Bird Watcher's General Store

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Bird Phobia

Dear Bird Folks,

I bought my aunt a bird feeder for her birthday. Upon opening it her face became pale, she closed the box, and handed it back to me. My uncle explained that she had a fear of birds and would never use the feeder. A bird phobia? How could anyone be afraid of a goldfinch or a chickadee? Have you ever heard of this?

– Niki, Charleston, SC


Good timing, Niki,

The timing of your question could not have been better. Last July a guy asked me why his daughter was afraid of birds. I wrote down the question on a scrap of paper and told him that I would write about this subject in the fall. Since the fear of birds is kind of a creepy topic, I thought it would work better around Halloween. (I’m all about being current.) Well, as you might have expected, I’ve lost that scrap of paper and if it weren’t for you, Niki, the guy’s question would have gone unanswered. I’ve been losing lots of questions lately and it’s starting to worry me. Maybe I should tie some plastic flowers to all the questions I get. I could be like those people who tie flowers to the antennas of their cars. Have you seen those cars? I guess I shouldn’t feel bad about misplacing an occasional scrap of paper when other people can’t locate a two-ton Buick unless it has a daisy taped to it. I’m not quite at that point yet.

Although I’m not happy to hear that someone doesn’t like to feed birds, I’m not about to make fun of your aunt for being afraid of anything. People with phobias don’t have to explain themselves to me or anyone else. A phobia is an “irrational fear” of something. By definition a phobia doesn’t have to make sense. If it made sense it wouldn’t be a phobia. And in case you are wondering, the fear of birds is called “ornithophobia.” Really.

Lots of people have phobias. The fear of heights is “acrophobia.” The fear of tight spaces is “claustrophobia.” The fear of jumping out of open windows is “Wallstreetophobia”. My son has a bad case of “blankscreenophobia,” which is the fear that the TV cable might go out. And my wife has “nobagophobia,” the fear of leaving a clothing store empty-handed.

No one really knows why people become afraid of birds, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try to come up with reasons. One explanation has to do with the fact many birds are scavengers. The first ones to attend dead or dying farm animals are often hungry birds. During the years of the Black Plague it became impossible to keep up with the all dead bodies and the birds were more than happy to help themselves to whoever hadn’t been buried yet. During the Plague, the doctors who attended the sick would dress in long black coats and would wear beak-shaped masks to filter out the germs and the smell. In those days it was never a good thing when a beak-wearing doctor visited your bedside. Because of the situations described above many people saw birds as a sign of bad news. I have relatives in Ireland who still won’t allow even a picture of a bird into their homes…unless, of course, the bird is on a bottle of Wild Turkey.

Crows, blackbirds, starlings, and other birds often form huge, noisy, roosting flocks. Sometimes these flocks invade residential neighborhoods. Spending a week or two with a massive flock of birds squawking overhead could give anyone a permanent case of the bird heebie jeebies. Edgar Allen Poe, in his creepy poem The Raven, did little to improve the image of birds. Then there is our pal, Alfred Hitchcock, who put the bird movement back decades with his 1963 horror film, The Birds. And let’s not forget the dreaded bird flu, a threat the cable news stations remind us of anytime they can’t think of anything to say about Britney, Lindsay, or Paris Hilton.

If you are like me, and can’t get enough of watching people break their necks on trampolines, you probably watch America’s Funniest Videos religiously. In addition to trampolines, there are lots of videos of little kids getting their French fries stolen by gulls or having their noses chomped on by pet parrots, while their parents laugh and continue filming. As funny as that all is (and it is funny), it would also stand to reason that some of these kids might end up visiting their local shrink complaining about a case of ornithophobia.

I don’t know your aunt, Niki, but I doubt if she was around during the time of the Black Plague. However, she could have been weirded out by reading The Raven, seeing The Birds, or losing some fries to gulls on a trip to Hilton Head. Whatever the reason for her fear, unless it is interfering with her enjoyment of life, the cause of the problem and/or resolving it probably isn’t that important to her. For example, I have ophiophobia (fear of snakes) and I’m totally fine with it. I never want to lose that fear. The only phobia I’d like to see cured is my wife’s chronic case of nobagophobia. Curing that would save me thousands.