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 

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.

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 

God vs. the Gods – The First Known Instance of Monotheism in History

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In the long line of pharaohs of the dynasties of ancient Egypt, Akhenaten was unique. Yet until recently, almost nothing was known about him. Akhenaten lived during the 14th century BC and his reign lasted for 17 years.. Evidence of his existence was discovered only in the late 19th century.

The future king of Egypt was originally named Amenhotep IV, son of pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. He was not first in line to the throne but his older brother died at a young age. Some scholars believe that the young prince was shunned as a child, as he never appeared in family portraits. He later married the well-known Queen Nefertiti.

Once on the throne, Akhenaten made revolutionary changes to Egyptian life. He banished worship of Egypt’s many gods, including Amun-Ra, popular among the priestly class. Instead, only one deity, the sun disk god Aten, was to be recognized as the Supreme Being. Akhenaten considered himself a direct descendant of Aten.

Worship of Aten may have been the first known movement away from polytheism toward monotheism. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once suggested that Moses may have been a priest to the cult of Aten, who later fled Egypt with his followers to maintain their beliefs after the death of Akhenaten.

After changing his name to Akhenaten, the pharaoh ordered grand monuments built for Aten in the Egyptian capital, Thebes. Temples were reoriented toward the east, where the sun rose each day. Icons for other Egyptian gods were removed.

Akhenaten then had a new city built in honor of his god. Two years later, he moved the royal palace there. The new city was located at modern day Amarna and was filled with up to 10,000 people. The population included priests to the sun god, merchants, builders, and traders. Akhenaten lived here for ten years until his death.

Along with statues, there were a number of sculptures portraying the royal family. This was common for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Almost all previous royal portraits depicted the king and queen as rigid. They are serious. They are wearing the royal insignia and their bodies are shaped perfectly and muscular. They look like gods themselves.

Not Akhenaten though. His face looks stretched. The nose is narrow and the chin is pointy. He has large lips and broad hips. A pot belly oozes over his waist. Why does Akhenaten look so different from other sculptures of the period?

One theory is that the king may have suffered some sort of ailment. One of the possibilities is that he had Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Some of the possible symptoms include a tall and thin body type, long arms, legs, and fingers, as well as curvature of the spine.

Yet, Akhenaten and his family look like real people with physical flaws. It is timeless. The images reach out to us through the many centuries. In one stone relief, the sun god Aten’s light is shining down on Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and some of their children.

The pharaoh is holding one child in his arms, giving her a kiss. Nefertiti is holding two younger kids, one child reaching for the queen’s jewelry. It’s a scene that might look like any contemporary family.

It appears Akhenaten’s rule was not popular, both within the kingdom and beyond. Correspondences from foreign rulers allied to Egypt describe frustration with Akhenaten’s lack of military and financial support. Egyptian power and influence declined during the king’s reign.

Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not outlive him. Almost immediately after his death, the priestly elites of Amun-Ra and the other gods regained their influence. Statues and references to Akhenaten and Aten were removed. Akhenaten’s name was erased from official royal lists.

His temples were destroyed and the material used for new building projects. The city at Amarna was abandoned — even the mummified body of Akhenaten was removed from his tomb, never to be seen again.

Akhenaten’s successor was one of his sons, King Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut. He is more famous today than his father because his tomb was discovered mostly intact by archaeologists in the early 20th century.

As his name suggests, Tutankhamun embraced the old deity of Amun-Ra and the traditional ways of ancient Egypt. During his short reign, King Tut mostly turned away from his father’s legacy, the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten.

 Mark Shiffer

How a Rejected Block of Marble Became the World’s Most Famous Statue

Florence, Italy Statue of David by Michelangelo
© massimo lama/Dreamstime.com

At the start of the 16th century the Opera del Duomo—the committee of officials in charge of the decoration and maintenance of the Florence cathedral—had a tricky unfinished project on its hands. A document from 1501 refers to a massive barely begun statue, “a certain man of marble, named David, badly blocked out and laid on its back in the courtyard.” The stone was a leftover from a long-running decorative project: in 1408 the committee had decided to decorate the roofline around the dome of the cathedral with massive statues of biblical prophets and mythological figures. The first two, put into place in the early 15th century, were a statue of Joshua sculpted in terra-cotta by Donatello and painted white to look like marble, and a statue of Hercules, sculpted by one of Donatello’s students, Agostino di Duccio.

A statue of David, the Biblical hero who slayed the giant Goliath, had been ordered in 1464. This commission went to Agostino, and a huge slab of marble was extracted from the Carrara quarries in Tuscany, Italy, for the project. For unknown reasons Agostino abandoned the project after doing only a little work, mostly roughing out around the legs.

Another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was hired to take over the project in 1476, but he backed out almost immediately, citing the poor quality of the marble. (Modern scientific analyses of the marble have confirmed that it is indeed of mediocre quality.) Left without a sculptor but too expensive to throw away, the massive slab sat out in the elements for a quarter century.

In the summer of 1501 a new effort was made to find a sculptor who could finish the statue. The 26-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was chosen and given two years to complete it. Early in the morning on September 13, 1501, the young artist got to work on the slab, extracting the figure of David in a miraculous process that the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari would later describe as “the bringing back to life of one who was dead.”

In 1504, as Michelangelo finished his work, Florentine officials concluded that the statue was too heavy to place in its intended location on the roofline of the cathedral. A committee of artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, met and decided that the statue should be placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1873 it was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and a replica was erected at the original site.

There are several aesthetic aspects of the David statue that may be connected with the tortuous process by which it was commissioned and created. The figure, although muscular, is slimmer than the bodybuilder-like physiques that are typical of Michelangelo’s other works. This may be because the marble slab was narrow, having been cut with the thinner statues of Donatello and Agostino’s era in mind. The absence of David’s traditional accoutrements, a sword and the severed head of Goliath, may be because there was no room to carve them in the block of marble or possibly because they would have been invisible once the statue was put in place on the cathedral roof. Likewise, David’s disproportionately large right hand and prominent facial expression may have been exaggerated to ensure that they would be legible to spectators on the ground.

WRITTEN BY:  The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 

Dragon Lore: Origins of the Fire-Breathing Beast

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From ancient Greek myths to Game of Thrones, the legend of the dragon is one of the most enduring and romanticized throughout history. It has been traced back as far as 4000 BC and exists in all parts of the world.

In and around Europe dragons are viewed mostly as monsters of evil intent. In ancient Rome, the army used dragons as symbols of strength.

During the Renaissance, fear of sea monsters kept sailors from venturing too far from known waters, and the edges of their maps would read “Here be dragons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology of the word dragon, which it says entered the English lexicon in around 1220 and was used in English versions of the Bible from the early 14th century.

Dragon derives from Old French, the language used by nobles and law courts following the Norman conquest of 1066. This in turn stems from the Latin draconem or draco meaning “big serpent,” which was derived from ancient Greek δράκων (drakon).

In Greek mythology, the Hesperian Dragon named Ladon was a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.

Historically, European dragons were viewed as being evil, jealous, and greedy hoarders of treasure.

In the stories, they were generally treated as violent monsters who must be slain by heroes and saints. European dragons could have four legs, two legs, or none, and often had wings.

In Asia, and especially China, the view of these creatures was very different. Dragons were thought to live under the ocean in the winter, arising in the spring with a clap of thunder to bring the rain needed for their crops, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

They breathed clouds and moved the seasons. The dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, and the Imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. Known as the Dragon, the emperor ruled in harmony, and brought peace and prosperity to all.

Chinese dragons are depicted as being more serpent-like, with long, snaking bodies and usually had four legs. They are generally seen as wingless.

How people view them and what they believe about them varies widely, but the idea is too widespread not to think there are some common roots.

What made people from cultures that may have never met all come up with the idea of dragons?

There are several theories about what creatures could have been the source of the dragon myths, any or all of them may be true.

Ancient Origins discusses a number of potential roots. The first one is crocodiles. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are the two largest living reptiles on earth today.

Currently, saltwater crocodiles live in the eastern Indian Ocean region, and Nile crocs in the rivers, marshes, and lakes of Sub-Saharan Africa. But 1,000 years they had a much larger habitat range, and could have been encountered by people living in Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy.

Bizarre Blue Dragon-Like Creatures Wash Up on Beach, Experts Warn Not to Touch

Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet in length, and have the ability to lift much of their bodies off the ground. This may be a hint about why European dragons are often described as rearing up.

Many archaeologists believe that ancient people envisioned dragons when they found the fossils of certain sorts of dinosaurs, specifically, the types that had very long necks.

Having no explanation for the lengthy fossils, they would have imagined a beast that seemed to fit what they were seeing.

There is evidence to suggest that there were discoveries of dinosaur fossils being uncovered in China as early as the 4th century BC. Fossils belonging to flying dinosaurs, such as pterodactyl or pteranodons, could very well be part of why some cultures envision dragons as having wings.

Another, similar, theory is that people imagined dragons when the skeletons of whales washed on shore near early coastal dwellings.

Because early people didn’t have suitable sailing and navigation technology, they would most likely only have seen the immense whales from a distance when the creatures were living.

This could certainly be the root of sailor’s fear of “dragons” in the waters, as well as the ocean-dwelling Asian view. This could also be one of the reasons that some dragons are pictured as having wings.

Snakes are also thought to be a basis for the dragon myth. Although even very large snakes are much smaller than dragons are said to be, humankind has a deeply embedded instinct to fear them.

In ancient Egypt, for example, Apep was a deity known as the Serpent of the Nile. He was viewed as the lord of Chaos, and opposed to light and truth.

Each of these theories show some echo of what we think about when we think of dragons. All of them together show a more complete picture of the huge beasts that feature in so many stories and myths.

 Ian Harvey