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Jim Causley Buick
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June 27, 2013
GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Something’s ruffling the feathers of red-winged blackbirds at Pier Park.

They’re dauntlessly dive-bombing people near the gazebo.

“They try to intimidate you,” said Dick Huhn, Grosse Pointe Farms park director.

Park employees posted “Beware angry bird” signs for visitors to keep watching the skies.

John Cottrell, a Farms resident, heeds the advice while attending sailboat races in Lake St. Clair off the pier. He knows the cost of crossing into the birds’ personal space.

“One knocked my hat off last year,” Cottrell said.

Bill Rapai, president of Grosse Pointe Audubon and a resident of the City of Grosse Pointe, has a solution.

“If you don’t want to be attacked, don’t go there,” he said.

The birds are simply being protective parents.

“They have a nest or possibly fledging young in the area and they think you’re going to eat them,” said Caleb Putnam, Audubon’s Michigan Important Bird Areas coordinator near Grand Rapids. “They’re just trying to harass you until you leave.”

Originally a marsh bird, red-winged blackbirds branched out into grasslands.

Decorative landscaping next to the gazebo is a man-made nesting ground.

“They typically nest one to five feet off the ground, depending on vegetation — a thicket, clump of cattails, brush or grass,” Putnam said.

The nest is woven grass and can be hard to see.

Red-winged blackbirds have certain dominion over man.

“Because it’s a native bird, it’s illegal to tamper with the nest or try to remove it,” Putnam said.

Legally, the better defense is discretion. Attacks can be turned back with an evil eye.

“They’re looking for your eyes,” Rapai said. “If they see your eyes, they won’t attack.”

“If you’re looking at them when they come down, they think you’re more likely to hurt them,” Putnam said.

Attacks at the park will abate.

“It seems they’re aggressive for three or four weeks,” Huhn said. “Once their young leave the nest and fly way, they leave you alone.”

“This is a common problem,” Putnam said. “I’ve been poked in the head at Cedar Point.”

Red-winged blackbirds are so flashy and fearless, Putnam calls them red-blinged whack birds.

“They’re very pugnacious,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a red-tailed hawk or a turkey vulture, a red-winged blackbird will attack.”

Ryan Blagdurn, an employee of Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in Grosse Pointe Woods, was up north last year when a red-winged blackbird chased him 200 feet.

“I didn’t realize I was near its nest,” Blagdurn said. “I’m sure it was funny for everyone to see a 6-foot guy running away from a little bird.”

Red-winged blackbirds fight in the flyweight division.

“I think they weigh 15 or 20 grams,” Putnam said.

The species makes up for lacking mass by hitting execution style.

“They’ll attack from the back,” Rapai said. “Bang, you get it in the back of the head.”

Males of the species are black with red patches on each shoulder bordered by yellow.

They’re the dive-bombers.

From his lookout on the cupola atop the gazebo, a male eyes a human intruder. It could be a fisherman, boatwatcher or someone on a hot day seeking shade and a refreshing breeze on wooden benches within the gazebo.

Tally ho. The bird takes off.

Reaching the drop zone, he points into the wind, spreads wings for maximum lift, almost hovers and takes aim.

He dives, wings folded for a streamlined burst of speed. He extends them again to regain maneuverability. Talons out, the bird swoops over his target, strikes and flaps away.

Females fly nearby as fighter escort.

“Females are a bunch smaller than males; brown with whitish streaking on the under side,” Putnam said. “Usually, females don’t have red on their wings. Some do, especially older birds, but nothing like the males.”

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