One day this summer, my friends and I went to the beach. While my friends were lying on their beach towels, I lifted my head every 30 seconds to monitor my surroundings. But I wasn’t watching for stray volleyballs or cute guys. I was watching for birds.
After five minutes of tanning, a seagull landed on the sand about 12 feet away. BIRD ALERT! My shoulders tensed up. That bird was all I could focus on. I was afraid that the bird would spot the food we brought for our picnic and get closer. And then worse, it might see me as food and want to get to me.
It hopped a few inches closer. Then a few more inches closer. My bird alert went into overdrive. I started breathing deeper and faster and my muscles tensed up even more. My heart was pounding so hard and racing so fast that it felt like it was going to rip through my chest. I sat up, ready to run away.
After a few minutes, I stood up and kicked sand toward the bird, which had been hopping around but never got closer than 10 feet. My little attempt did nothing so I asked my friend to scare it away. She walked toward the evil creature, and it flew away … gone forever.
This is a day in the life of someone living with ornithophobia (pronounced OR-nith-o-FO-bee-uh), which is an intense fear of birds. To almost everyone I’ve met, birds are harmless little animals that fly around and look cute. But to me birds are evil creatures with razor sharp claws and beaks like knives that flap their wings around and stare at you with their beady eyes.
It all started with a toy canary
I’ve had this fear since I was 5 years old. When I misbehaved my mom would lightly peck me on my knees with Doodoo—a realistic-looking canary with fake yellow feathers that she had bought as a decoration. It never hurt. Sometimes she just waved it in front of my face. Doodoo got me to behave. Ironically, my mom chose to discipline me with Doodoo because it was so small and cute. Too bad it ended up causing my lifelong fear of birds.
By the time I was 7, my mom noticed that I was genuinely afraid of birds. Whenever we’d see any bird, from a seagull to a sparrow, I’d try to jump on her back and scream, “There’s a bird! Ebon ebon ebon.” (“Ebon” means “bird” in Tagalog—the language spoken in the Philippines.)
“Why are you doing this?” she’d ask.
“I don’t want to be pecked,” I’d answer. “I don’t want them to see me.”
As I’ve gotten older this fear hasn’t gone away. When I see any bird—dead or alive—I run. Even though dead birds can’t peck me, seeing any bird freaks me out. When I was 13 I saw a flattened bird on my friend’s driveway. I screamed, ran away and almost vomited. I hyperventilated for 30 minutes. Last year I almost got hit by a car, because I ran into the street after I heard a rustling in a hedge that I was afraid could be a bird.
Birds ruined our vacation
My biggest bird-related meltdown happened during a trip to San Diego when I was 12. My parents and I were eating outside at a restaurant. At first there were a few sparrows on the tables near us, and I was already hyperventilating and shaking. But when a few pigeons joined them, I jumped on our table and cried.
I didn’t care if people thought I was crazy, I had to get out of there. My parents, who know about my fear, kept telling me that the birds weren’t going to hurt me. No. These birds knew I was afraid. They wanted to hurt me. I felt like they sensed my fear.
After five minutes I got down and we left with our food in to-go boxes. I cried the whole way back to L.A. My parents couldn’t get me to stop. I felt horrible. My stupid fear ruined the trip.
My mom told me that I had to overcome my fear. She suggested psychotherapy. She said that a possible way to get me to overcome my fear would be to put me in a room with birds.
I imagined myself in the middle of a small room. Then someone would open a trap door and drop a bird in. One at a time the room would fill with birds. Claws, feathers, beaks. The squawking. It’s like the birds would surround me the way water surrounds you in a pool. I’m drowning in my fear. I didn’t go to therapy. I hoped I’d outgrow my fear instead.
Even though I didn’t go to therapy, I wanted to know more about my fear. So I Googled “fear of birds,” and to my surprise I found that my fear of birds had a name: ornithophobia. It was comforting to know that other people had been diagnosed by psychiatrists with a fear of birds. I felt slightly less crazy. Knowing that my fear was a real condition gave me hope that if other people could conquer their fear, I could too.
Three years later, I’ve accepted that this is something I’m stuck with. People who don’t know me very well think my fear is irrational. They think I’m exaggerating and have laughed at me when I’ve freaked out. But my friends understand. They don’t mind scaring the birds away or acting as a shield when we’re hanging out. When I’m alone, I use strangers walking near me as my shield or find a different route away from the bird.
It’s hard to live with a fear of birds because I can never escape them. If I were afraid of sharks, I just wouldn’t go in the ocean. If I were afraid of heights, I wouldn’t go to high places. But every time I go outside, birds are there. Watching me. Waiting for me.