One sunny afternoon in June, Denise Weinstein was walking Josie, her shaggy, white Maltese shih tzu mix, outside Century Village, the 55-and-older South Florida retirement complex where she lives. That's when the birds attacked. "Two birds were swanning down on me like dive-bombers!" she recalls. "They looked like helicopters."
The birds, gray with pale bellies, furiously batted their wings at her head. They made multiple passes at her neck, swooping claws-first from behind. Weinstein, who is 66 but appears much younger with her long, straight, black hair, dodged and ran to safety. But she wondered: What about her much-older neighbors, many of whom use walkers, are deaf, or don't see well? "We need to be freaked out!" she says.
Weinstein soon began researching and learned that her tormenters were mockingbirds. She also discovered that such fearsome incidents are not isolated. While shark attacks make major news, agitated mockingbirds are a far more common menace, dive-bombing pedestrians, pets, and bystanders who wander too close to their nests. A recent study from the University of Florida found that the birds can even learn to distinguish a human target in a crowd, attacking people who've come near their young ones before.
Now Weinstein doesn't just want the birds gone from her condo; she's declared war on the birds, aiming at their highest honor: their designation as Florida's state bird.
"Run for your life!" Weinstein says. "But unfortunately, people here can't run — they're going to be knocked down on their walkers. You're laughing, but I'm a prisoner."
The northern mockingbird, or Mimus polyglottos, is about ten inches long and commonly found in both urban and rural areas along the Eastern Seaboard and across the southern United States. It can sing at least 39 songs and imitate sounds as varied as police sirens or kittens meowing — hence the name "mockingbird." Back in 1927, Florida legislators were so charmed by the routine — noting that "the melody of its music has delighted the heart of residents and visitors to Florida from the days of the rugged pioneer to the present comer" — that they made mockingbirds the state bird.
Mockingbirds are generally considered helpful to humans because they eat insects and the seeds of weeds. The birds, along with their nests and eggs, are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which sets fines of up to $15,000 for possessing, transporting, or selling them.
But it's no secret that the birds are among the most territorial on Earth about their nests.
A few years ago, Doug Levey decided to try to find out just how territorial. The biologist specializes in the evolutionary ecology of migrant birds. (He's also incredibly knowledgeable about bird sex. "Birds don't have penises," he explains gravely, noting how sperm instead moves through a "cloacal kiss" between the genders.)
For his study, conducted with 24 mockingbird nests, he gave one poor graduate student — an "intruder" — the task of standing near the nest for 15 seconds, then touching the rim of the nest for 15 seconds, on four straight days. On the fifth day, a different student would approach the nest. For months, Levey and his students repeated the experiment.
In 2009, he published the surprising results: Mockingbirds were able to distinguish the students who'd consistently approached their nests — attacking them more aggressively each day — from the less-threatening or nonthreatening students, even when participants wore different clothes each day. It only took about 60 seconds of exposure for mockingbirds to be able to pick an individual from a crowd.
"It's a very, very basic instinct of all animals," Levey says of the mockingbird's nest protection. "It's risky for any bird to attack a human or a cat. The only reason to do it — and this is really important — is a high-stakes possession worth taking that risk for, and the only thing that meets that criterion are eggs and young. For sure, if they are attacking people, it is because they have young fledges hiding nearby."
For victims of mockingbird fury, that finding isn't so surprising.
Type "mockingbird attack" into YouTube and there's no shortage of evidence of that instinct. In one 2010 clip, a man in a ball cap paces in his backyard with his hands in his pockets, ducking amusedly when a bird frantically swoops down and crashes into his back like a kamikaze dozens of times. He wrote that he became a "marked man" after he "made the mistake of checking on a mockingbird nest." In "Angry Bird Attacks Cat Miami Brickell," a mockingbird repeatedly dives down and pecks at an orange cat's rib cage until the cat cowers for cover under a parked PT Cruiser.
Sometimes, the attacks make bigger news. In 2011, patients at the Gulf Coast Medical Group Urgent Care Center in Venice, Florida, complained of attacks — one even had a hole pecked in his shirt — until wildlife officials roped off the nest. In 2013, even the New York Times reported on a spate of mockingbird attacks at Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Victims included a 44-year-old author named Arthur Henry who heard "a wail, like a battle cry," before feeling a tap on his head and realizing that the bird had drawn blood. The birds targeted him again two days later.
Just last week, 25-year-old Bianca Mijares was jogging in Coral Gables when a mockingbird bashed her from behind. When she was attacked the second time, she felt compelled to warn friends on Facebook. "The first time, the bird was flying close to me," Mijares remembers. "She got behind me and did a U-turn and came at my head." Days later, "she clawed my arm."
But few places may be less equipped to deal with birds out for blood than a retirement home full of hobbled seniors.
Weinstein, a retired advertising professional who worked as a dancer in New York and then in hotel theatricals in Puerto Rico, moved to Century Village in the western fringes of Boca Raton after a recent divorce. She still performs in community theater and teaches chair-exercise classes.
Earlier this year, Weinstein says, residents at Century Village had noticed ten or 12 birds nesting in hedges and trees near the walkway of her building. No one paid much mind — until the bird assaults started. "They started naturally attacking residents — these elderly people, little old ladies in their 80s," Weinstein says. "When I was a victim also, I thought, 'This could be serious.'?"
Residents began cowering indoors, she says. After her sixth attack, Weinstein says "there were days I decided: I am not going to go out in the daytime. I would go out maybe around 5:30. I was so afraid." The birds seemed to wait for her. They lurked on signposts, on the balcony near her door, and, most inconveniently of all, close to the elevator, forcing infirm residents to take the stairs. "Wherever they could be to intimidate, they were," she says.
Weinstein's neighbor, 69-year-old Susan Mintz, witnessed the attacks when residents walked to their cars or checked the mail. "They can be vicious. They can go for an eye," she says. "They like to attack people, and they come out of nowhere. I carry a large flyswatter with me." She estimates that at least ten people in the complex have been dive-bombed.
Weinstein says that in her case, an offending bird waited on the fourth-floor railing by her unit. She went out to dump her garbage but was afraid to take her eye off of her nemesis. "I was walking in reverse like somebody had a gun to me. I was afraid if I turned around, I'd get a zoom in the back of my head and neck," she says. Residents soon began to feel like characters in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.
Weinstein isn't taking the threat passively, though. First, she alerted WPTV Channel 5 of the avian threat, getting a segment on the evening news. Then she began pestering Century Village to move the nests. But Weinstein says the president of her homeowners' association told her he was powerless because of the creatures' protected status. (No one responded to a message New Times left at Century Village asking for comment.)
Then, the senior citizens went nuclear, campaigning to take away the state honor as Florida's official bird. Stuart Reben of Coconut Creek, a friend of Weinstein's who helped research the birds, argues that it's "not appropriate" to honor a vicious animal and points out that four other states — Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas — also claim the mockingbird. He recently got a letter published in the Sun Sentinel declaring that the mockingbird was "not true to Florida's peaceful image."
The next step will be a push to state legislators. Reben suggests the flamingo as a suitable replacement bird.
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Not everyone is onboard. Mintz says she "doesn't care one way or the other" about which is the state bird and says the creatures are just "doing their thing. Let them lay their eggs. Let people avoid them. Most people here could use the exercise anyway."
Levey agrees. If residents avoid the nesting area, they should be fine, he says, and nesting season will soon end anyway. The attacks "might seem threatening" but are mostly harmless. "[It] is startling; it's alarming — and that's exactly what the birds want," he says. "Every time they do it, people walk away."
But Weinstein isn't so easily placated. Whenever the mockingbirds move on from Century Village, she hopes the dense shrubs can be replaced with simple flowers to deter nesting next year. In the meantime, she has earned a nickname in her neighborhood: "The Mockingbird Diva."
Weinstein says she'll be happy if her efforts serve only to make people, especially elderly people and children, aware of the bird threat. "Can you imagine the fears of a little child visiting a grandparent?" she asks. "This is real."