Walking through the streets of New York City, I do a little something I call my “sidewalk dance.” It’s not the most delicate choreography — in fact, it’s clumsy and involves a lot of sudden, awkward stops — but without it, I wouldn’t get around.
I have ornithophobia, a fear of birds. It’s a shame given that I love big cities, where pigeons are predominant. Living in New York City with its pigeon population is not always easy. It was a major factor I had to consider before moving here. But since I had learned to cope with birds in the San Francisco Bay Area, I hoped it would brace me for the East Coast.
In my case, what scares me about birds is, really, everything: the way they look — their feathers, beady eyes and feet — to the way they move and the cooing sounds they make. Hearing wings flapping sends me into a panic. I trip over myself trying to escape, and will walk into traffic, stores or other humans to avoid coming within five feet of them.
The American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education reports that in any given year, about 7.8 percent of American adults suffer from a phobia, which is categorized as an anxiety disorder. Michael Vasey, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says ornithophobia is an unusual one. Exact data is not available available due to both the rarity of the phobia itself and the inability to use birds in research as easily as with the subjects of other phobias like arachnophobia, fear of spiders.
“My money is on that there’s not a lot of people with that fear,” Vasey said.
Elizabeth Krumbach, a 31-year-old computer engineer from San Francisco, has also been afraid of birds since she can remember. Chickens and vultures, she says, are particularly fearsome for her. Krumbach remembers attending summer camp as a child where one activity involved spreading birdseed on yourself to allow birds to land on you. She was too terrified to do it. In recent years, she’s adjusted to pigeons and can walk down the street without trouble.
“It’s easy enough to avoid them and I don’t go into full panic attacks when a bird does come around, just sweaty palms and general nervousness or temporary fright if they fly up near me,” she said.
Chris Watts, director of the Triage and Evaluation Center at the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, says he has seen three patients with ornithophobia in his 10 years of practice — all children who were once attacked by a bird.
“Some people have very minimal anxiety on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end, extreme panic attacks where they have difficulty breathing,” Watts said, listing stomachaches, nausea and dry mouth as typical symptoms, and shaking and heart palpitations as more severe.
Angela Watson, 45, a resident of Burnside, Ky., first realized she had ornithophobia when, at the mall where she works, a pet store would release its birds to fly through the building.
When the birds flew, she’d go running to her store’s stockroom and shut the door behind her, she says.
“It’s not that I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me,” she said. “I just have a fear of them flying by head or into my hair.” Watson adds that her fear is more of birds flying in contained spaces. When she encounters that, she experiences a brief panic attack, her heart racing.
Her fear may be an inherited one, as her mother was deathly afraid of birds. Luckily for her, the pet store is no longer at the mall.
In my own case, I had no traumatic experiences that led to the phobia. It developed when I first encountered city birds when I moved to Berkeley, Calif., for college. While I loved spending time on campus, enjoying the California sun with my friends, I’d make a run for it when pigeons or seagulls would approach.
I’d never experienced the phobia strongly in the suburbs of Los Angeles where I grew up, likely because birds are smaller and less aggressive there. The only time I recall the fear before college was on a trip to Pakistan sitting in the courtyard of my aunt’s house, where a chicken and rooster roamed freely. I sat with my feet up on the yard swing, terrified they’d come after me.
But yes, I do eat chicken. I can’t go to the beach without a “bodyguard,” though, and no, I haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds.” I have not made any efforts to overcome it, because I imagine that would involve confrontation like those on the daytime talk show Maury Povich, forcing people face-to-face with their worst fears like cotton or balloons.
Different types of treatments do exist, Watts said, including cognitive behavioral therapy which involves breaking down the thinking behind the fear in order to help people confront it.
Other treatments include meditation, hypnosis and sometimes medication for more severe symptoms, Watts said.
Ornithophobia “is, in my practice, fairly rare and again, it was all with adolescent clients, but they have worked through it,” he said. “They still have a little uneasy feeling, but they’re at a much better place now.”
I’d like to think there’s some hope for me, too, for at least being able to walk down the street or go to the beach in peace. In the meantime, I’m taking it one clumsy, carelessly choreographed step at a time.