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BLACKBIRD ATTACKS OVER THEIR HEADS CANADIAN OFFICERS KEEPING ON THE ALERT AT VICTORIA PARK

In the deceptively blissful setting of Victoria Park, winged terror lurks.

It can strike at any time along the foot paths near the base of Clifton Hill, opposite the American Falls, where unwitting tourists stroll, often pausing to enjoy the shade afforded by tall, leafy trees.

Usually, the only warning is a piercing caw from a high branch, followed by a swooping attack.

The riveting summer drama recalls "Jaws."

Call it "Beaks."

(TA-dum, TA-dum, TA-dum, TA-dum . . . Whoosh! Hold onto your hat!)

The villain is the red-winged blackbird, a highly territorial species that has inhabited the northern end of the park for several summers.

Of late, the birds seem to be picking inordinately on the Niagara Parks Police, whose officers wear caps featuring a bright yellow band and shiny badge.

Walking the beat on blackbird turf can be hazardous for the uniformed chaps, mostly young seasonal employees on summer break from college.

"The birds fly from one tree to another and then zoom down until they drive you away," said Chief William J. Derbyshire. He figures the avian dive-bombers for some reason are incensed by the bright colors.

"Very often the fellows will just take off their hats and tuck them under the arm until they get out into traffic. It's a little embarrassing," Derbyshire said.

Officer David Jones, a recent Guelph University graduate, manfully walked through blackbird territory with his cap on the other day, and was buzzed several times by indignant birds. But he gave a wide berth to a particularly nasty-looking red-wing perched on a 10-foot pine.

"I'm a married man," Jones said.

Park caretakers have a different theory.

"It's not necessarily the police they go after," said Angelo Mela, a veteran groundskeeper.

"They'll attack anybody who goes near a nest."

The Victoria Park red-wings, distinguished by a bright red shoulder patch, nest primarily in short evergreens gracing the well-groomed area. Some nests are no more than four feet from the ground.

Mela, who wears a beige uniform and no hat, said he has been beset "many, many times" by the winged defenders.

"They surprise you. They're very, very territorial," he said. "They'll peck you right on the head, but not hard enough to draw blood."

Trespassing is even riskier for other birds. Mela once watched a blackbird force an oriole to the ground, beat it into submission with its wings, carry it to a nearby pond and hold it under water until it drowned.

Red-wings are known for aggressive behavior, said Buffalo News nature writer Dave Bigelow.

"They not only fight among themselves in claims for territory, but they do battle with their neighbors," he said. "They're even brazen enough to attack hawks."

Bigelow said he is puzzled that a flock of red-wings, normally marsh birds that winter along the Niagara River before dispersing in May to swampy inland areas, where they tend to nest among cattails, had settled in high and dry Victoria Park.

The Niagara Parks Police wish their tormentors would simply flap off. The unarmed young seasonal officers, hired mostly to direct traffic and assist tourists, are defenseless against the airborne menace.

"Good thing," Derbyshire said. "They'd probably be taking target practice on the blackbirds."

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