Friday, November 11, 2011

Fear of flying (things)

I have a confession to make: I am the survivor of a vicious bird attack. Statistics tell us that we are more likely to be victimized by someone we know than a random stranger, and thus it was in my case. The feathered hooligan that attacked me -- that, to be precise, flew across the room at me and tried to pierce my eyebrow with his infernally pointy beak -- was my mother's sun conure, Wiggy. Traumatic as this encounter was, it is very unlikely ever to occur in the wild. Despite the fact that birds have an awful lot to be cheesed off about, they almost never retaliate.

But having little to fear does not prevent phobias from developing, and a fear of birds, or ornithophobia, is relatively common. I have met several people with varying degrees of it: the coworker who was terrorized by a robin that accidentally flew into her house; another who was convinced that crows were going to attack her; the woman who explained that she wasn't afraid of birds, not really, but she really hates it when they "swoop at her." In his autobiography The Urban Birder, British birder David Lindo confesses that, despite his love of birding, when he has to get too close to a bird, such as when someone wants his help with one that is injured, he feels a bit apprehensive about it, for which he blames a childhood viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's classic suspense movie, The Birds.

I suspect that many a bird phobia can be traced back to seeing this movie during one's impressionable years. Surely everyone is familiar with the plot--birds of varying species attack Tippi Hedron and other people of Bodega Bay, CA, for no reason whatsoever. I saw it as a child myself, and thought it was quite scary; a second viewing as an adult led to a huge disappointment as I realized what a silly story it really is. Birds just don't do that! At most, one might be "pinged" by a red-winged blackbird defending its young, or harassed by a goose or swan for the same reason, but whole flocks of angry birds descending for no reason?

Birds just don't behave like that. Or do they? Just for fun, I googled "birds attacking people," and found a wealth of articles, anecdotes and You Tube videos (mostly the latter) demonstrating that birds will, indeed, "dive bomb" people, usually because they are protecting their nest or, in the case of birds such as gulls, trying to snatch food from unwary picnickers. Actually, according to articles like this one, bird "attacks" are even on the rise, often because, due to loss of natural habitat, birds and humans have to share the same space, and certain species, such as crows, jays, grackles and mockingbirds, are very protective of their young.

It's still not scary, though.... In fact, most of these sites are humorous, as this video of a belligerent grackle shows. The number of people who have actually been injured by a bird is very, very small. Not that actual risk has anything to do with phobias. The very definition of a phobia is that it is a "persistent, abnormal and irrational fear," so reason has nothing to do with it.

I imagine that just about everyone has at least a minor phobia of something. In my case, it's spiders. Of course, a fear of spiders is completely understandable! They're creepy, crawly, nasty creatures just waiting to bite people while they sleep...and they have eight legs, which is at least two more than anything ought to have, and some of them are poisonous, and some are huge, and don't try and tell me that they're more afraid of me than I am of them because that is just not true! In fact, I'm getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about them! I also really dislike heights, and looking in mirrors after sunset (don't ask), and I will no longer read any informational "health" features in magazines because they just feed my hypochondria, so if anyone should be sympathetic to a bird phobia, it's me.

Except that I am not. It doesn't matter how many irrational fears a person has; there is still nothing so risible as someone else's phobia. And thus I remind myself that birds, like all natural creatures, have an ancient symbiosis with humankind, and not always a pleasant one at that. Myth and folklore present many examples of avian-human encounters, not all of them good, although that is well beyond the scope of this post. (The chapter "Then the Birds Attacked: Avian defense and flying nightmares" in Graeme Gibson's The Bedside Book of Birds is a good start on the topic.)

Perhaps I will come back to this at a later date. In the meantime, do you have any irrational fears? I've shared all, now it's your turn!


  1. Was this post inspired by the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory ("The Ornithophobia Diffusion")? If not, that's just too much of a coincidence!

  2. Wow, I guess this is a coincidence. I really enjoy the Big Bang Theory, but I haven't seen that episode yet. Now I really want to, though!

  3. If you can get past the blatant bird misidentification in it, it's quite an amusing episode.