Terrorizing the mailbox? Birds are just protecting territory

In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock directed a movie titled “The Birds.”

The movie was based on a small North Carolina town where residents who ventured outdoors were attacked by birds, most notably seagulls. Though this movie was purely fiction, it was based on humans taking advantage of the natural environment and the birds taking revenge.

Fast forward to today. I have received a few reports of birds dive-bombing people. The common denominator was either a ditch or a pond nearby that contained water. Growing in these areas were some type of reed grass or cattails.

Can you guess what these areas have in common with birds that dive bomb people? Upon further investigation, it was not all birds, it was only one type of bird. The bird exhibiting this bizarre behavior is not a seagull but rather males of the common Red Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Back when the Ohio State University Extension office was located on East Poe Road, I would count these birds beginning in March as they perched upon the guard rail on Poe on the outskirts of Bowling Green.

The more birds meant the closer we were to warm spring weather. The common denominator was the guard rail that protected drivers and their vehicles from a ditch that contained water with tall grass and shrubs. I never knew these birds would dare to attack people, yet they do.

Unlike our common spring bird, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), where both male and female are hard to tell apart, Red-winged blackbird males and females are different in size and coloration. The male is black overall with red “shoulders” edged with white, pink or yellow feathers. Males are also slightly larger than females. The female is brownish overall and lacks any red color.

During the breeding season, the preferred habitat is marsh type areas. In urban areas, Red-winged blackbirds are found in cattails, wet shrubby growth, tall reeds and grass near water. These areas may also be near golf courses that contain the dreaded water hazards that collect golf balls, mainly mine. In addition, they often have tall reeds or cattails.

Nest building in these areas begins between March and May. Plant materials, such as cattail stalks, are woven together to form a basket above water level, and soft materials are used to line the nest. Three to five pale greenish-blue, black or purple streaked eggs are laid per clutch. Females will sit on the nest and keep the eggs warm until they hatch, while the male guards the nest.

Guarding the nest is an understatement.

Not only do they defend the nest, they defend their territory. That territory covers approximately 22,000 square feet. This is almost a half-acre in size. Any perceived threat to their territory is open to dive bombing behavior by the males including humans. Even after the eggs have hatched and the young have left the nest males will continue to defend their territory. This behavior will continue until they fly south when fall weather arrives.

No one enjoys being attacked by dive-bombing Red-winged blackbirds; however, control of these birds is not that easy.

Because these birds are migratory, they are protected under the United States Migratory Bird Act. This means it is illegal to kill these birds using any method that would result in death of these birds. The ideal control method is by removing their habitat. This includes the elimination of cattails, wet shrubby growth, additionally tall reeds and grasses near water sources.

This may not be a practical solution, especially on golf courses with their dreaded water hazards. Pond owners may want the cattails for their visual appearance; therefore, the best control is by scare tactics. Scare tactics include mylar balloons with eyes that resemble predators such as coyotes and foxes and high-quality recordings that can be purchased with bird distress calls.

Another control method is by using pyrotechnics that are specially designed explosives that may be fired from shotguns or adapted firearms (e.g., starter pistols) that shoot only pyrotechnics. Common pyrotechnics include shell crackers, screamers, bird bangers and bird bombs. The use of pyrotechnics may not be allowable in urban environments. Before using any pyrotechnics check with your local zoning code and municipal ordinances.

Regardless of scare tactics, they need to be switched from one to another. Switching scare tactics keep the birds from getting used to the scare and ignoring attempts to convince the birds to relocate to another area. Just like real estate, it is all about location, location and location.

Red-winged blackbirds are not trying to send us a message like Hitchcock’s movie. They are just defending their territory. We need to admire their behavior. This begs the next question: Don’t we as humans defend our territory?