There are plenty of stories about all the awful things that happen to birds, like getting covered in oil or smuggled n some dude’s underpants into another country, and about the things we should be doing about it. But what about the things that the birds are doing about it. Yes, your average Winter Wren looks like a perfectly harmless handful of grams of feathers, but is that tiny exterior hiding the heart of a killer?

This was at least what I was left pondering this week as  read about a rogue swan attack here in New Zealand that almost left a whitebaiter dead. (Whitebaters are a peculiar kiwi breed of fishermen that catch  tiny migratory baitfish and then fry them up in a kind of pancake. This is apparently very appealing to the people here, but six years of living here hasn’t given me the inclination to try that yet).  Apparently a swan in the US recently succeeded in its murderous attempts. Which led me to wonder, just how dangerous are birds?

Very dangerous, at least in the past. New Zealand was once home to Haast’s Eagle, the largest eagle in the world. It isn’t actually known if Haast’s Eagle ate people, but considering its prey was human sized giant birds it hardly seems unreasonable conjecture to state they probably at least made spirited attempts to do so. And dangerous birds remain today, a fact that was made very clear to me earlier this year when a Southern Cassowary attempted to re-enact a scene from Jurassic Park with me.

But what about the more innocuous, not to mention commonly encountered birds? I had a look for information provided on animal attacks in New Zealand, where the data is collected by the ACC (the government run accident insurance scheme for the whole country). But while around 2000 people in New Zealand were hurt sufficiently by spiders to claim for damages (an astonishing figure considering the paucity of dangerous spiders here),and  2600 odd people somehow managed to hurt themselves with a cat (see, it isn’t just the birds they hurt), and 80 people managed to come undone at the hands of a goat (at least they doubtless had a good story), the data for birds wasn’t there. Presumably birds account for an unknown percentage of the 59 thousand people hurt by animals who listed “other” (I mean, it isn’t like you could have many anaconda or gorilla accidents here).

Bereft of an actual statistic to quote at you about how menacing a hummingbird actually is, I will instead merely take the opportunity to warn you about the way a bird will most likely take you out. The biggest cause of car accidents is… not birds, but distractions. And if you are a birder, the birds are a serious distraction on the road. We’ve all done it, swerved or diverted our attention when something interesting has flown by. Some of us may have had lucky misses. And sometimes we laugh it off, but it isn’t actually funny. So please be careful. Try an pull over. If you can’t, well, claim it was a rare vagrant that got away. And get it next time.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.