It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Humans vs. Birds - I like our odds

I was leaving my day job (hint - it's not this one - I get paid for my day job) one afternoon a few days ago when the most extraordinary thing happened to me.

I was attacked by a bird.

Well, sort of...

The first "attack" came as I was walking on the sidewalk next to the building I work in. I was carrying my guitar case, my empty lunch satchel, and a notebook towards the car park when something swooped at me. Confronted with this surprise assualt, I dropped what I was carrying and immediately leapt three feet into the air, lashing out with a spinning roundhouse kick that would have made Chuck Norris lowly whistle in awe.

That's rubbish, of course. In reality I ducked instinctively and flailed my arms above my head, or at least I would have had they not been burden with a heavy guitar case, a sagging cloth cooler and a large unwieldy notebook, all of which suddenly proved useless for self-defence.

I gathered my wits, which as readers of this blog will know is an easy job, there being so few of them, and looked around to see what had targeted me. The thing came back at me again, almost low enough to grab, had I not been spinning around like a dowager with a hamstring cramp.

Whatever it was, it suddenly flew up to the second story roof of the building, and at last I was able to get a clear view of my tormentor. Seated on the roof, directly above my head, he or she sat. It appeared to be a tiny bird.

I say "appeared" because a moment before all I was cognizant of was something raptor-sized swooping about my head like winged death. I found it hard to believe that the cause of my suddenly doubled heart rate was in fact a young bird approximately the 2/3rds size of my fist.

This cheeky, winged git confidently sat between two other similarly tiny fledglings. If birds could snicker, these three seemed to be at it and in spades. They were like a little gang whose leader had just winged by my head as if to say, "this is our turf, monkey boy."1

Suddenly, an adult bird, some sort of swift from what I could tell, flew up right in front of these feathered, chirpling beak-faced little bastards and seemed to chastise the ringleader. This sat none too well with this tiny thug and he responded... by diving directly at me.

It's one thing to be suddenly buzzed by a bird when you're not expecting it, but it's a completely different experience to have a bird sitting directly above you suddenly dive right at your face. For a split second the bird and I were looking directly into each other's eyes, he zeroed in on me and diving with menace and I frozen in surprise that a four ounce bird would have the nerve to take on a 205 pound man in a vertical game of chicken.

Guess who flinched first?

In my defence however, I recovered quickly as the bird swerved off, presumably to set up another run at me. I quickly sat my guitar and notebook down and then began to swing my lunch satchel around from the handle like nunchakus.

The sight of a grown human being erractically swinging around an empty cloth lunch bag was too much for my winged nemisis who had returned to his rooftop perch and was eyeing me with what must have been the avian variety of bemusment. Either that or he was contemplating pooping on me. Fortunately for him, and my lunch satchel, he remained there for the duration of our encounter.

This whole episode brings up a very interesting issue. Just what is it about birds that can, in literally seconds strip modern man of his cool rationality and sheer physical advantages, leaving him (me in this case) a cloth-swinging, hand-flailing Neanderthal?

When you think about it, human beings have massive advantages over birds. Oh, yes certain birds of prey are pretty intimidating. No doubt, a hawk or eagle or vulture could rend flesh with ease. I wouldn't fancy my chances in an enclosed space with an ostrich or an enraged cassowary. However, people seem to respond to any aggressive bird that invades their personal space, no matter how tiny, as though it were Rodan.

There seems to be something primal and, well, quite stupid when it comes to people and birds. If bird flies at a person, unless that individual human is a highly trained martial-artist, hyped up on caffiene, their natural response is to wave their arms about their heads as though warding off a swarm of bees. On occasion, some sort of scream would be in order as well.

This gives the average bird a huge and, in my opinion undeserved, advantage. I saw a video on one of those "home-video" programmes recently2, where a large, relatively fit man is chased off by an irritable goose. This burly fellow was reduced to a panicky, uncoordinated sap. In a rational confrontation, were the man so inclined, that bird would be foie gras.

Consider the average bird, say a robin or a finch. These are little, hollow-boned bundles of feathers, as fragile as if they were made out of super-thin cocktail sticks and Elmer's gum (or glue, if you must). Even a hardy Blue Jay or Cardinal on steroids would be flattened by the fist of a ten year old human being. I recall seeing video of a baseball game in which a batted ball struck a bird unlucky enough to have zoomed in for a closer look at the action3. He got a closer view than he counted on - the ball killed him outright. A human fist is about the size of a baseball or cricket ball and swung in a robust fashion could, if not strike with the deadly force of a baseball, easily inflict grievious damage to a small, agitated Blue Jay.

Human beings have the advantage. The average songbird is quite overrated in the area of personal assault.

I remember watching Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and being particularly menaced by that creepy scene in which Tippi Hedren sits outside a school, waiting for the younger sister of her potential boyfriend (it's a fairly complex relationship). As Tippi sits, he back is to a playground, one equipped with the usual sort of entertainments - swings, slides, sandbox, climbing frame or jungle gym, etc. A large blackbird flies up and lands on the jungle gym. Soon, as Tippi sits, smoking Virginia Slims, another large blackbird flies up and lands on the gym. Two more fly up and land. Finally, Tippi looks up from taking a long drag and notices a blackbird in the air. Her eyes follow it as it circles around in the sky finally landing on a jungle gym teeming with blackbirds.

I've come to believe that the rest of the scene could only happen in California, where the film is set. Tippi walks into the school, carefully, so as not to disturb the birds; she warns the teacher, and they all make a break for it, leading to a spectacular bird attack.

The fact is though that were The Birds set in, oh, let's say Texas, the film would have been quite different. In Texas, Tippi Hedren would have got up, carefully, so as not to disturb the birds, and then she would have walked over to her pickup truck, pulled out the double-barreled shotgun inside and gave the assorted hosts of avian terrorists the first of the two barrels.

Let's be completely honest here. No matter how daft the average bird is, seeing about a dozen of your flapping mates go down in a hail of buckshot will cause you to quickly change your priorities.

"The hell with this, she's on to us!"

The remaining barrel would be a great incentive as well for changing your strategy from "peck teacher and children to death" to "scamper off and settle for coad roadkill." Another great advantage would be the fact that to the average bird there would be an unlimited number of barrels potentially left, owing to the fact that birds are extremely dim and unable to tell the difference between a double-barreled shotgun and an uzi.

Even were Tippi completely unarmed, a careful analysis of the size and relative strengths of the two opposing forces would lead calmer heads to marshal the children together to kick some bird arse. Consider the scenario: Approximately 40-50 birds, scavengers at best, against about 20 older schoolchildren, all of whom are hyped up on highly sweetened breakfast cereal and bored out of their minds by the average 1960's era school curriculum. Unshackled for just a moment from the genteel inhibitions of middle-class, small-town life, those birds wouldn't stand a chance.
In fact, when I next watch the film, I expect I'll be imploring those kids to turn on the birds in the midst of their fleeing and give them a right thrashing. They won't of course, as that's the way the script is written, but were they in Texas, it would happen and the feathers, as they say, would fly.

Mankind is bigger, stronger, and as even the most cursory judge of human history would quickly gather, far meaner than the vast majority of birds. The next time a bird ducks down at you in unthinking annoyance, let this fact guide your actions: If anyone should be flinching in uncontrollable primal fear, it should be the birds.

You might remind them of that too, whilst flailing your arms about and scampering like a chicken4.

1. With apologies to Men In Black, where I first heard the insult.
2. This one starred Bob Saget, whose primary job seemed to be to demonstrate that the amateur videos were much funnier than he was. He was quite good at it.
3. Presumably, it was ruled a "fowl ball."
4. Some actually reasonable advice on dealing with agressive birds can be found here. I know it's not common to find anything useful on this site, but F. Johnny Lee insisted.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home