smile and find pleasure in this encounter and admire the boldness of this bird in protecting his mate and her eggs or young. It is this tone that I try to convey whenever I am called and asked, “What do we do about these birds that are attacking people?” I urge the callers to appreciate this small, natural drama played out in our urban environment. I want people to admire this bird and its commitment to parenthood and to realize that, while the attack is a surprise, it is seldom more than that. The bird may often physically strike you but it rarely does any damage. In the many times I have been struck by a blackbird, never has a bird so much as broken my skin. At worse, it may have misplaced a few hairs…but less than a good breeze would do. It certainly can be intimidating, especially to small children, but there is very little real danger. If the nest is near a busy portion of the sidewalk, we may need to redirect pedestrians for a few weeks (and maybe educate them about this event) but there is never any reason to displace the birds. Soon enough, they will have raised their young and once again be those shy and gentle birds that wander around your local parking lots.

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