Chicago Under Attack — by Blackbirds

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David McNew / Getty

A red-winged blackbird perches in a tree.

In recent days, Chicago has endured baby tsunamis and threats of tornadoes. Just last week, the authorities pulled a prickly five-foot-long alligator from the Chicago River. In April, police fatally shot a 150-lb. cougar in an alley of a leafy neighborhood in this city's heart. America's third-largest city is becoming some kind of remote Amazonian outpost. Now come The Birds.

It's hard to know precisely when the red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, is about to attack. The birds tend to swoop in, hitting victims from behind. Sometimes, the birds take turns attacking victims. It's unclear, however, if the red wing attacks from its beak, which is usually sharp and cone-like, or with its feet. Given the bird's size, the danger is more likely to come not from the attack itself, but from the reaction to it. For instance, a newly attacked bicyclist veers into the path of an oncoming bicycle. Or car. Or an attack so deeply traumatizes a child that she doesn't want to be near birds again. Nevertheless, "it's startling," says David Willard, manager of the bird collection at the Field Museum, who has himself been attacked by a red wing. In previous years, Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo has hoisted signs near ponds warning its patrons: "Red Wing Black Birds in the Area. Walk Around."

But this year, the red-winged blackbird hysteria seems louder than ever. Joggers along Lake Michigan have gotten plucked. Workers on the edge of the city's downtown business district have lunched on street corners instead of park benches to avoid becoming part of a reenactment of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic The Birds. Experts say it appears urban red wings are more aggressive than their rural counterparts, partly because the city birds are particularly sensitive to (or fed up with) excessive human encroachment on their turf.

This is about the time the birds are nesting after returning to the Upper Midwest from their southern winter retreats. The red-winged variety is particularly attracted to marshy terrain and large bodies of water, like Lake Michigan (the shores of which are lined with jogging and cycling paths). Male red wings are usually 10 inches long, and weigh just 2 ounces. They quickly establish their territory — sometime among the trees surrounding urban ponds, or in suburban neighborhoods. They're followed by a throng of a comparatively secretive female lovers (yes, male red wings are polygamous). Females tend to carry a brown, streaky coat. Males are usually black, with a red patch on their wings. By mid-June, nests have been settled. "That's when we get the attack males," explains Willard of the Field Museum. Once the roughly 10-day incubation period begins, male red wings begin hovering around the nests. Only after their young leave the nests does the aggressiveness calm down.

Humans can only grit their teeth and flee. Do not attack a red wing. They're protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Intentionally harming a red wing exposes one to a $250,000 fine and two years' imprisonment on a felony conviction. Even the city's Animal and Care Control Agency can't move a red wing nest without a permit. Nevertheless, local and federal officials have advised citizens confronted head-on by a red wing to simply stare back into its eyes. Better yet, they advise, avoid known red wing territories altogether. But in a city that cherishes every rare minute of sunshine, it's unlikely many will stay away from Lake Michigan's jogging paths. In the meantime, they'll simply have to duck from The Birds.