News Nation Now reported via YouTube a story about birds invading homes in southern California in April by flying down chimneys. One pair of homeowners estimated the flock at 800 birds – which they called starlings and blackbirds. Public comments on the video referred to Eurasian Starlings as invasive pests, as indeed they are, but someone else said they are not starlings, “they are Chimney(!) Swifts”, the exclamation point apparently emphasizing the fact the birds went down a chimney so they must be Chimney Swifts. Wrong again. Chimney Swifts are only found in the eastern half of the U.S. These invaders were Vaux’s Swift, (Chaetura vauxi) small swifts native to North America, Central America, and northern South America, named for the American scientist William Sansom Vaux.
The owners of one home panicked and called 911 and the sheriff’s department. Eventually the fire department and animal control came out and got most of the birds out safely by constructing a chute from the fireplace to the back door.
One news report called the video “terrifying.” Terrifying? Maybe these people watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” too often. Sure, the birds pooped everywhere and generally made a mess, but they are not dangerous and they were the ones who were terrified.
In my years as an ornithologist and a minor personality in the local area, I regularly get calls or emails from concerned citizens, law enforcement, or animal control, mostly because a bird is injured. One evening, while watching a movie in my pajamas I got a call from someone who had a bird fall down her chimney. I asked how big it was and she said robin-sized. If it was football-sized and managed to get down the chimney, then maybe the wariness could have been justified – big talons on a hawk or owl, maybe. But robin-sized? I said take it out and let it go. Nope, the people in the house were “terrified.” So I put on my clothes, drove over there on a drizzly Sunday night, entered a house with a half dozen people armed with brooms, rolled newspapers, and flyswatters all gathered around the fireplace. I kneeled down, reached in (to the gasps of the crowd) and pulled out a frightened Northern Flicker who made the unfortunate choice of a chimney for shelter on a rainy night.
People are often frightened by a dead bird as well; for some reason a bird corpse is more alarming than a dead squirrel. Probably has something to do with the thought of the West Nile Virus (transmitted by mosquitos) or the avian flu (not normally transmitted to humans except poultry workers) or some other disease.
I have never met anyone with ornithophobia, an irrational fear of birds, but when I hear stories about birds frightening people I wonder why. And then there is pteronophobia, the irrational fear of being tickled by feathers. Someone with this condition experiences serious anxiety from merely thinking of being tickled by feathers.
Luckily, birds don’t know how to tickle. They are terrifying enough.