LB&E has received an alarming number of hits this year from searches for information about hummingbirds attacking and even killing humans. Seriously, folks: Don’t we have enough fearmongering these days without spreading a new urban myth that hummingbirds kill people? Next thing you know the hysterical xenophobes are going to want to build the misbegotten border fence high enough to keep out illegal immigrant hummingbirds that want suck their underused brains out through their ears.
If a hummingbird buzzes around your face, it probably is attracted to your eyes, but not because it intends to puncture them with its needle-shaped bill (which is more like a straw than a stiletto). Many animals instinctively associate large, forward-facing eyes with predators, and hummingbirds, being both intelligent and masters of evasion, will often approach potential predators to size up the threat. If the object of interest proves to be something dangerous—a cat, an owl, a snake, a Chinese mantid—a common response is to harass the predator from a (hopefully) safe position while raising the alarm to attract other birds.
Hummingbirds are among many birds observed to gather to fend off potential predators. Mobbing, as it’s known to animal behaviorists, has been described as one of the few examples of social behavior in these acutely antisocial birds. In a 1958 article in The Condor, Stuart A. Altmann described the “spectacular” mobbing behavior of Anna’s Hummingbirds:
They flew around the owl, two or three inches from its head, facing it and making little jabbing motions in their flight… The bills of the hummingbirds seemed, in all cases, to be directed at the eyes of the owl. While circling around the owl in this manner, they called a short, repeated, high-pitched note.
Notice that feints toward the owl’s eyes were as far as it went. No actual eye-poking necessary; the mere threat of injury is usually enough to convince a potential predator to get the heck out of Dodge.
How a hummingbird is supposed to kill a person is beyond my imagination, other than flying into a car and distracting the driver or some such accident. Is it a case of confusion with an insect, like the rare but persistent myth that hummingbirds live only one day? (They’re thinking of adult mayflies.) Would someone who’s heard such a rumor please leave a comment with the specifics?
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