The day a red-winged blackbird hit me in the head seventeen times

My first job out of school was working as a production assistant for a weekly community newspaper in a little town in the heart of Mennonite Country north of Waterloo, Ontario. One slow news day we received a call about a neighbourhood being terrorized by a dive-bombing red-winged blackbird. One of the things I love about community papers is that stuff like this gets coverage right along side politics and sports. It’s the sort of thing people talk about around the breakfast table for no other reason than because it interests them. It’s even better when it happens in your neighbourhood to people you know.

One of our reporters wanted to do the story, but we needed art. Without a photo, the story wasn’t worth a single column on page eight or nine. The challenge was that we needed a shot of it actually hitting someone: If we just drove out to the area and took a shot of the bird in the tree, it would be indistinguishable from a stock photo. We decided someone would have to walk back and forth until we could document an attack. It was a beautiful day outside, and I was literally working in a windowless closet. I volunteered to be the pedestrian for the photo shoot, and we piled into the reporter’s car and drove out to a row of houses backing onto a creek.

North America is not particularly blessed with colourful birds, and the red-winged blackbird isn’t a great exception to that state of affairs. The females are what bird watchers dub LBJs (Little Brown Jobs), and the males are jet black except for a small patch of red, tapering into yellow on the shoulder. In most of the Ojibwa language dialects the bird is called memiskondinimaanganeshiinh, literally meaning “a bird with a very red damn-little shoulder-blade.” They tend to nest in marshy areas, and they are known for defending their territory from much larger birds like crows, ravens, magpies, birds of prey and herons. Wikipedia maintains that there are only on a few recorded cases of attacks upon humans, but that was not to be my experience. Not by a long shot.

We started off by picking our ground, a break between two houses leading down to the creek. We walked up and down several times, and we could hear what sounded like distress calls, but nothing swooped down on us. We spent maybe ten minutes looking up into the trees along the river banks, and out into the rushes, but nothing seemed to be doing anything about our invasion of the marshlands. We were at a loss, and we turned to return to the car.

Shush. Thwap! Flutter, flutter, flutter. Something smacked me in the back of the head with a great deal of violence and movement, but by the time I turned around it was gone.

The bird had been watching us the whole time, but it wasn’t prepared to hit us from the front. It was waiting for me to turn my back, and then it encouraged me to continue my retreat by dive-bombing me in the back of the skull.

It was a shock, I can tell you, but we were also quite pleased. The bird could be provoked, and that meant we’d get the picture. The reporter ran out about twenty yards and crouched down against a fence, then he bade me walk down to the water, turn, and return to the road, over and over again.

You know that glaucoma test they make you take when you visit the optometrist? The one where you put your head in front of an air jet, and you’re just waiting for the machine to spit dry air into your open eye? Waiting for the bird was like that. You never saw it coming. You heard nothing until the last moment, and then there was a shushing sound as it spread its wings around your head like a halo to arrest its descent, and a meaty thwack as it kicked its hind legs into your hair. Sometimes it screeched to reinforce it’s point, then it beat its wings once or twice to fall backwards, and it was gone before you could turn around.

The reporter I was with loved it. He took shots from in front of me, behind me, and to the side. He took shots of the bird stooping and retreating. He fiddled with aperture and shutter speed. When he was sure he had all he needed, he suggested I take a few of him. The bird hit him just once on his close-cropped head before he said, “That really hurts! How many times did I make you do that?”

“Seventeen,” I said. There was no way I’d lose count.

“You’re a trooper!” was his enthusiastic response.

We returned to the office, where the whole staff had a good laugh at the slide show of the bird hitting me over and over and over again. I’m afraid I don’t have all the photos today, but I do have enough to remember it by, should my rattled brain ever need reminding.

Thanks to a slow news day, I made the front page, and –in the spirit of small community papers everywhere– when you turned from the cover to follow the story inside we had a close up of the bird opening it’s beak, shrieking at us, with the caption ‘LITTLE PECKER.’ The paper was owned by two brothers only ten years older than I am. They agreed the amount of trouble they’d get in from concerned readers was worth it to put that in the permanent records of their town.

For months after my cover story, I would be stopped on the street or in the gas station by people who had seen my repeated close encounter with the bird. I became something of a minor local celebrity, although no one knew my name (I don’t believe it appeared in the story). A more permanent distinction of my participation in this story is that I see red-winged blackbirds everywhere now. If there’s a black bird within my field of view, I check it for red shoulders.

Every time.

Without fail.

I’ve seen probably a hundred of them in the last couple of years, although I’ve never been dive-bombed since. If I see one in a marshy area, I back slowly away without turning my back. Seventeen times bitten, eighteen times shy. That’s my motto.

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