Sure as springtime, the scene repeats itself across the Sunshine State every year.
An unwitting soul might be strolling down a sidewalk in St. Petersburg, walking a park in Palatka or headed to a Miami mailbox. Suddenly, a none-too-happy bird appears, dive-bombing and blitzing the startled pedestrian.
“They come from behind so you can’t see them coming, and just kind of flapping and swooping at the back of your head,” is how Mark Hostetler, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, describes such encounters.
Right now, mockingbirds are having a moment. And experts say we should give them some space.
The familiar gray-and-white birds — seen in cities and farmland, alike, and known for their impressive singing abilities — start nesting to raise little mockingbirds around March, according to bird scientists.
So when a human gets too close for comfort, often not even aware there’s a nest nearby, mockingbirds can react with that startling swooping behavior meant to scare off a potential predator. (Yes, you.) Dogs and cats can find themselves similarly strafed.
“Mockingbirds only exhibit this type of aggressive behavior when people get within a few feet of their nests or chicks that are just barely old enough to leave the nest but can’t easily fly away from perceived danger,” said Marianne Korosy, director of conservation for Audubon Florida, via email.
So, as many savvy Floridians already know, these mockingbirds are not randomly attacking, just being fiercely protective parents. And although that feathered ambush can be unnerving, Korosy said it’s extremely unlikely a person would be injured.
Plus, nesting season doesn’t last forever.
Once a female mockingbird lays her eggs, it takes 12-13 days for chicks to hatch and another 12-13 days for them to be able to fly and leave the nest, Korosy said. Mockingbirds can raise chicks three times in a spring/summer season, she said, though they don’t nest in the same place each time.
Best advice: Once you know there’s a nest, stay away. Take the long way around. “Give a wide berth,” said Hostetler.
The mockingbird is not a boring bird, by the way. It can sing for hours a day, and single males can carry on into the night, according to allaboutbirds.org.
They’re best known for impressively mimicking other birds, but can also do barking dogs. They’ve been known to imitate frogs, creaky gates and car alarms, says allaboutbirds.
Attempts have been made to unseat the mockingbird as Florida’s state bird, a title bestowed in 1927, but the mockingbird has hung tough.
And it’s not only mockingbirds that can get protective when humans come too close. Crows, hawks, terns, gulls, starlings, owls, geese and other birds may also fly at people they perceive as a threat to their nests or young chicks, Korosy said.
Isaac Rempe, vice president of Affordable Wildlife Removal in Seminole, gets calls about aggressive mockingbird behavior every nesting season, and this year is no different.
“I can understand how frustrating it might be having to run from your car with an umbrella over your head every day when it’s not raining,” he said.
He explains to callers about the birds’ importance to the ecosystem and tells them they are protected, meaning you can’t relocate or otherwise mess with them. He advises callers to give them that buffer and have patience as spring turns to summer.
“It going to pass,” he said, but it’s also part of living in Florida. “And really you should kind of look forward to it.”