AVONDALE — One morning last week, Adam Weisell was out walking his two dogs near where he lives along the Chicago River when something hit him in the head.
“I was super freaked out at first because I thought it was a giant bug, like a water bug or cicada,” Weisell said.
Weisell immediately spotted the culprit: A blackbird with red shoulder patches.
“He was still flying around,” Weisell said. “I had never heard of that. I thought, ‘That was weird.'”
Weisell turned around and started to walk away, but, just as he was beginning to process what had happened, the bird struck again.
Then, a day or two later, Weisell’s wife, Erika Tuttle, was attacked in the same spot, near Roscoe Street and California Avenue.
“I was running and it landed on my head — like Alfred Hitchcok’s ‘The Birds,’ ” Tuttle said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.'”
“There was a woman running towards me and I was like, ‘Did you see that?'” And while I said that, it hit me again. She’s like, ‘I”m scared!'”
Weisell and Tuttle are among many Avondale residents who have been attacked by the aggressive bird over the last few weeks. Some have taken to Facebook to express their frustration and confusion.
Red-winged blackbirds are known to swoop down on people and attack during nesting season, which runs roughly from late May through mid-July. They do it in an effort to protect their nests, according to experts.
“They don’t get aggressive until they are well into the breeding season and have a nest to protect,” Josh Engel, ornithologist for the Field Museum, told DNAinfo in 2017.
“They are highly territorial, aggressive to almost anything that comes too close, especially things that are bigger than they are and that they see as a threat, including hawks, crows, cats and people.”
Beth Kosson, environmental science consultant and DePaul University graduate, dubbed red-winged blackbirds “nature’s a–holes.” But Shannon Hackett, associate curator of birds at the Field Museum, said we shouldn’t take the attacks personally.
“They’re not trying to hurt you. Their goal is get you away from their reproductive output,” Hackett said. “If it was your baby and these big strangers — not anybody you know, this strange species — came around, you’d be defending your offspring. This is biological fitness.”
The birds like marshes, fields and bushes, according to experts. In Chicago, that means they’re most likely to be found in city parks, large vacant lots and along the lake and river. They’ve been known to attack in Lincoln Park and Grant Park, among other places.
It’s unclear if complaints are up this year. A spokeswoman for the city’s department of animal care and control didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Hackett encourages residents to post sightings on eBird.org, a citizen science project with more than 100 million bird sightings reported, and to familiarize themselves with the bird’s distinctive song.
But, as Hackett noted, neither tactic is that effective.
“They’ve probably already dive-bombed you by the time you realize it’s their song,” she said with a laugh.
Ultimately the best way to protect yourself against red-winged blackbirds during nesting season is to “stay clear of the nest until the young fledges,” Mary Hennen, who works with birds at the Field Museum, said in an email.
“If possible, post the trail with caution signs so people have a heads up. If you must pass by, do so quickly and do not linger in the area,” Hennen said.
Hennen’s last piece of advice? “Wear a hat.”
Oh, and don’t fight back. The birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, meaning you could face fines or jail time for harming them.
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