why do birds swoop at you

Every other Friday on Morning Edition NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown tracks down answers to questions about the environment and outdoors for our listeners in a segment we call “Ask Sam.”

Brian from Hopedale, MA asks: “I was wondering why when you’re driving, why do birds always swoop in front of your car when they could easily just swoop above the road and above the cars? It’s something I’ve never understood.”

This will come off as kinda harsh on Brian, (sorry, Brian) but what we’ve got here is a fundamental misunderstanding of who’s swooping in on who.

“I feel like this is a common thing with people, and sometimes their interaction with nature is like ‘it’s all about me.’ Right. Like ‘why aren’t they moving out of my way?’” says Bridget Butler, the self-proclaimed Bird Diva (aka. a birder and consultant from Vermont). “Birds are out there to survive and so a lot of the reason why they’re swooping in front of us because they’re on a mission.”

It might seem like that bird is swooping in front of your car, but in reality that bird is just going about its business and you happen to be driving by at that moment.

So then the question is, why don’t birds fly higher than four or five feet off the ground? Windshield height?

If you’re a little bird, there are really good reasons to stick close to the ground. “The higher you fly just to make that simple trip, the more you’re susceptible to aerial predators and the more energy you’re expending as well by flying a little higher,” says Jason Ward, a birder from Atlanta and the host of the series Birds of North America.

Flycatchers sit out on low branches, wait till they see a bug and then dart out to go get it. Sparrows feed on the ground, hopping around looking for seeds and the like, and then the flit from one patch of feeding ground to another. When all these small birds move, they keep low to stay safe from birds of prey. Like little stealth jets.

But there are lots of reasons birds might be in the road and not moving. Vultures and crows might be trying to get a meal and don’t want to give that up the next tasty morsel. Raptors hunt by flying over or sitting next to large open spaces, and waiting patiently until a meal runs out into the open, and they can swoop in after them.

“Well we’ve seen multiple cases in which raptors are unfortunately dead on the side of the road with their prey either still clutched in their talons, or laying nearby,” says Ward.

Which leads us to a corollary side message: If you don’t want to see dead raptors on the side of the road, don’t throw food out your car window onto the side of the road.

How big of a problem is this? Cars kill at least tens of millions of birds each year, and maybe hundreds of millions. Youch.

Sam Evans-Brown, is host ofNHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here.

Why Birds Swoop and How to Stay Safe

Monday, September 30, 2019

Birds like magpies, masked lapwings, and butcherbirds can use aggressive behavior for a few weeks during the breeding season to prevent people, domestic pets, and other birds—all of which they consider threats—from approaching their nests and young.

There seems to be more interaction between territorial birds and humans as urbanization increases. While swooping birds can be frightening, their behavior is seasonal and only happens for a brief time. Few birds come into contact with humans; most swoop and call loudly. You can stay safe and safeguard the birds and their young by taking the actions listed below:

  • If at all possible, stay away from the area and, ideally, post signs to temporarily deter others from visiting. A protective fence, table, or chairs can be erected around the nest site if it is in a vulnerable area to allow the birds to visit and depart without risk until the chicks hatch.
  • If you are unable to avoid the area, attempt to avoid walking in direct line with the birds or making eye contact with them; instead, give them as much room as you can.
  • Carrying an open umbrella is one of the best options, though wearing sunglasses, a large hat, or a bike helmet can also be helpful.
  • Travel in groups if at all possible, as most birds only swoop single individuals.
  • Walk quickly out of the area. Avoid running or panicking as this could make the birds swoop even more.
  • Cyclists should dismount and walk through the swoop-zone.

Avoid disturbing the birds by not allowing them to be disturbed, harassing them, or hurling objects at them. This will only make the birds believe that humans are a threat, which will make them act more defensively.

It is forbidden to remove eggs from native bird species, destroy nests, or injure adult birds because these species are protected. In reaction to the established threat, removal of nests and eggs may also cause the breeding pair to re-nest and exhibit more aggressive behavior, including prolonged swooping. Adult birds should not be relocated either, as other adults will take their place and the relocated bird(s) may become targets of ongoing attacks by the adults already residing there, leading to needless stress and suffering.

Recall that the swooping behavior will end shortly after the chicks leave the nest and will only persist for a few weeks. See our information pages on plovers, magpies, and how to best assist chicks for more details.

“I feel like this is a common thing with people, and sometimes their interaction with nature is like ‘it’s all about me.’ Right. Like ‘why aren’t they moving out of my way?’” says Bridget Butler, the self-proclaimed Bird Diva (aka. a birder and consultant from Vermont). “Birds are out there to survive and so a lot of the reason why they’re swooping in front of us because they’re on a mission.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a number of cases where raptors are dead by the side of the road with their prey either nearby or still clutched in their talons,” Ward says.

Flycatchers sit out on low branches, wait till they see a bug and then dart out to go get it. Sparrows feed on the ground, hopping around looking for seeds and the like, and then the flit from one patch of feeding ground to another. When all these small birds move, they keep low to stay safe from birds of prey. Like little stealth jets.

You can subscribe to NPR’s Outside/In, hosted by Sam Evans-Brown, wherever you get your podcasts. You can ask a question by recording it on your smartphone as a voice memo and sending it to oustidein@nhpr. org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here.

If you’re a little bird, there are really good reasons to stick close to the ground. “The higher you fly just to make that simple trip, the more you’re susceptible to aerial predators and the more energy you’re expending as well by flying a little higher,” says Jason Ward, a birder from Atlanta and the host of the series Birds of North America.

FAQ

What does it mean when a bird swoops at you?

Birds generally swoop for one of 2 reasons – to protect their eggs or young during the breeding season, or to get food. Swooping is a common defensive behaviour. The birds aim to threaten or bluff and the intention is only to ward off intruders from their territory.

How do you stop birds from swooping you?

If you cannot avoid the area, try not to walk directly towards the birds or make eye contact with them, give them as much space as possible. Wearing sunglasses, a large hat or bike helmet can help, one of the best options is carrying an open umbrella.

How do you stop birds from dive-bombing you?

Use an alternate door or entry to the house to avoid the parent birds, or carry an umbrella to avoid being dive-bombed. The dive-bombing is temporary and will end when the young birds have left the nest and are strong enough to fly on their own.

Why do birds dive at you?

Most of the incidents arise when birds are trying to raise their young. Nesting birds are very defensive of their chicks – “like a mama bear”, she says – and will even attack animals much larger than themselves.