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Bird Phobias Not Helped by “The Birds” And Other Myths

Dear Bird Folks,

Everyone in my family loves birds. We have several bird feeders, houses and baths to attract them. But when I was growing up we had this crazy aunt who was afraid of birds. When she visited us she wouldn’t even go into our sunroom because it overlooked our yard and thus our feeders. Over the years I have met several people who were also afraid of birds. With Halloween coming up perhaps this would be a good week to talk about why people think birds are such spooky creatures.

– Don, Guilford, CT


Good thinking, Don,

Having holiday themed bird questions isn’t a bad idea. We could have scary birds on Halloween; turkeys, of course, on Thanksgiving; swans-a-swimming on Christmas; lovebirds on Valentine’s Day; and coots on Father’s Day. This is great. I have half the year’s columns already planned out. The only thing I need now is for someone to ask a question about any of those birds. I also have to learn about lovebirds. I’ve never even seen one. Writing about coots will be easy. I’ve had tons of experience dealing with them.

Another thing I haven’t had a lot of experience writing about is birds being scary. No matter how I look at birds, I don’t see them being the slightest bit scary. But I’m not about to judge your “crazy aunt.” She may or may not be crazy, Don, but having a bird phobia does not make her so. Lots of people have phobias, be they flying, spiders, heights, or birds. Personally, I have “legumephobia,” a fear of baked beans and people who have just eaten them, and nobody thinks I’m crazy. Do they?

The fear of birds is called “ornithophobia.” The late actress, Lucille Ball, was reported to have been so afraid of birds that she wouldn’t allow any bird pictures in her house, stay in a hotel that had images of birds on the walls, or play basketball with either Larry Bird or Meadowlark Lemon.

Many of our fears about birds can be traced back to early Europe. In those days most farmers didn’t have a huge background in science so they did the best they could to explain the events around them. When crows, ravens or other scavengers arrived shortly after a farm animal died, it was assumed that birds could somehow predict death and thus were harbingers of bad news. Others believed that high-flying birds could actually fly up to heaven and back. If a bird landed on a windowsill or flew into the house, it was thought that it was looking for a soul to take to heaven. I’ve had customers totally freak and run outside when a bird has accidentally flown into our shop. Nothing like that ever bothers me. It’s not that I’m brave, but I know that it is going to take a lot more than a bird to get my soul into heaven.

The folks in Hollywood have done their best to weird people out about birds. The 1963 Alfred Hitchcock’s movie,The Birds, probably tripled the amount of people who have ornithophobia. For some odd reason the scenes of birds pecking out human eyeballs was upsetting to certain people. Of course, I felt bad for those poor birds. Why couldn’t Alfred have made a movie about cats taking over the world? Heck, it’s only a matter of time before they do it anyway.

Not all birds are thought to forecast bad news. Many birds are an indication of good fortune. Bluebirds, swallows and doves are all a good sign to many people. And let’s not forget about the stork. Europeans thought storks brought prosperity and did whatever it took to encourage storks to nest on the roofs of their homes. I think it’s funny that Europeans try hard to attract those huge storks, whereas around here people complain about those tiny House Finches building nests in their hanging plants.

In some parts of Britain people will carry a kingfisher’s feather with them for good luck. I think the reason has something to do with Noah and the great flood, but I’m not really sure what since I was too young during the flood to remember. In addition, British women used to sew a swan feather into their husband’s pillow. It was believed that a swan feather would ensure their husband’s fidelity. A swan feather? Hmm. Now I understand why my wife gave me a pillow with such a long neck.

Then there are the birds that can be either good or bad, depending on who’s doing the explaining. The ancient Greeks, for example thought owls were birds of fortune and wisdom; the Romans, on the other hand, feared owls and thought they were a sign of coming disaster. Those old Romans certainly were a paranoid bunch.

I do feel bad for people like your aunt, Don. It’s no fun going through life fearing birds. Since birds are just about everywhere, your aunt must have been uncomfortable a lot of the time. But I guess things could have been worse. She could have been like me and have had legumephobia. That really stinks.