Hitchcock overlooked ferocious bird
In honor of Halloween last weekend, I watched Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller "The Birds."
The story is about a bunch of gulls and crows that band together and kill people.
Viewing this as a tale of revenge, I rooted for the birds. Still, I found the movie's premise ridiculous. Gulls and crows pecking people to death? Come on. Hitchcock should have used skuas.
My introduction to these beefy gull relatives occurred during my first trip to Antarctica. There I watched a skua dive into a penguin, knocking it over like a bowling pin. Before the parent could recover, a second skua snatched the penguin's newly hatched chick and flew away.
The world hosts seven species of these bold birds, and all live in the high latitudes. Two species nest in Antarctica: the brown (or Antarctic) skua and the southern polar skua. Both have 4-foot wingspans.
The southern polar skua is one of the world's widest ranging seabirds, leaving Antarctica in the Austral autumn (May) and traveling through the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to the far northern latitudes. Skuas banded in the Antarctic have been found in the Aleutian Islands, Greenland and northern Great Britain.
In October, skuas return to Antarctica and nest in colonies on the ground. Since building materials are scarce in this land of ice and snow, the nest is usually just a scrape in the dirt.
Our Antarctic guides warned us hikers about getting too close to skua nests, but it wasn't until it happened that I understood the danger.
Male skuas defend their chicks ferociously, not hesitating to drop into a powerful dive and tear into a human scalp. Besides delivering painful pecks with their hooked beaks, skuas will also pummel an intruder with wings and feet, all the while shrieking like banshees.
I was never injured by a skua, but only because I backed off when I saw the birds coming.
Wildlife artist Lucia deLeiris, who spent months in Antarctica sketching animals, wrote in her journal, "The skuas are more aggressive now, swooping down and attacking in flight. I spent most of my time walking with my left hand up, but twice when I was caught off guard I was smacked on the head. I think they hit with their feet."
Skua parents first feed their chicks krill, then move to fish, penguin eggs and later in the season, penguin chicks. But it's not a free handout. Parents lay the food on the ground near the nest, making the young birds find it themselves.
This encourages chicks to be resourceful, but it's also risky. If a chick roams too far from the nest, a neighbor skua will eat the youngster.
Besides being cannibals, skuas are also pirates, stealing food from petrels, gulls and shags. And like lions, wolves and killer whales, skuas often cooperate with one another in hunts.
It's no surprise that these seabird ruffians have no fear of humans, which makes them perfect for a thriller.
In my scary movie about bird vengeance, the stars are going to be skuas.
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