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When Red-Winged Blackbirds Attack: What To Do

By Ted Cox | June 26, 2017 5:26am | Updated on July 7, 2017 10:40am
 Red-winged blackbirds can be aggressive in defending their nests this time of year.
Red-winged blackbirds can be aggressive in defending their nests this time of year.
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LINCOLN PARK — It might not seem like Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "The Birds" just yet, but aggressive red-winged blackbirds have generated a lot of conversation this week, and not just on social media.

"We've been getting  a lot of questions regarding the birds," Lincoln Park Zoo spokeswoman Jillian Braun said.

So Mason Fidino of the zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute has come up with answers to a few frequently asked questions on red-winged blackbirds, who are busy attacking joggers and other passersby this time of year while getting defensive about protecting their nests and their young.

Q: How should someone defend himself if a bird swoops down and attacks?

 Not all areas with nesting red-winged blackbirds come with warning signs.
Not all areas with nesting red-winged blackbirds come with warning signs.
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A: A hat will generally suffice! While it will not reduce the surprise of a bird swooping for your head, it certainly softens the blow enough such that you hardly feel it.

Q: How can I avoid an attack?

A: How can you avoid a red-winged blackbird defending its territory? By reducing the amount of time spent where a red-winged blackbird is nesting. If you know where they are nesting it is best to just give them some space. For example, if you set up a picnic near some red-winged blackbirds, it would be a good and respectful idea to give them the space they need. If there is a spot where you find a blackbird defending its territory on your usual jogging route, switch things up a little bit. Not often do we get the chance to be so engaged with nature in the city. This is a great opportunity to practice some environmental stewardship.

Q: We understand the birds are protecting their nests. When does "nesting" season end? When does it begin?

A: Red-winged blackbirds are a unique species with an interesting breeding strategy. Although they are one of the first migratory species to arrive in Chicago in the early spring, they do not lay eggs until mid-June. So, what do they do with all the time in between? The males, who arrive well before the females, aggressively carve out breeding territories. Those with larger and better quality breeding territories will attract more females and multiple nests to their little swatch of land (they are polygamous breeders). So, once eggs are laid in mid-June, it takes about 10-12 days for eggs to hatch and another 11–14 days for the chicks to develop wing feathers large enough to fly and leave the nest. These birds will continue to protect their territory until the chicks leave, so expect this behavior through the first couple weeks of July."

Q: In what type of areas do they nest? Near water? Near timber? Is there something to look out for in advance?

A: "They tend to nest near water. They will build nests in marshy vegetation, shrubs and trees. While these birds clearly make their presence known, the location of their nests is actually quite secretive. In all honesty, the best thing to look out for is the birds."

In addition, it might not be an expert opinion, but Matthew Schomburg offered this anecdotal advice on Neighborhood Square: "I have found they only attack from behind you. If you face them at all times, even walking backward away from them, they will not attack. If they know you can see them they will not dive and attack."

Of course, be sure to look out behind before you try that out. Or else red-winged blackbirds could be the least of your worries.