Calling Ornithologists and Birders: Birds Who Are Jerks
September 22, 2022 10:21 AM   Subscribe

For a story I’m working on, I need a bird with some kind of behavior that would be seen as not very nice by an external observer, ideally a species you’d spot while hiking somewhere in the northeastern US. Maybe it fights a bunch. Maybe it uses deception in its feeding habits. Maybe it steals somehow. Something like that. Any ideas for what birds would make good candidates and why?
posted by xenization to Science & Nature (42 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Male red-winged blackbirds will dive-bomb you if you get in their business during nesting season (June/July). Pretty much only happens in and around wetlands, though.
posted by pullayup at 10:30 AM on September 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Oh you'll like this one. Not only do certain cuckoos lay eggs in the nests of other birds so that these other birds will rear their young, but they even appear to punish birds who retaliate!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:31 AM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Blue jays will bite the heads off baby finch nestlings and not even eat them (seen with my own eyes!)

Sure our human values don't really map well to non-human animals, but killing defenseless critters seemingly for fun is not very endearing.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:32 AM on September 22, 2022 [7 favorites]

The Kelp Gull is pretty shocking.
posted by johngoren at 10:33 AM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Crows, because they fill a tree and won't stop cawing, too early in the morning. I've heard a theory, they do this because they're bored -‌- they're not hungry, since they're so smart, they've already got the food thing worked out. So they're all just shooting the shit, LOUDLY. (Fortunately I've moved away from this tree.)
posted by Rash at 10:38 AM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Grey jays (whiskeyjacks) are notorious campground pests. They will grab food out of your hand. It's our fault, of course, for presenting such an easy source of sandwiches, and people have fed them into this behavior, but it's still very annoying.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 10:40 AM on September 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds' nests and let their unwitting foster parents raise them. The baby cowbirds tend to grow faster than their nestmates and often outcompete them, surviving at their expense.

Mockingbirds can be quite aggressive in defending the area around their nests. They also often annoy people by singing in the middle of the night.

Crows and bluejays will eat the eggs or young of other birds.

Gray jays are sometimes called "camp robbers" because they tend not be very scared of humans and if you're camping or picnicking and you leave food sitting out they will fly in and grab it. (But people also tend to like them, because it's fun to hold out a bit of food and have a wild bird land on your hand to take it.) Clark's nutcrackers may also steal your food, but they're not found in the northeastern US.
posted by Redstart at 10:44 AM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds nests. The cuckoo chick hatches first, and pushes all the other eggs out before they hatch. Then it demands food from its adoptive parent, who is often much smaller.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:46 AM on September 22, 2022

Many other birds will steal food from your hand, including seagulls (found everywhere in my experience, since some kinds will frequent landfills wherever they find them, but check your locality to be certain). Seagulls will also poop-bomb.

Swallows are not actually threatening, but it's an ... experience when they've nested under a bridge and are flitting in and out, and can feel intimidating.

One on the not-a-bird front, simply because it happened to me just yesterday: squirrels have a raucous call that sounds a bit like a jay when you aren't paying attention, and can keep it up for ages at a time.

Hummingbirds are probably not in your local fauna, but they're territorial dicks, and chase each other away acrobatically while wielding a glorified hypodermic on their faces.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 10:50 AM on September 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

Note that the cuckoo species found in the US only rarely lay their eggs in the nests of other species, so if you want a brood parasite someone might see while out hiking in the northeastern US, the cowbird is a better choice. They're quite common. Cuckoos are less common, and pretty elusive, so your hikers would be pretty lucky to spot one.
posted by Redstart at 10:51 AM on September 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

There are two species of shrike in North America, the loggerhead and the northern shrike. Shrikes feed off insects and small mammals, which they impale on sharp spikes (thorns, branches, barbed wire) and tear the flesh off.
posted by Hogshead at 10:53 AM on September 22, 2022 [7 favorites]

Shrikes and Butcherbirds impale insect and small vertebrate prey on thorns, barbed wire, and sharp sticks, turning their territory into little horror movie abbatoirs.

On preview: dangit, scooped!
posted by Krawczak at 10:54 AM on September 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

Many bird species exhibit siblicide - the bigger, fatter, chirpier chick helps is smaller, thinner weaker brother or sister over the side of the nest so that it can explore the glories that lie beyond die slowly at the bottom of a cliff. Then it enjoys double helpings of regurgitated worms.
posted by rongorongo at 10:54 AM on September 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

If you're interested in the outcome of a fight between a pigeon and a crow?

The crow won.

Also - now I know what a pigeon's innards look like.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:57 AM on September 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My grandpa loved his bird feeder, but he hated blue jays almost as much as he hated squirrels.

Blue jays may be cute, but they're airborne jerks of the highest order.
posted by the primroses were over at 11:07 AM on September 22, 2022 [8 favorites]

Male red-winged blackbirds will dive-bomb you if you get in their business during nesting season (June/July).

Seconding this! And you don't even have to do anything more than just be walking through their turf; I was walking through a section of New York's Governors' Island, and suddenly heard something go whooshing past my ear, missing me by inches. I looked up, and it was a red-winged blackbird, who then started coming in for another pass.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:11 AM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Being dive-bombed by a red-winged blackbird is definitely stressful!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:11 AM on September 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Swans are just.... super notorious jerks. Real asses.

Canadian geese!!!! HATE! The incessant honking, the giant piles of poo everywhere. URGH, thanks Canada.
posted by Jacen at 11:39 AM on September 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Can confirm, blue jays are loud assholes.
posted by Maarika at 11:46 AM on September 22, 2022

Male Robins are aggressively territorial against other male robins. If another bird that eats a similar diet to them invades their territory, they will attack it and attempt to peck its neck until they sever the spinal cord. I can't find a good citation now, but I did once read that the leading cause of death for male robins was other male robins.
posted by firechicago at 11:46 AM on September 22, 2022

Male ducks are disturbingly aggressive when mating and it's usually more of an attack with multiple male ducks chasing one female duck, sometimes to the point of killing/drowning the female duck.
posted by castlebravo at 11:54 AM on September 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Mockingbirds can imitate the various patterns of a car alarm & presumably other alarms too. Never fails to make me feel like I'm being pranked or satirized, though I get that they're not jerks. (I've read that mockingbirds mock to attract mates and to mark territory, not sure if these are right or what the current understanding is.)
posted by miles per flower at 11:58 AM on September 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Hummingbirds are incredibly territorial, and their hovering ability lets them get right in each others' faces.
posted by cardboard at 12:00 PM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I came to say brown-headed cowbirds as well. Maybe not the *most* sociopathic, but still pretty jerky, and common enough that your story would be plausible.

I also want to put in a word for the blue jay’s terrible scream, which gives their villainy an added bit of dislikability.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:07 PM on September 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

Pelicans eat baby birds.
posted by starfishprime at 12:28 PM on September 22, 2022

Nthing robins. They are totally horrible to each other in the spring and it's such a jarring contrast, all this rebirth, la la, lovely weather, flowers, and charming robins, the harbingers of spring who are. . . literally killing each other, loudly.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:28 PM on September 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Have you ever met a Canada Goose?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:33 PM on September 22, 2022 [9 favorites]

Yeah I can't think of a bigger nuisance of a bird than the canada goose. Messy, mean, loud, and incredibly common and numerous.
posted by Ferreous at 12:34 PM on September 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

At our feeders, it's the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) that are often the worst. They scare away the smaller birds, they often come in a larger group, knock down the feeders, fight with each other, are noisy and messy. I will at times take down our feeders for a bit until the starlings have moved on. The Wiki fills in more gaps - "common starling builds an untidy nest" and are a "host to a range of external and internal parasites." They are real jerks.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:53 PM on September 22, 2022

You can’t have more than one rooster with some chickens. They will kill each other.
posted by Melismata at 12:54 PM on September 22, 2022

It's not a species you'd spot in North America but the kea, a parrot native to New Zealand, is infamous for tearing the windshield wipers and weatherstripping from cars. Probably not useful for your story but fun to envision from afar. (They're very cool and intelligent birds in general, but yes, a bit jerkish apparently.)

For North America..

I live in the islands of Southeast Alaska, where I spend a fair amount of time in the outdoors, giving me the opportunity to frequently observe birds and their behavior. A couple of things I've seen over the years come to mind, though I'm not sure how you'd use them for your story. This is a story I like to tell, though, and it took place around this time of year so I'll share it.

As you probably know, Alaska is famous for its bountiful salmon runs. Every year, multitudes of the five pacific salmon species navigate back to their native creeks and rivers and migrate upstream where they spawn out and die in the final stage of the salmon life cycle. For many of the animals in this part of the world, this bounty forms a huge part of their yearly diet and while the runs are at their peak, food is easily found in any stream. However, as the summer ends and fall begins, the runs taper off and the abundance of food rapidly declines.

One year in October, some friends and I were walking a trail that follows Ward Creek, a productive salmon stream, during the end of that year's salmon run. We stopped to admire an eagle, hauled out on a log on the opposite bank of the creek, and watched him tearing apart one of the remaining salmon. As we watched, another eagle, cruising the creek course, spotted the eagle on the bank and apparently decided that stealing a fish was easier than catching its own, so it swooped in on the first eagle and the two tumbled into the brush tussling.

Immediately, while the two eagles were distracted, three ravens who had been perched in the trees above the feasting eagle jumped down and began devouring the fish as fast as they could.

We were greatly amused by the ravens' cleverness to take advantage of the eagles' behavior but what really amazed and delighted us was that, as we continued our walk along the stream-side trail, we saw the scene repeated in its essentials several times by other pairs of eagles and other groups of ravens.

I suppose you could pick either the eagles or the ravens as the jerks in this story, though my sympathy is solidly with the ravens. The eagles are the big dumb jocks of the bird world here, and I always enjoy seeing the much smarter ravens get the better of them.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:10 PM on September 22, 2022 [10 favorites]

Nth Mockingbirds.
One family of Mockingbirds did not like my bald neighbor. They attacked his head whenever he walked outside. Nobody else was bothered.
Multiple generations of a mockingbird family did not like my cat. Other neighborhood cats were not bothered. The passed down their dislike of my cat through generations. They would dive bomb from his rear and clip the hair on the back of his head.
They decided to get out of Dodge when I used a Super Soaker on them. This Super Soaker had more than one hole in the nozzle and when pointed upwards and fired it looked like I had a giant hand that could reach up to the height of the tree they were roosting in. I did this once and the pair of them moved on never to return.
posted by Raybun at 1:47 PM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Bald eagles are notorious for stealing other birds' prey. As far as Canada geese go, I once saw one drown another one.
posted by mollweide at 1:48 PM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Not jerkish as such, but a bit creepy if that's what you're going for:

I once watched a redtailed hawk chowing down on a prairie dog... with a turkey vulture a couple feet away just waiting patiently for the hawk to eat its fill and leave the remains.
posted by humbug at 2:27 PM on September 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Have you ever met a Canada Goose?

Miserable, filthy, mean creatures. Their only saving grace is they can be pretty tasty.

Starlings are on my shit list, too. I can’t keep a bird feeder out because they’ll quickly overrun the feeder and shove every other bird away.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:53 PM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Bluejays for sure deserve the #1 spot, they are absolute dicks.

Perhaps harder to observe in the wild, and not strictly "jerklike", but bluebirds can also be a menace. In the spring, they often mistake their reflection in a window for another bluebird and will repeatedly attack them (ie your window) day after day leaving beak and talon marks.

I feel bad for what is clearly instinctual behavior as it seems like it would hurt, or at least is a waste of energy, so over the years I put up outside screens on the key window targets and that does the trick.
posted by jeremias at 3:27 PM on September 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine with long, thick straight black hair was jogging the path around a local lake when a swan came up out of the water and went crazy attacking her, pulling out several hanks of hair before she could manage to drive it away with the assistance of a couple of other joggers.
posted by jamjam at 3:32 PM on September 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Wild parrots in my neighborhood tear into a lot of fruit. I like all birds, what they do is fine with me.
posted by Oyéah at 3:42 PM on September 22, 2022

I don't have particular problems with Canada geese, except they think they own the road and will...cross...streets...sloowwwwwly.

Also, owls can be aggressive.
posted by lhauser at 4:52 PM on September 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Owls do eat other owls. Screech owls and barred owls find themselves prey for great horned owls.
posted by mollweide at 5:03 PM on September 22, 2022

You are looking for a shrike. They are psychos.
posted by Toddles at 5:37 PM on September 22, 2022

Response by poster: I'm not sure how likely some of these are for the situation—the characters are on a hike through woods, maybe on the side of a mountain, so they're paying attention to what's up in the trees—though learning about them has been fascinating (and kind of disturbing too). I reached out to another friend who got back blue jay as a good candidate from her nature friends, so having that confirmed works particularly well since I also wanted a bird that would catch the eye.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by xenization at 7:34 AM on September 23, 2022

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