For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fear of birds. I fear all kinds of birds. Dead birds are particularly heinous to me. I’m sure a childhood viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds contributed to this. I imagine their wings flapping on me, their nasty little beaks pecking my eyes out, their ugly, scaly feet touching me, and then they’d poop on me. As a single mother for twenty years, I dealt with the dead birds on my property in the most rational way I could: I screamed, ran away and got either my little boy or one of his friends in the neighborhood to remove it for me.
Fast forward my life, and you find me remarried and living right on the lip of Lake Erie. Remarried to a man who has (shudder!) bird feeders. I was now being subjected to more birds than any one ornithophobic woman should ever have to deal with. I remember my first year or two there was spent learning to live with the fact that everywhere I looked, there were amazingly skeevy winged creatures. From the tiny hummingbirds and wrens to the water fowl, such as egrets and blue herons, birds were everywhere. Seagulls by the bazillions, buzzards and even the grand bald eagle flew over my house on a daily basis. This doesn’t even touch the tip of the bird iceberg for this area. Every sub-species imaginable became a daily sighting. We lived right on a migratory path, and were always treated to the likes of butterflies, orioles and indigo buntings on their journeys both north and south. To my horror, I found myself living in what was basically an aviary.
My husband had both winter and summer bird feeders. The dining room table butted up to a wall of windows facing the back yard, and I took this over as my desk area. I was now relentlessly subjected to their creepy little bodies in my line of sight. However, I learned that as long as I was inside with a pane of glass to separate us, my fear diminished and I became fascinated by the flurry of activity these feeders generated. I began to recognize the newcomers and started identifying them. I actually became… a bird nerd. We added nine bird houses, because it terrified me when they nested under the loose panels on the roof of our milk house. When I walked through the yard, they’d dash out in fear of me, and I’d scream and dash back in from fear of them. At least with the houses, I now knew where to expect them. I actually got a frequent flyer card at Wild Birds Unlimited and started buying designer seed. We invested in a much larger winter feeder and added squirrel feeders. Corn and peanuts were added to my shopping lists, and the paranoid antics of a multitude of furry critters were added to our viewing enjoyment. I could sit and stare out my back windows all day. There was always some kind of action going on. I was still terrified, but I knew they’d vamoose when I stepped outside. Well, unless there was a nest and they wanted to kill me. It was kind of like riding a roller coaster: after the adrenaline rush, I got to laugh at my ridiculous self.
I swore they could smell my fear. Like cats who instinctively seek out the allergic person in a room, the birds found me. I had a pair of battling robins brush my belly with their wings (insert scream and damp drawers here). I’ve been swooped by a great blue heron (insert louder scream) and I’ve run like hell, with my little dog in my arms, from low-circling buzzards (insert continuous screaming). I’ve had seagulls land two feet away from me at the beach and I’ve even had a bat or two in my belfry. OK, maybe it was really my sun room and not my belfry. And I know it’s not a bird. But it has wings, and it’s creepy. Humor me.
What I hadn’t figured on was the enormous draw all this avian activity would be for the predatory birds every winter. So began my first encounters with hawks: my backyard became a happy hunting ground. They landed on my patio, benches and even the bird bath right outside my window. They’d munch on my sparrows, doves and blue jays, right in front of my eyes, causing me to run and scream and hide in closets. (DEAD BIRDS! DEAD BIRDS!) I had to toughen up and learn to fight back. I’d crack a window enough to get the barrel of my Super Soaker out and give those suckers a bath. I’ve bathed everything from a tiny kestrel to a turkey-sized red-tailed hawk. I stopped screaming when I saw them feasting and just slammed doors and yelled at them so they could take their meals elsewhere. I thought I was getting so cool!
That was, until the winter day that my neighbor called me and told me I had to get outside—there were two huge birds killing something in my back garden. As soon as I opened the door, I could hear the victim’s screams. I tiptoed through my yard to join Leslie, who was staring at the garden behind our shed with a horrified look on her face. I was terrified before I even caught sight of what she was viewing. I was already cowering behind her when I saw it too.
Twenty feet away from us, there were two enormous black birds tearing into… uh… something bloody. One appeared to be protecting the other by cowling its huge skeevy black wings.
“What the fuck are those?!” I managed to squeak while cowering. With her hand over her mouth, Leslie’s breath was coming in quick gasps. I thought I knew every bird in our area by now. If I didn’t know it, I’d look it up. These were decidedly creepy and were about two feet tall. I’d never seen anything like them. They looked other-worldly and prehistoric. I briefly wondered if I’d stumbled upon some baby pterodactyls. (I know, but just keep humoring me, OK?)
The one that was cowling looked over at Leslie and me, straightened up a little taller, raised its wings a bit and let loose with a series of blood-curdling squawks. There was no need to threaten us twice. We both turned tail and made hay for our own back doors.
My heart pounding in my chest and my bowels turned to liquid; I did the next sensible thing: I sent my husband a text, begging him to bring home a bottle of wine. Then I went right to Facebook to freak out for all of the world to see. I Googled ‘big black hawks’ and only came up with pictures of helicopters. A few of my Facebook friends started throwing out suggestions for what they might be, but no one came up with the answer. Finally, my husband called and suggested I Google ‘immature bald eagles,’ and there they were! I’d just witnessed two approximately three-year-old eagles eating what I assume was one of our plump, delicious, corn-and-peanut-fed squirrels… in my own back yard! You could now add amazement and delight to the already consuming horror and terror I was feeling. I looked them up on Wikipedia and learned all about the opportunistic feeding habits of these creepy and dastardly youngsters.
The next year, I was faced with a choice. Did I stop feeding all of those wonderful-to-watch creatures and let them starve to death? If I didn’t feed them, the hawks, and maybe eagles, too, could also die. Then I might have had more dead birds to contend with. I just wished they wouldn’t shed so much blood right by my windows.
But for right then, I was just afraid to let my tiny dog out alone. She would not be Purina Eagle Chow!