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Originally published Monday, May 31, 2010 at 4:52 PM

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That crow attacking you isn't crazy — it's an anxious parent

Urban dwellers: Watch where you step from late May to mid-June. This is fledge season, when crows help their babies learn to fly. They are in uber-protective mode and will strike if they see you as a threat.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A woman and her 2-year-old son were walking down a street in Ballard last Wednesday afternoon. As they passed under a large evergreen, the woman felt something hit the back of her head.

Must be some punk kids, she thought, and turned to look. Then she heard an unmistakable sound: wings flapping through the air.

She'd apparently been struck by a crow. And there, perched back in the tree, it sat, watching, waiting, she said, as she and her son walked away.

The 38-year-old health professional — who asked that her name not be used, because, frankly, the whole thing still feels a little weird — had no idea she'd stumbled into prime crow-rearing territory.

But in the crow-saturated Northwest, her experience provides a lesson for urban dwellers: Watch where you step from late May to mid-June.

This is fledge season, when crows help their babies learn to fly. As the little ones stumble from the nest to branches and the ground below, their avian parents can get incredibly protective. If they believe a threat is near, they may attack — passers-by, dogs and anything that normally wouldn't make them flinch could become potential targets.

"They've invested a lot in their young and literally have helped them survive natural hazards and storms," said John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, who in 2005 co-authored a book called "In the Company of Crows and Ravens."

"It's best to keep moving and not let them get a good fix on you," he said.

The reason, according to Marzluff: Crows can remember your face.

Marzluff, who led a recent study at the University of Washington exploring facial recognition in crows, said that crows, as part of their evolutionary success, have learned to zero in on people who feed or harass them.

In the study, crows were trapped by people wearing threatening masks and later, according to the findings, homed in on the masked individuals in a crowd, mobbing and cawing harshly at them.

Facial recognition also has been noted in mockingbirds, magpies and, yes, even pigeons, Marzluff added.

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"They [pigeons] interact with people a lot," he said. "It pays to remember and recognize. But so far, crows are the champions."

Being six months pregnant, with a toddler in tow, the Ballard woman said she hurried home and asked her husband to look at the back of her head. She was worried about whether anything could be transmitted to her and the baby.

She said her husband found two small scratches. They were bleeding a little, so she dabbed hydrogen peroxide and anti-bacterial cream on her head and stepped into the shower.

"To wash — I don't know — the crow out of my hair," she said.

She said she then called her obstetrician, who told her just to make sure the scratch didn't get infected.

(Marzluff added that crows don't transmit any diseases.)

For extra measure, the woman posted her experience online at the neighborhood blog www.myballard.com. Kate Bergman, who runs the site, said she noticed right away that the post got people's attention. They wrote about their own experiences and expressed everything from wonder to rage.

The woman said she learned from comments on the blog about fledge season and crows protecting their young — something she could easily relate to.

Now, she's sure about one thing.

"We're not walking under that tree for a while," she said.

Even though fledge season will end in a couple of weeks, "I'm going to give it to the end of June."

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

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