Avian terror plagues SF State students
May 15, 2008 3:58 PM
In the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film, “The Birds,” protagonist Melanie Daniels found herself in the center of hell at The Tides Restaurant in Bodega Bay, Calif. Outside, there were man-eating seagulls and crows acute with anticipation. Inside there were suspicious townspeople, dangerously unaware of the winged assassins that watched from above.
“It’s the end of the world!” a barfly exclaimed.
The restaurant’s bird expert, Mrs. Bundy, calmly disagreed.
“Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss,” Bundy said. “They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”
Forty-five years later and 63 miles south of Bodega Bay, the freshmen at SF State do not share Mrs. Bundy’s opinion. It is the birds, they say, who insist on making it difficult for students to inhabit the dorms.
On any given day during the spring, a walk around the heavy foliage at Mary Ward and Mary Park Halls could result in an unpleasant encounter with a Brewer’s Blackbird. Although the bird is only 8 to 10 inches long, its heightened level of aggression during nesting season has proven that size doesn’t matter.
“It was really weird,” said Jason Roberts, 21, a political science major. He reflected on bird attacks from the past. “You would feel this fluttering behind your ear and turn around and there’d be this bird beating your head.”
Roberts, now a junior, revisited the outdoors common area of his freshman dorm at Mary Park Hall. He walked under the shadow of an adjacent tree toward State Drive and felt a little piece of nostalgia swoop past him—a narrow miss by an angry assailant.
“It’s more of an annoyance than a terror,” Roberts said. “Like someone hiding behind a door and jumping out at you.”
A poll of students around the residence halls found that four out of 20 had been harassed by a bird on campus.
“I think they attack people quite often,” said Ravinder Sehgal, 41, an assistant professor in biology at SF State who has taught ornithology, the study of birds. “But they don’t go for the eyes. They go for your head and hair to try and scare you off. As soon as summer is over and the birds have fledged and left the nest, they won’t do that. Right now eggs are hatching so they’re trying to protect them.”
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Brewer’s Blackbird “nests in compact colonies, numbering from a few pairs to more than one hundred. In the colony, a female—sometimes aided by a male—defends a small area directly around her nest site.” The male is black and glossy with pale yellow or white eyes, while the female is dark brown, not as glossy, and with black eyes.
“They are a West Coast bird, locally from here, and the ones in the Bay Area live here year-round,” Sehgal said. “There’s probably a colony next to the dormitories. The birds lay their eggs in very local areas, in an urban environment. They live here and feed on the scraps of food all over campus.”
When Sehgal said “food,” he meant berries, seeds, French fries—not human heads. Their aggressive nature is meant to scare, not to kill.
“It’s exhausting, but that’s their natural instinct of keeping predators away,” he said. “But they choose to lay their eggs there and know that people are around. They’re more afraid of bigger birds, rats, mice and especially cats.”
Ironically, the Brewer’s Blackbird is more aggressive in nature than the species of birds used in Hitchcock’s film.
“Seagulls are not particularly aggressive, nor are crows,” Sehgal said. “Hitchcock was a watchful filmmaker; he could’ve chosen a bunny and it would have been scary.”
In order to create a sense of real fear within his audience, Hitchcock had to find the perfect balance between authentic and grotesque for his main characters, the birds. The 1960s special effects he used, now considered archaic, have not become obsolete to everyone. The Darkroom Theatre, a small-scale Mission space, recently hosted the theatrical version of “The Birds.” Director Michelle Talgarow, 38, and producer/actor Sean Owens, 39, were surprised to find that students at their alma mater, SF State, were living in the world they created for the stage.
“The birds are hazing the freshmen!” Owens said.
In comparison to the film, they used both an updated version of special effects—projection of digital images—and an intentionally downgraded version of props. The “bird-on-a-stick” prop was one of the comical devices used during the play.
In the theatrical version, Owens played Mrs. Bundy, the bird expert who doubted Melanie Daniels’ killer-birds proclamation. Bundy explained there were flaws in her statement because different species of birds would never flock together and attack.
“Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t have a chance,” Mrs. Bundy said. “How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
Jim Steele, director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus and lecturer for the biology department, said the concept is real.
“A number of birds do mobbing,” Steele said. “If there is a hawk that’s five times their size circling around their nest, a bunch of them will go out and start pecking it on the head. Sometimes the Brewer’s [Blackbirds] will join in with the Red-winged Blackbirds and go after hawks.”
While blackbirds don’t make a sound when they attack, they’ll chatter to get other birds to join in. The sound is described as “a harsh, gurgling ‘schl-r-r-up’” by the CLO.
“When a bird is in trouble and makes noise, other birds get excited and come closer to watch,” Steele said.
“It’s like a middle school fight, they want to see who’s getting beat up, watch and then leave.”
As far as human-blackbird conflicts go on campus, Steele said all you have to do is turn to look at the bird and it will cease its charge.
“Give it the stink eye,” he said. “We should give [freshmen] a picture of ‘the stink eye’ as part of their welcome kit. They can keep it on hand when walking outside the dorms.”
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