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There is this very weird species of bird that just can't get enough of delicious human flesh. But the bird has a problem - humans are big, smart, and social, so this little birdie has a unique skill: getting humans drugged up and brought into the forest. How the bird does it is the weird part: you see, these birds have a symbiotic relationship with fungus and they let it grow in their feathers and have the fungus release their psychedelic spores into the air so the human will breathe it in, and when in the human the spores trigger hallucinations. Then, according to vocalizations of the bird, the spores stimulate the reward center of the brain and lead the human into the bird groups where they tear the human's flesh off and eat most of it. They place more spores in the rest of the cadaver and let it grow into more fungus to use to hunt humans.

So my question is: which bird would be the best candidate for a creature like this? What they will need is the brains to give off complex noises to trigger the fungus and a desire for human flesh. Also what fungus would would fit these qualifications, or could develop to fit them?

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    $\begingroup$ They don't need to make noises - just dive-bomb at a lone human, and flare their feathers at the last moment, which will both brake the dive and give a good shake to all feathers, releasing the spores. The rest of the spores (not already on the human) will fall naturally from the feathers during the feeding frenzy. The birds would also need to somehow bait drugged humans to follow, leaving the beaten path and into the forest. For that, owls hover better than ravens. Both definitely want to not be heard. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Mar 5 '18 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ Now that I come to think of it, it might not exactly be a symbiosis - when the fungus is ready, it triggers aggressivity in the birds. Both the bird and the human will die after the attack, but the carrion will feed a lot more birds, allowing the flock to thrive. Several organisms employ these elaborate tricks, from the ones that zombify ants to Sacculina carcinis that performs sex reassignment on crabs. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Mar 5 '18 at 7:47
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with the bird needing the brain. Canaries have complex songs without big brains. Large brain is necessary to adapt to fast-changing environment. Fungus is limited by the speed of it's evolution. Faster than evolution of a bird, but still not very fast. $\endgroup$ – Agent_L Mar 5 '18 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ Nobody has mentioned "Toxoplasma gondii" yet - the parasitic amoeba which causes mice to think that cats are their best friends - which leads them to be eaten by those very cats. The 'motive' has nothing to do with the cat - who gets a meal out of it - but the amoeba, who needs both the cat and the mouse to continue to survive. There is some suggestion that the reason why some people love cats so much is because they have been cross-infected with Toxoplasma gondii... It's worthwhile checking the wikipedia article on it. $\endgroup$ – Konchog Mar 5 '18 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ The perfect bird would be the Nachtkrapp ;) $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Mar 5 '18 at 17:12

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Vultures

I chose vultures as a candidate simply because of their love for flesh. They also have quite alot of feathers, so I can imagine many places for a fungus to be tucked into. Also, listen to their sound. I can't imagine what it would do to those under some kind of hallucinatory effect.

Vulture Sounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA5yGyB_z5U

Psilocybe semilanceata (liberty cap) - variation of it.

There could be an explanation of a hybridization of Psilocybe semilanceata with some kind of mold. I say mold, because of it's fast growth rate.

The way this could be done, picture the vultures in their nest. Perhaps they are resting, giving the perfect conditions for dampness mixed in with sitting on their excrement and rotting human remains from it's previous kill, getting in between their feathers. Perfect for this hybrid fungus to grow, and grow fast as mold doesn't take long at all. Now imagine they move around, exposing this fungus to the sunlight, drying it... and ruffling their feathers it turns into more powder like... so it can more easily be administered/distributed.

Reference: Magic Mushrooms Around the World: A Scientific Journey Across Cultures and Time. By Jochen Gartz

Edit:

I'm aware that vultures would live in more arid climates. But perhaps this one could be in more of a grassland type area, near a forest. There's 23 different variations of vultures (according to Wikipedia). And seems to be at least a few that could live in that type of climate such as the slender-billed vulture.

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  • $\begingroup$ As a suggested vulture: The lammergeier. Why? Because they already rub red dirt into their feathers in order to look pretty (or possibly to kill bacteria, scientists still aren't sure). Take that trait, make it the fungus instead of clay. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Mar 6 '18 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Draco18s was gonna suggest the bearded vulture, went looking for its English name and realised that's what you did. Well done sir. In addition to the dirt-rubbing thing, they also do live near forests. $\endgroup$ – Nico Mar 7 '18 at 9:12
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Ravens

Ravens are basically crows on steroids; They're bigger, blacker, and more menacing. Even their beaks are stronger, larger, and more suited to eating meat. They too, have a diet including carrion, but unlike the crows, they fly often solo or in pairs; this makes them the perfect territorial human hunter.

A murder of crows is a lot of crows to feed. A single human wouldn't last them very long. However, a single human could last a pair of Ravens much longer, allowing them to draw a lot less attention to themselves.

They're also extremely smart (like crows), and have amongst the largest brain in those of avian species.

And in terms of a noise to trigger the dispersion of spores, the Raven also has an advantage over the crow. The Raven has a much lower tone, whereas the crow is much more high pitched. Some Ravens can even create a "rattle". If you think about sound waves and how they affect objects, the two can be compared to the bass (lower pitched raven) and the "high" notes of sound (higher pitched crow). You can "feel" the bass when it's turned up high - what you're feeling are the vibrations. You can't really feel the high notes, it just kind of hurts. If you go high enough, then you eventually hit a resonant frequency with something and that will break (eg: glass).

In terms of spore displacement, if the Raven could evolve to have a stronger voice, these vibrations could help disperse the spores or otherwise trigger the fungus to release the spores; at least, more so than the higher pitched cawing of the crows.

Amanita muscaria variant

For the fungi related section, I recommend a variant of Amanita muscaria - this mushroom already contains two compounds that cause hallucinations. Ibotenic Acid, and Muscimol.

It's not too much of a stretch for a variant to evolve which is smaller, can grow on the bird, and has spores containing both those compounds.

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    $\begingroup$ a group of crows is a murder (fitting for this question) not a flock $\endgroup$ – Ajnatorix Zersolar Mar 5 '18 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ Quoting Wikipedia: "there is no consistent distinction between "crows" and "ravens", and these appellations have been assigned to different species chiefly on the basis of their size, crows generally being smaller than ravens" $\endgroup$ – nbubis Mar 5 '18 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @ajnatorixzersolar thanks, I've edited it in. $\endgroup$ – Aify Mar 5 '18 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @nbubis If schooling has taught me anything, it's that Wikipedia typically isn't a valid source, especially when it comes to doing research. Saying a raven is a crow is like saying a wolf is a dog. There are consistent distinctions in their wing styles, and feather arrangements between crows and ravens. Crows have 5 fingered wings, and rounded tail feathers when in flight, whereas almost all ravens have a diamond shaped arrangement of tail feathers when in flight, and only have 4 fingered wings. (Fingered = feathers sticking out to the side that look like fingers) $\endgroup$ – Aify Mar 5 '18 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ Would the flock that fails to get a meal be called an attempted murder? $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Mar 6 '18 at 19:31
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Tit

is the best. It is small, nice looking, very curious and their small groups fly along the forest paths after you. It eats meat. If you want to feed them in winter, you should give meat and fat to them.

And one more nice detail. Look in the movie how a tit kills a sleeping bat. Not for children!

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17749-killer-birds-bite-off-bats-heads/

God! They eat bats' living brains out! Really, you don't need to invent anything - really disgustful murderers pretending to be nice birds are around us!

And they are intelligent. When I was 8, I had a tit in a cage. In a cage... It opened the cage closed by a hook at will and only slept and ate in it. During the day it mostly occupied the whole room. But it could be turned off by a dark cover over the cage - your heroes can win over the world evil using the darkness.

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    $\begingroup$ And they're eating the bats alive which ups the squick factor. Now picture a flock of them feasting on a human drugged out of his mind by mold, who may be hallucinating about a giant feast. I'll leave the rest to the imagination. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke Mar 5 '18 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @DanClarke Yes, thank you, I have forgotten to mention that eating alive. Edited. $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Mar 6 '18 at 10:42
  • $\begingroup$ +1 because they are very aggressive birds despite their small size. They routinely attack birds much larger than themselves. $\endgroup$ – vsz Mar 6 '18 at 16:52
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The best bird candidate would be the crow. It is both a carrion eater and a relatively intelligent species. It also has the ability to make many different vocalizations, including mimicrying other birds and even speaking some words.

As for the fungus, you'd be tempted to go for those that produce psilocybin. But if you want humans being driven like crazy into a death trap, cordyceps is a better match for the trope.

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    $\begingroup$ You beat me to it about crows... $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 5 '18 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ Cordyceps "mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue". That would take a long time in humans. Better to stick with psilocybin. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 5 '18 at 2:41
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Owl

Even though they have to get close enough to humans to shake spores on them, psychedelic death birds need to avoid being seen. Once the humans figure out what is going on, they will kill any of these birds they see and hunt the rest down. These birds need to live at a distance from the humans (and so be powerful enough to fly the commute) and they need to be camouflaged and nocturnal so they are difficult to spot.

Owls want meat. Some also make amazing vocalizations.
Barred owls can sound very creepy, like witches cackling. Noisy pair of Barred Owls

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer just on question, are they intelligent enough to farm the fungus in the left over cadavers of the human victims? $\endgroup$ – Amoeba Mar 5 '18 at 4:36
  • $\begingroup$ @user45751 what's the owl's reputation? moziru.com/images/horned-owl-clipart-smart-9.jpg $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 5 '18 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Unfortunately, owls are not actually wise. They're really quite dumb. Crows/ravens are a much better choice for intelligence. $\endgroup$ – JAB Mar 5 '18 at 23:48
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I think the birds would have to be carrying the fungus with their talons, beaks. That works because birds already have that behavior (carrying, gathering).
Birds spend a lot of time cleaning themselves and it's very important to their flight and to their health (especially because of parasites that can destroy a colony or habitat). Infections are easily spread to nests and chicks who are quite vulnerable; there wouldn't be a next generation of birds if they didn't keep their feathers clean.

Nastiest bird that birders hate and wouldn't care how you misrepresent them (maybe) are European Starlings as they are an aggressive invasive species that harm local species, take over nests and regular feeding areas, real meanies that don't follow the social rules set for other birds. They are the ones you'll see doing massive swarming and usually travel in packs marauding all the neighborhood bird feeders. Since they swarm in massive packs (murmurations they're called, and that helps your story about the strange sounds) behaviors would be more easily transmitted to larger numbers in less time.
murmuration of starlings

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Don't focus on birds. Focus on the fungus. You can make the fungus that biologically needs a human cadaver to flourish, so it's the fungus who make the birds do the deed. Not the other way around.

Learn about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that forces zombie-ants to climb leafs and spread spores from there and (not fungus but worm) Leucochloridium paradoxum that infests snails, pretends to be a larva and makes the snail get eaten by a bird in order to continue reproduction in a bird.

You can make both birds (intermediary hosts) and humans (definitive hosts) victims of the fungus. Any meat-eating bird will do. Even pigeons, for the added scare factor that in our world everything is set up, just waiting for the fungus to kill us all.

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  • $\begingroup$ I can’t really use that fungus because that fungus and worm takes too long for humans and this needs to be nearly instant with psychedelic effects, but your right in your other pints, thanks $\endgroup$ – Amoeba Mar 5 '18 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ @user45751 What I meant was fungus that makes birds drug, lure and kill humans - for more fungus to grow on bodies killed by birds. Eg because infected/hallucinating human has to be killed shortly for the fungus to grow. $\endgroup$ – Agent_L Mar 5 '18 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @user45751 The long part works on birds. The part on humans is short, as you wanted. $\endgroup$ – Agent_L Mar 5 '18 at 12:53
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Ergo: Ergot. and Ravens

Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.

Ravens seem to me to be the best bird choice for a number of reasons. The key is that they are very smart. Like problem solving and tool using smart. They are often considered to be a bird of ill Omen. Finally, they are omnivorous, which is also important. Ravens will gladly eat berries and seeds without too much issue, but they prefer meat. That satisfies the feast on the human corpse side of the equation.

Next we have Ergot.

Ergot has been a known hallucinogen for centuries. It also thrives on various grasses like rye and wheat kernels. with a bit of handwavium, you can create the following life cycle:

Raven picks up the Ergot by eating some infected grasses that grow around the base of a tree or the outskirts of a forest. They get a little high on the spores and go to the outskirts of a nearby town. They flap in the faces of a human, dislodging spores into the face of the victim. This causes the hallucinations and maybe an aggressive response causing the poor sap chase after the Crow back to the edge of the forest. The toxins from the handwaved Ergot cause the victim to attack just about everything and then they will pass out and die from a heart attack or ramming their head into a tree. The raven caws his friends (sorry again for the pun). They feast on the corpse. The leftovers provide fertilizer for the plants. The Ravens distribute more of the spores which infect more grasses that will mature and attract more ravens. Repeat as necessary.

This gives you a wonderfully logical source for tales of a dark forest, what with the Carrion Birds and villagers wandering off and getting killed. Make the fungus bio luminescent for bonus creepy points.

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Honeyguide

Real honeyguides draw humans to wild beehives by making signals. A different species of honeyguide might have evolved to make signals to spores and then draw humans to the wood where it could eat them.

Although the result is different - at least for the involved human - this behaviour is not so different from that of actual honeyguides.

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Mockingbird

They are small and agressive and can mimik other sounds which should cause a human on drugs to think that in the woods someone needs help or there is a party or whatever that he should join asap. The only modification needed seems to me are strong enough muscles and a razorsharp beak to tear flesh

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