Search of the Week: “hummingbird attack eyes”

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?

Related posts on this topic:

Killer hummingbirds?
Fawn-breasted Brilliants in combat

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13 thoughts on “Search of the Week: “hummingbird attack eyes”

  1. Anything for sensationalism I guess. It’s like believe the Tabloids.How silly. Hummingbirds are completely harmless to humans. For so many they are a source of inspiration and hope. “I saw a hummingbird today. Joy and sweetness is on the way.”

  2. Sheri, don’t you get asked at banding sessions how you manage to avoid the “poisonous sting” of a hummingbird? I do, several times per year.

    Of course, I correct their misconception: like rattlesnakes, hummingbirds are VENOMOUS, not POISONOUS. In fact, they taste just like chicken. Or rattlesnake.

  3. Pingback: Fawn-breasted Brilliants in combat « Life, Birds, and Everything

  4. It’s my understanding from a local Boy Scout that the rumor is being spread by rangers at the Boy Scouts Philmont Training Center – there have been 2 alleged attacks in the last 3 years, hummingbirds supposedly see their reflection in the pupil of a staring human and lunge into the eyeball. Some reports are that hikers are being instructed how to kill the hummingbird without removing it from the eye, and tape it so your eye doesn’t wiggle – until professional help can be summoned, I would imagine. Unreal.

    • Thanks, Anita. I’ve been meaning to update this post, because I’ve recently heard the same story.

      Unreal is right. I’m not convinced that it happened, since the only online reference I can find to such an incident consists of remarks from people who heard the story at Philmont.

      As I mentioned in the post “Killer hummingbirds?”, you would expect evidence of such extreme manifestations of hummingbird aggression to appear where large numbers of hummingbirds regularly meet large numbers of people, such as the famous hummingbird feeding stations here in southeastern Arizona or during fall migration on the Texas coast. If anything like this had ever happened at Ramsey Canyon Preserve, Beatty’s Guest Ranch, the Paton yard, or the Hummer/Bird Celebration at Rockport, we’d surely know about it. Also suspicious is the claim of two incidents in the last three years, when Philmont has been in use for 70+.

      If a hummingbird’s bill really did become lodged in some Philmont camper’s eye socket (as one alleged incident was described to me), “attack” would be a wildly paranoid way of describing it. More likely, considering the setting, the ultimate cause would have been a dangerous combination of fast-moving birds and fast, erratically moving humans. Hummingbirds have accidentally killed each other under similar circumstances, when their flight paths intersected at high speeds. There’s a photo in my field guide of two male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds that apparently died this way.

      I don’t doubt that campers are being told this story, but without photos or some independent verification it’s scarcely more believable than the tales of the Wendigo that my husband scared summer-campers with when he worked as a counselor.

  5. A boy down the street knows someone who was attacked by hummingbirds. His Mom told him not to bother them, but he ignored her and started throwing rocks at them. He hit one square, and they all came at him and pecked his eyes out. Now he is blind and had to drop out of school, with no friends, and can’t find a job. Not even the broom factory will take him!!

  6. I’ve heard of a hummingbird hitting a man in the face and its bill went through his nose….. That’s about as “dangerous” as it get

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