6 of the World’s Most Dangerous Birds

In 1963 Alfred Hitchcock released The Birds, one of his most iconic thrillers. The movie considered what would happen if flocks of birds, animals that linger in the background of many of our daily lives, suddenly rose up and attacked a small coastal town in California. The film was inspired by a real-life event, namely an attack by sooty shearwaters on Capitola, California, in 1961. It was linked to diatompoisoning of the anchovies eaten by the birds. The shearwaters crashed into rooftops, and their carcasses were found on the streets and throughout the town.

Movies like The Birds (1963) or The Happening (2008) that explore the possibility of nature suddenly becoming vindictive pop into theaters from time to time, but the prospect of injuries and even deaths caused by aggressive birds is not fiction. Territoriality and defending young from predators remains serious business, and even the smallest birds will lash out at threats. The list below highlights some of the world’s most dangerous birds.


  • Cassowary (Casuarius)

    The cassowary (genus Casuarius)
    © Javarman/Fotolia

    Cassowaries are the only members of the family Casuariidae and belong to the order Casuariiformes, which also includes the emu. Three species (counted by some experts as six), each with several races, live in habitats that span parts of Australia and New Guinea. The cassowary has been known to kill human beings with slashing blows of its feet, as the innermost of its three toes bears a long daggerlike nail. The bird has been observed moving rapidly along narrow tracks in the bush, sprinting as fast as 50 km (31 miles) per hour.

    Cassowaries are curious, and they do attack from time to time, but attacks on humans are relatively rare. Those attacks that do occur overwhelmingly involve soliciting food from people. One of the most recent incidents came in 2012, when a tourist in Queensland, Australia, was kicked by a cassowary off a ledge and into a body of water but remained unharmed otherwise. One of the most famous attacks (and the only one known to result in a confirmed death) occurred in 1926: one member of a group of teenaged boys hunting cassowaries was killed after a cassowary leapt upon him while he was on the ground. The bird slashed the boy’s jugular vein with its long toenail.

  • Ostrich (Struthio camelus)

    Male ostrich, (Struthio camelus). (bird; flightless bird; African animal; African bird; ratites)
    © Xavier Marchant/Fotolia

    Ostriches are flightless birds found only in open country in Africa. The largest living birds, adult males may be 2.75 meters (about 9 feet) tall—almost half of that height being in the neck—and weigh more than 150 kilograms (330 pounds). Ostriches are seen individually, in pairs, in small flocks, or in large aggregations, depending on the season. The ostrich relies on its strong legs—uniquely two-toed, with the main toe developed almost as a hoof—to escape its enemies, chiefly humans and the larger carnivores. A frightened ostrich can achieve a speed of 72.5 kilometers (45 miles) per hour. If cornered, it can deliver dangerous kicks capable of killing lions and other large predators. Deaths from kicks and slashes are rare, with most attacks resulting from humans provoking the birds.

    One of the most interesting ostrich-attack stories involved the American musician Johnny Cash, who kept an exotic animal park with ostriches on his property. Cash encountered an aggressive male ostrich several times during his walks in the woods in 1981. On one occasion, Cash brandished a 6-foot stick and swung it at the bird, who dodged the swipe and slashed at Cash with its foot. Cash noted that the blow struck him in the stomach, and if it weren’t for a strong belt buckle, he said that the ostrich’s toe claw would have cut his abdomen open and killed him.

  • Emu (Dromaius [or Dromiceiusnovaehollandiae)

    Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) with chicks in the outback, Australia. Flightless bird mother with young
    Shmenny50—iStock/Thinkstock

    The common emu, the only survivor of several forms exterminated by settlers, is stout-bodied and long-legged like its relative the cassowary. Emus can dash away at nearly 50 km (30 miles) per hour; if cornered, they kick with their big three-toed feet. Like cassowaries and ostriches, the toe claws of emus are capable of eviscerating animals under the right conditions; however, human fatalities are extremely rare. Reports of emu attacks resulting in a range of injuries in Australia and in wild-animal parks, emu farms, and zoos across the world are not uncommon, with more than 100 occurring in 2009 alone.

  • Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)

    Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)
    Paul Johnsgard—Root Resources/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

    Lammergeiers, which are also called bearded vultures, are big eaglelike vultures of the Old World (family Accipitridae). These birds often reach lengths of more than 1 meter (40 inches), with a wingspread of nearly 3 meters (10 feet). They inhabit mountainous regions from Central Asia and eastern Africa to Spain and dine on carrion, especially bones, which they drop from heights as great as 80 meters (260 feet) onto flat rocks below. This cracks open the victim’s bones and allows the birds access to the marrow. Attacks on humans are either rare or even anecdotal; however, the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus is said to have died at Gela (on Sicily’s south coast) when a lammergeier dropped a tortoise on his bald head after mistaking it for a stone. Although Aeschylus did die at Gela, experts believe that the story describing the strange cause of his death was fabricated by a later comic writer.

  • Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)

    Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) landing in meadow.
    © bigshotd3/Fotolia

    Owls of all kinds have been known to attack people when defending their young, their mates, or their territories. Frequent targets include unsuspecting joggers and hikers. Often victims escape without injury, and deaths from owl attacks are extremely rare. Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) and barred owls (Strix varia), in particular, have received attention from high-profile attacks.

    In 2012 a number of people in a Seattle-area park reported being attacked by a great horned owl that swooped down from the trees. A similar swooping attack occurred in Salem, Oregon, in 2015 when a great horned owl repeatedly struck the scalp of a jogger, who ran and later escaped. Great horned owls are powerful predators that often grow to more than 2 feet (60 cm) in length, with wingspans that often approach 200 cm (80 inches). These owls, which are found across the Americas, usually eat small rodents and birds but have been known to carry off larger prey. The clutching force of their talons can be as strong as 500 psi (which is similar to the bite of a large guard dog and thus great enough to permanently disfigure, blind, or kill). Great horned owls, like most owl species, tend to concentrate on the face and head in battles with larger animals.

  • Barred Owl (Strix varia)

    Barred owl (Strix varia)
    Karl H. Maslowski

    Barred owls, whose habitat includes much of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, are smaller than great horned owls. They weigh between 630 and 800 grams (1.4 to 1.8 pounds) and have a wingspan of about 110 cm (43 inches). Attacks by barred owls on hikers have been reported from Texas to British Columbia.

    A barred owl was thought to have played a part in a bizarre high-profile North Carolina murder case. In 2003 a man was convicted of murdering his second wife with a fireplace blow poke. In 2011, after the man had served several years in prison, a judge tossed out the forensic evidence related to the murder weapon. Shortly thereafter, news of barred-owl attacks in the Pacific Northwest, combined with a reexamination of the wounds on the victim’s scalp, face, and wrists, prompted the defendant’s attorneys to suggest that a barred owl was to blame for the victim’s death. The defense argued that the victim, who was under the influence of pain medication and alcohol at the time, was attacked by a barred owl in her front yard. The owl had become entangled in the victim’s hair and continued to scratch and peck before the victim was able to fight it off and free it as she ran into the house. After climbing the stairs to the second floor, the attorneys suggested that the victim had then fallen backwards down the stairs to her death, breaking her neck. In 2017 the defendant plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, which allowed him to maintain his innocence.

    WRITTEN BY:  John P. Rafferty 

Why Is There an R in Mrs.?

Sign for wedding "Mr & Mrs" (mister and missis) with flowers in the grass
© Natashilo/Shutterstock.com

If we pronounce the title Mrs. as “missus,” why is there an r in it? Despite its pronunciation, the abbreviation Mrs. is derived from the title mistress, which accounts for that confusing extra letter. Mistress is the counterpart of master, which—you guessed it—is abbreviated to Mr. (Of course, English speakers now pronounce the title Mr. as “mister.”)

While mistress may have distasteful connotations today, in the mid-18th century the title referred to a woman of economic or social capital. Mrs. was an honorific: a woman referred to as Mrs. generally had servants or was part of an upper social echelon. Most notably, the title Mrs. did not signify that a woman was married, just like Mr. today. In fact, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 offers six definitions for the word mistress, which range from the respectful (“a woman who governs” or “a woman skilled in anything”) to the ironic (“a term of contemptuous address” or “a whore or concubine”), but no definition mentions marital status.

The use of Mrs. to refer to a married woman is linked to the history of another title: MissMiss became a popular title in the late 18th century and specifically referred to an unmarried woman (often a schoolteacher) of a high social status. (Originally, Miss was actually a title for young girls, while Masterwas the title for boys.) This, according to scholar Amy Erickson, caused a shift in the use of Mrs. to signify a married woman in the late 18th century and still informs our use of the title Mrs. today.

How the pronunciation of mistress turned to “missus” is somewhat unclear. Erickson cites John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language from 1828: “The same haste and necessity of dispatch, which has corrupted Master into Mister, has, when a title of civility only, contracted Mistress into Missis.” The change in pronunciation was essentially a colloquial and utilitarian shortening, and by the tail end of the 18th century, this pronunciation was the preferred one.

WRITTEN BY:  Cydney Grannan 

A Trillion Tonnes of Antarctica Fell into the Sea

In late August 2016, sunlight returned to the Antarctic Peninsula and unveiled a rift across the Larsen C Ice Shelf that had grown longer and deeper over the austral winterNASA/John Sonntag

Antarctica, Earth’s coldest continent, is known for its remoteness, its unique fauna, and its frigid surface of ice. Around Antarctica’s periphery, dozens of ice shelves (that is, masses of glacier-fed floating ice that are attached to land) project outward into the Southern Ocean. The two largest ice shelves, the Ross Ice Shelfand the Ronne Ice Shelf, span a combined area of nearly 350,000 square km (about 135,000 square miles)—an area roughly equivalent to Venezuela—but Antarctica’s Larsen Ice Shelf, the continent’s fourth largest, has received the bulk of the attention over the last 25 years because it is slowly coming apart. The latest episode in this saga occurred between July 10 and July 12, 2017, when a one-trillion-metric-ton chunk of ice—possibly critical to holding back a large section of the remaining shelf—calved (that is, broke away).

The Larsen Ice Shelf is located on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula and juts out into the Weddell Sea. It originally covered an area of 86,000 square km (33,000 square miles), but its footprint has declined dramatically, possibly as a result of warming air temperatures over the Antarctic Peninsula during the second half of the 20th century. In January 1995 the northern portion (known as Larsen A) disintegrated, and a giant iceberg calved from the middle section (Larsen B). Larsen B steadily retreated until February–March 2002, when it too collapsed and disintegrated. The southern portion (Larsen C) made up two-thirds of the ice shelf’s original extent, covering an area of about 50,000 square km (19,300 square miles) alone. Its thickness ranges from 200 to 600 meters (about 660 to 1,970 feet). Sometime between July 10 and July 12, 2017, a 5,800-square-km- (~2,240-square-mile-) section—some 12% of the Larsen C—broke away. Signs of Larsen C’s impending fracture date back to 2012, when satellite monitoring detected a steadily growing crack near the Joerg Peninsula at the southern end of the shelf. NASA and ESA satellites tracked the rift as it grew to more than 200 km (124 miles) in length and the huge iceberg separated from the continent.

Although some 88% of Larsen C remains, many scientists worry that it will fall apart like Larsen A and Larsen B, because the loss of such a huge area of the shelf’s ice front may make the remainder of the ice shelf less stable. The shelf’s mass, along with the fact that it is pinned behind shallow undersea outcrops of rock below, creates a natural dam that significantly slows the flow of the ice into the Weddell Sea. Scientists note that the section that calved was not held back by rock, so they are less worried that the loss of the calved section will result in the shelf’s wholesale disintegration in the near term. Some scientists even concede that the calved area could regrow to form a new ice dam that reinforces the shelf. However, the results of ice-calving and glacier-flow models predict that the shelf will continue to break apart over the course of years and decades.

Calving is a natural process driven, in part, by seasonal changes in temperature and the pressures associated with the build-up of compressional stress on the ice. Some studies argue that spring and summer foehns (warm dry gusty winds that periodically descend the leeward slopes of mountain ranges) have also contributed to the weakening of the ice. As investigations into ice shelf dynamics continue, such large iceberg calving events are often regarded as symptoms of climate changeassociated with global warming. While global warming may turn out to play a part in ice shelf calving events, scientists disagree on the role, if any, the phenomenon has played in recent developments on Larsen C.

Disintegration of Larsen Ice ShelfThe map shows the section of Larsen C that calved in July 2017.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

How Service Animals Help Humans Live Fuller Lives

Guide dog is helping a blind man in the city, service dog, service animal, labrador
© Stieber/Shutterstock.com

An earlier version of this article was published on the Britannica blog Advocacy for Animals.

The partnership between humans and animals dates back to the first domestication of animals in the Stone Age, as long as 9,000 years ago. But never have animals provided such dedicated and particular help to humans as they do today in the form of trained service, or assistance, to people with disabilities. These animals, usually dogs, help people accomplish tasks that would otherwise be prohibitively difficult or simply impossible. Service animals are not pets but working animals doing a job. Thus, legislation—such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) in the United States and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) in the United Kingdom—makes service animals exempt from rules that prohibit animals from public places and businesses.

The most familiar service animals are guide dogs who help visually impaired people move about safely. Systematic training of guide dogs originated in Germany during World War I to aid blindedveterans. In the late 1920s Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog trainer living in Switzerland, heard of the program and wrote a magazine article about it. The publicity led her to her first student, Morris Frank, with whose help she established a similar training school in the United States in 1929, the Seeing Eye (now located in Morristown, New Jersey).

Puppies are often bred for the purpose by the various organizations that train guide dogs. German shepherdsLabrador retrievers, and Labrador-golden retriever crosses are the most widely used breeds because of their calm temperaments, intelligence, natural desire to be helpful, and good constitutions. Puppies spend their first year with foster families who socialize them and prepare them for later training by teaching them basic obedience skills. At the age of approximately 18 months, guide dogs enter formal training, which lasts from about three to five months. During this period the dogs learn to adjust to a harness, stop at curbs, gauge the human partner’s height when traveling in low or obstructed places, and disobey a command when obedience will endanger the person.

In recent years, hearing dogs have become increasingly common. These dogs, usually mixed-breed rescues from animal shelters, are trained to alert their human partners to ordinary sounds, such as an alarm clock, a baby’s cry, or a telephone. The dogs raise the alert by touching the partner with a paw and then leading him or her to the source of the sound. They are also trained to recognize danger signals—such as fire alarms and sounds of intruders—and to raise the alert by touching with a paw and then lying down in a special “alert” posture, at which time the human partner can take appropriate action.

Dogs can be trained for a great variety of assistance purposes. For example, Service Dogs for America (SDA)/Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation, Inc., trains several categories of assistance animals, including service dogs who help people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices; hearing dogs; seizure-alert or seizure-response dogs, who help persons with seizure disorders by activating an electronic alert system when symptoms occur (some can even predict the onset of a seizure); and therapeutic companion dogs, who provide emotional support for people in hospices, hospitals, and other situations in which loneliness and lack of stimulation are continual problems. There are many programs that train and certify pet animals, especially dogs and cats, as therapy animals who visit such institutions and bring much-welcomed companionship to patients.

Animals are also used in programs such as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). In the words of the Australia-based Delta Society, AAT is a “goal-directed intervention” that utilizes the motivating and rewarding presence of animals, facilitated by trained human professionals, to help patients make cognitive and physical improvements. For example, an elderly patient in a nursing home might be given the task of buckling a dog’s collar or feeding small treats to a cat, activities that enhance fine motor skills. Goals are set for the patients, and their progress is measured.

Dogs and cats are not the only animals who can assist humans with disabilities. Capuchin monkeys—small, quick, and intelligent—can help people who are paralyzed or have other severe impairments to their mobility, such as multiple sclerosis. These monkeys perform essential tasks such as turning on lights and picking up dropped objects. One of the more unusual assistance animals is the guide horse. An experimental program in the United States trains miniature horses to guide the visually impaired in the same way that guide dogs do. The tiny horses may be an alternative for people who are allergic to dogs or who have equestrian backgrounds and are more comfortable with horses.

Certain dogs and other animals have special skills similar to those of the seizure-assistance dogs, such as the ability to detect a diabetic’s drop in blood sugar and alert the person before danger occurs. The sometimes uncanny natural abilities of animals can benefit humans in many ways. Reputable organizations that train assistance animals also take steps to ensure that the animals are cherished and lead rewarding, enjoyable, and healthy lives. When the animals’ helping careers are over, provision is made for their well-deserved retirement.

Plastic Disaster: How Your Bags, Bottles, and Body Wash Pollute the Oceans

Environmental problem of plastic rubbish pollution in ocean
© Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

Plastic is cheap and durable and has revolutionized human activity. Modern life is addicted to and dependent on this versatile substance, which is found in everything from computers to medical equipment to food packaging. Unfortunately, an estimated 19 billion pounds (more than 8.5 million metric tons) of plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year. Much of this plastic comes from single-use packaging, such as soda bottles and produce bags, and from other single-use products such as straws and disposable diapers. One study suggested that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish!

Plastic pollution is more than unsightly. It has a deadly and direct effect on wildlife. Many marine organisms get physically entangled in plastic trash and either drown or slowly starve to death. Others eat the plastics, mistaking the ubiquitous materials for food. Leatherback sea turtles often confuse plastic bags for their jellyfish prey and asphyxiate. Seabirds, especially albatrosses, and other birds that scoop food from the sea have been found dead on their nests, their bellies too full of plastics to survive. A recent study found plastic trash in 90 percent of seabirds, with pieces ranging from bottle caps to rice-sized fragments that look like seeds.

Perhaps even more worrisome is microplastic pollution. The vast majority of plastics are not biodegradable, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller particles but never leave the environment entirely. Pieces smaller than 5 mm (0.2 inch) are classified as microplastics, and it is estimated that a significant portion of all plastic pollution in the oceans is now in this category. Microplastics also come from cosmetics, body washes, and toothpastes, which use tiny pieces of plastics as exfoliants and abrasives, and from items of synthetic clothing that shed minute fibers each time they are washed. These particles and fibers are too small for waste management systemsto filter and are directly discharged into the oceans. There is concern that these microplastics and/or the endocrine-disrupting chemicals they contain will bioaccumulate (become progressively more concentrated in the bodies of organisms up the food chain), since they are about the same size as plankton that serve as the base of the food chain. Many marine organisms have already been found with microplastics in their bodies. Studies on marine worms and oysters have found that microplastics disrupt their feeding and reproduction, causing a failure to thrive. These tiny fragments could also contaminate humans directly, as microplastics have been found in sea salt sold for human consumption.

Disturbingly, global plastic production doubles every 11 years, meaning the amount of plastic pollution will only continue to increase without drastic changes. To help battle this dire problem, be aware of your consumption of single-use plastics—it will likely shock you to realize how seemingly everything comes in plastic. Reduce your consumption of these products and reuse the containers whenever possible. Avoid health and beauty products that use plastic microbeads. Buy reusable bags, straws, and glass or metal beverage containers. Buy pantry basics, like rice and beans, in bulk, and avoid putting your produce in plastic bags for the short trip home. Recycle the plastic you do use, but be aware that not every plastic can be recycled. Participate in beach, river, or lake cleanups and help raise awareness of the problem. Encourage your employer and the companies and restaurants you patronize to facilitate greener options, such as paper products over plastic disposables. Support legislation that targets plastic pollution and the fossil fuels from which they are made. The challenge is huge, but, like plastics themselves, small actions accumulate.

How Did the Sperm Whale Get Its Name?

Sperm whale

Sperm whales (Physeter catodon), or cachalots, are the largest of the toothed whales, with males up to 19 meters (62 feet) long—more than five times the length of a large elephant—and females up to 12 meters (39 feet) in length. They are easily recognized by their enormous square head and narrow lower jaw. Probably the most famous sperm whale was Moby Dick, the great white whale from Herman Melville’s classic novel of the same name. (As far as we can tell, Moby Dick was the only sperm whale that delivered a unique brand of karmic justice to one-legged sea captains bent on vengeance.) Despite the public’s passing familiarity with sperm whales, many people have wondered why they are so named. Are they called sperm whales because their body shape is similar to that of male sex cells, or is there another reason?

The whale’s common name originated during the heyday of the commercial whaling industry, from the end of the 18th century through the 19th century. The head of the sperm whale contains an enormous fluid-filled organ (which whalers called the case). During whale harvests, this organ, now called the spermaceti organ, was discovered to contain a white liquid that whalers mistook for the sperm of the whale. The spermaceti organ is unique to sperm whales, although bottlenose whales possess a similar organ. It has a volume as large as 2,000 liters (530 gallons) and can extend through 40 percent of the whale’s length.

Whalers valued spermaceti (the name of the material within the spermaceti organ) because it could be cooled into a wax that could be made into ointments, cosmetic creams, fine wax candles, pomades, textile finishing products, and industrial lubricants. The whale’s spermaceti organ and blubber also hold sperm oil, a pale yellow oil that was used as a superior lighting oil and later as a lubricant and in soap manufacturing.

WRITTEN BY:  John P. Rafferty