Thursday, July 09, 2020

Tips On Dealing With The Mighty Red Winged Blackbird

Red arrows pointing to the feathered bastards of Doom
If you've ever ridden the gravel roads in the Upper Mid West, well you know all about the little Red Winged Blackbird. They have an aggressive streak a country mile long, and are stubborn as an old mule. Often while the females are sitting on the nest or tending to little ones, the males are up on fence posts or high wires waiting to harass any would-be predators.

"Would-be predators" includes folks riding bicycles, by the way. I can not say that Red Winged Blackbirds have very good powers of discernment, they just seem ticked off 24-7. So, whether or not you mean their nestlings any harm, they are comin' after ya, and they won't quit until they feel you've 'moved on' enough that the next Red Winged Blackbird takes over, and the chain can go on for miles, actually.

Now, I will say that many times you won't even notice them, but don't be fooled! They are watching you, and you are a target. Much of the time it is about wind speed and direction, since conditions have to be just right for their attacks to be successful. However; during the dog-days of mid to late Summer, these conditions are common, and depending upon where you live, you are going to get harassed by these devils in feathered suits. Make no mistake. I believe these so-called birds are really cowardly demons of the dusty paths. Well.........not really, but ask me when I'm hot and bothered while being attacked by one of these birds and I might just have that opinion at the time!

So, after dealing with a particularly aggressive population of these rascals last Saturday, I thought about what I do to thwart them and strategies I might be able to pass along to you if these birds seem to be a bother.

Red Winged Blackbird. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
First off, it is best to get to know your enemy, or harasser, as the case may be. The Red Winged Blackbird has possibly the largest population and most widely spread population of any bird in North America. They typically gravitate toward marshy wetlands, but have adapted to breeding along ditches and in areas of high grasses and prairies. So, these things are pretty much everywhere. 

Next, you can learn about the Red Winged Blackbird's breeding habits and how the males are VERY protective and territorial. They have been observed harassing hawks and eagles, fearlessly dive-bombing any would-be predator for long distances until the threat has been chased away. So, you are dealing with one ornery, stubborn bird of great perseverance.

The length of the breeding season, May to August, pretty much guarantees you'll have some encounters with this bird at some point. So, what do you do? I've listed, in no particular order, some things I do when I encounter these threats to my peace of mind.

But first- There is one key thing I have learned about these birds. I always thought they were fearless, aggressive, and a bird that would take on any challenger. That's not at all true. These birds are cowards of the highest order. In fact, they only attack you from behind and will cower and fly away if you make eye contact with them. So, with that in mind.....

  • If at all possible, make eye contact with the bird. This is difficult, yes. They like to hover above and behind your head. I have found that even just turning your head around as far as you can, without crashing, of course, will send the blighters packing. But if you can look your attacker in the eye, they will not dive bomb you. They will immediately pull up and often will turn tail and fly away. 
  • Use their shadows to assess when they are close. I have used this technique to ascertain when to do some of the following things..... 
  • - First: To wave my hand about my head. When I feel one of these birds is close, a waving motion of the hand about my head will send them off. 
  • - Second: A water bottle squirt. Assuming I have copious amounts of water, or access to more, I will use the shadow on the road to assess when to assault the flying devils with a blast of water. This seems pretty effective. 
  • -Third: The Dogfight Move: This is my favorite if I am alone. I simply swerve when they dive. It's fun when you get the timing down right. 
  • Now on to a couple more strategies. First is speed. I have found that Red Winged Blackbirds usually won't bother with you at speeds over 16-17mph and at 20mph you'll never notice them. It takes far too much effort and time for them to draw a bead on a fast moving target. 
  • Finally- You may have to stop and stand your ground. Red Winged Blackbirds can sometimes mob a would-be predator. This means several males attacking at once. I had this happen Saturday. When this occurs, the best thing you can do is stop, get off your bike, get loud and wave your arms around. This scares the birds and typically they will fly off after a few moments and you'll be able to continue. 
To close, remember that these birds can be beneficial to farmers at times since they eat a lot of pests that harm crops. (Although sometimes they eat the crops too, so....) They are pretty harmless little birds, just bothersome at times. And remember- If the winds are contrary they cannot get at you anyway. Only during a tailwind section, or on days with little to no wind will they be a big time bother.

Thinking about how these birds don't like seeing your eyes, I wonder what would happen if I painted some big ol' eyeballs on the backside of my helmet? Hmm....... Anyway- I hope this helps. What do you do when these pesky birds get frisky with you?


Phillip Cowan said...

Redwings and nesting Canada geese. They're the bullies of the bikepath!

graveldoc said...

This makes me think of the Alfred Hitchcock movie "the Birds". Also, this maybe could be inspiration for a new jersey design with big yellow eyes on the back.

Guitar Ted said...

@Phillip Cowan - Oh, yeah.....the geese. I'd forgotten about them. We had a couple people attacked this year by nesting Canadian Geese. Nasty business! But my main gripe with those geese is how they insist on pooping on the bike paths.

@graveldoc - I suppose that is similar to Hitchcock and maybe where he got the idea? (Not that I really want to know)

A jersey with big eyes on the back could maybe also double as a way to give nasty drivers pause before they try anything untoward on cyclist they are overtaking. Ha!

KC said...

Ha! Thanks for this. I had one relentlessly attacking my head for a half mile last week. It was pretty funny to watch his shadow diving at my head.
In hindsight the attack probably came because of the hat I was wearing... the cap Specialized made for the Tour Down Under this year. Makes your head look like a giant budgie and must be convincing enough to trick the birds.

Exhausted_Auk said...

Used to see quite a few cycling folk with multiple spiky zip ties protruding from the top of their helmets.

baric said...

I always wondered why the Redwings flew away toward the river when you pass. Must have been looking them in the eye. And as we know, some geese and roosters make great farmyard watchdogs. I once encountered a 4 or 5" newborn baby rattlesnake on the bike trail about a mile north of Custer SD. An aggressive little turd, did'nt even have it's first rattle yet, but since they can basically strike only half the length of their body, no worries. Kinda cute though. Just don't mess with them. A couple of weeks ago on a local trail I encountered a fair size Bull snake sunning itself. Since some people like to kill every snake they see, I turned around and woke it from it's nap with the front tire of my bike. It immediately went into it's best rattlesnake impression. They can do rattlesnake better than rattlesnakes do and more aggressively to boot. Very amusing. One more nudge and off it went like a rocket. People, don't kill Bull snakes or garter snakes. Sure they creep us out but they are very beneficial.

Tomcat said...

Great tips, GT! The eye contact tip is something I just figured out just within the past week or so.

If I know the area where I'm riding, i can usually map out the area where the birds appear to be most aggressive, and usually, I can pin the aggressiveness down to a single bird. If that's the case, I found that just walking my bike and making eye contact with the instigator seems to be the best strategy for me (last year I got some road rash from trying to evade one of these birds after not paying attention where I was headed...). I haven't encountered any mile-long stretches where multiple birds attempt to dive-bomb me, but if that's the case, I'd probably just put my head down and mash!

john said...

Another characteristic - they'll never attach two or more riders in a group - cowards...

Jason said...

Over here in NoDak I’ve had some other type of bird attacking me. Bigger than the red wing blackbird. Sounds like a more vicious barn swallow and bigger! Sometimes they will call in the troops too! Grey/white color, some black.