Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Casey Newton Column

At Northwestern, birds of a feather attack together. I learned that lesson the hard way this week, when one of the winged beasts attacked me under the apparent impression that I had come to make omelettes out of his children.

I was walking along the path near NU’s private beach when suddenly I felt a pair of claws digging into my skull. When I spun around to meet my tormentor, I discovered nine inches of pure terror: a fearsome red-winged blackbird.

These birds, apparently, have recently taken up the time-honored tradition of having sex on the Lakefill. But they’ve gone a step further, depositing their offspring in South Campus shrubbery and then attacking whenever an unsuspecting passerby gets too close.

And the birds don’t limit their attacks to joggers and bikers- they’ve also set their sights on university employees.

“I’d be happy to tell you about those sons of bitches,” groundskeeper Damon Threats tells me when I ask him about the blackbirds. “It’s crazy how aggressive those birds are.”

Threats tells me of days spent watching the birds attack anything that moves – “people, dogs, cars, it doesn’t matter” – and of the times they have assaulted him.

“It’s hard to work, ’cause now you’re paranoid,” he says.

And speaking of paranoia, consider this alarming fact from “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds.”

“The birds gather with other blackbirds in flocks sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands or millions,” it says, “and have come to be viewed as a health hazard.”

Administrators, for their part, are not particularly eager to discuss the possibility that four-and-twenty million blackbirds could descend upon campus and destroy everything we hold sacred. So when a high-ranking groundskeeping official didn’t return my phone calls, I had to wonder: Had the blackbirds gotten to him, too?

But Doris Johanson, who has manned the information hotline of the Chicago Audubon Society for 20 years, insists red-winged blackbirds – a.k.a. Agelaius Phoeniceus – are only hostile because “they’re not used to people.”

“Up until a few years ago, they only nested in wetlands, and they never really saw too many people,” she says. “As we moved west with our developments, we destroyed one wetland after another. We destroyed their habitat, so they are now coming into (Evanston) and nesting in heavy shrubbery.”

Johanson, herself the victim of multiple blackbird dive-bombings, says she often receives calls from fellow survivors.

“They say, ‘Come out and do something,'” she says. “I says ‘No.’ I says, ‘You’re near their nests.’ I says, ‘They must have eggs in the nest, and you are the enemy.’ If they want, (humans) could roll up their newspaper and just shake it at them.”

But groundskeeper Hopeton Daubon says he and Threats have developed another method of dealing with the blackbirds.

“We throw their nests away,” says Daubon, a junior at Evanston Township High School.

Threats laughs.

“Yeah, we’re like the red-winged blackbird SWAT team,” he says.

But bird bashers, beware. Johanson warned that attempting to destroy a blackbird nest could provoke a response worthy of a Hitchcock film.

“If you do that, watch out,” she says. “Then [the other blackbirds] will be all upset and they will come at you and more. They do fly at you, and they do scream. It’s something like you might see at the movies.”

“After a time,” she continued, “they will get used to people. But it will be over a time.”

And until then, I’ll be rolling up my newspaper, and just shaking it at them.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Casey Newton Column