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By Roger Clay, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Sitting on a porch watching a mockingbird mercilessly dive-bomb a cat is a great Southern pastime. A similar scenario may not be as amusing if you are on the receiving end while walking to the mailbox. Almost all birds flee when near a human, but when it comes to protecting their young, some birds will make gallant stands.
Over the course of a typical year, the most unpleasant encounter humans have with birds is the calling card they sometimes leave on our vehicles in the morning. There are other bird-human conflicts: woodpeckers banging on the side of the house, blackbirds descending on crops, or maybe cormorants eating fish from a pond. These can be major annoyances but are not personal or physical in nature.
Come nesting season, some birds take on a different attitude toward human interlopers. The songbirds nesting in our back yards are quite discrete when constructing nests and incubating eggs. However, after the young hatch and soon thereafter begin leaving the nest, the parents may become quite agitated at the presence of a predator, be it cat or man.
Considering that a typical human adult weighs over 1,000 times more than an adult mockingbird, the bird poses little danger to anyone. A defensive mockingbird gives scolding calls and may even dive at you to get your attention away from the young birds, but the adult birds are mostly all bark with little bite.
On occasion, someone will be subjected to a thump on the back of the head by an aggressive mockingbird. This causes more insult than injury, but some people are startled by the fact that a wild bird would come in physical contact with them. Defending against such an attack is easy. All one has to do is keep eye contact with the offending bird and it will always stay more than an arm’s reach away—even during a diving attack. Another strategy to employ (this is good when walking out to check the mail) is to simply wave your hand above your head, and the mocking bird will not touch you. You may look foolish to passersby, but it prevents a physical encounter with the feathered attacker. Once the fledglings have become proficient fliers, the attacks should stop.
At the other end of the spectrum of nest and young defense would be the brown pelican. Brown pelicans are large, up to 10-pound birds that nest in dense colonies, often on the ground. When someone approaches a brown pelican nest that contains eggs or young, the adults offer no protest, but instead take flight and orbit their nesting colony until danger passes. Since the adults are mute, they make no sounds in protest. If there are young in the nest, they are left to their own defense, but they do put up a good front.
Though flightless and unable to rapidly run away, when faced with a perceived threat a pelican chick will hiss and grunt loudly and snap menacingly with its bill. Another strategy employed by the young pelican to make the encounter even more unpleasant is the regurgitation of its last meal of fish. This combination can be most effective.
Hawks and owls are armed with sharp talons and powerful feet—a formidable combination. Fortunately, encounters with defensive raptors are extremely rare. These birds most often nest in isolated areas. When nesting near people, nests are safely situated high in trees or other structures so the mere appearance of someone walking by is not perceived as a threat.
There are rare instances of injuries sustained from a raptor defending its young. Situational awareness is your best tactic when you are aware of a nearby raptor nest. Remember that the birds are most protective around the time the young are about to leave the nest and just after the young fledge. If you spot a young raptor that has left the nest before it can fly, it is best to leave the bird alone. This applies to all birds. The parents will still tend to the bird even though it has left the nest a little too soon. Of course, never climb a tree to look into a hawk or owl nest. You’re only asking for trouble.