Noe Valley Voice July-August 2002

Beaking News:
Nervous Blackbirds Dive-Bomb 24th Street Pedestrians

By Elliot Poger

Neighborhood residents have begun to look over their shoulders while withdrawing cash from the Washington Mutual ATMs at the corner of Noe and 24th streets. But it's not muggers they're worried about.

As Noe Valley Beat Officer Lorraine Lombardo told members of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association at the group's May meeting, some shoppers on the 3900 block of 24th Street are being driven away by aggressive, pushy, mean...blackbirds.

"They were expecting me to say panhandlers," chuckles Lombardo.

Perhaps enticed by falling rents or attractive interest rates on platinum checking accounts, a family of blackbirds has nested in a tree in front of Washington Mutual, next door to the gift store Just for Fun. Over a few weeks in late May and early June, many humans walking on the sidewalk underneath the tree were surprised to get a peck on the head from a swooping blackbird.

The merchants were particularly interested in what Lombardo had to say because revenue has been down slightly at shops along 24th Street, due to the generally sluggish economy. And any factor that makes people reluctant to shop in our local stores seems worth addressing. But in the case of these Hitchcockian birds, most nearby shopkeepers are inclined to let nature run its course.

Some Victims Traumatized

Safely inside Just for Fun, sales associate Lala Senanayake tells co-worker Joanna Yip of her first brush with the birds earlier that day.

"I was walking down the sidewalk, just before walking into the store, and it came sweeping down and grabbed a little bit of my hair and then took off again."

Though she's unharmed, Senanayake is "shocked" that a bird would single her out.

"You were a threat to its babies!" explains Yip.

But Senanayake defends her actions. "I wasn't climbing the tree! I wasn't even near the tree!"

Down the block at Tully's Coffee, Manager Tim Piper has heard lots of patrons talking about these close encounters of the pecking kind.

Piper relates how one customer "came in with her hand on her head. I asked her if something was wrong, and when she took her hand from her head, there was blood on her hand." After the customer got her coffee and headed for the door, "a dark bird landed on the doormat, and the woman froze, saying, 'That's the one that attacked me.'"

One of Piper's employees has also become a frequent target of the aggressive birds. "She wears a knit cap, and they just swoop down and pull the hat right off of her head."

One group that is acutely aware of the threat presented by urban wildlife is the U.S. Postal Service. Letter-carrier Ana Valladares, who delivers the mail to the homes and shops along 24th Street, wears a white woven safari hat that blocks both the sun and the birds. "I was attacked by a bird a couple of years ago, over by Spinelli's [now Tully's], when I wasn't wearing my hat," Valladares says. Noting what may be a gap in the post office's training regimen, she laughs, "We worry about the dogs, but never about the birds."

Moms May 'Chill Out'

Carl Friedman, director of the city's Animal Care and Control Department, says his agency receives between 50 and 75 calls a year about birds attacking people who come near their nests. The chief suspects are starlings and blackbirds, he says.

"Each year, we get a bevy of complaints around the first week of June. It tapers off a little, and then a second batch of complaints comes in a couple of weeks later."

This lull in complaints roughly matches the nesting cycle of the birds: The eggs hatch about 10 days after they have been laid, and about 10 days after hatching, the babies start to leave the nest. During this vulnerable three-week period, the parents tend to be very protective of their brood.

Following the recent incidents on 24th Street, Friedman was called in by Bevan Dufty, who is the former director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services and a current candidate for supervisor from District 8. Dufty was present at the Noe Valley Merchants meeting when Officer Lombardo brought up the May bird attacks. In the interest of aiding his would-be constituents, Dufty contacted Friedman to see if some course of action would be appropriate. Dufty and Friedman agreed, however, that it was best to just wait out this natural cycle of animal life. "Once the babies fly the coop, so to speak, the moms tend to chill out," explains Dufty.

As for Officer Lombardo, in the absence of a chargeable crime, she has let the birds go with a warning.

"I'll keep my eye on the problem," she declares, noting that she is most concerned about any attacks that might occur against small children. "But you can't blame a momma for being protective of her babies."