Bird Experts Reflect on Randy Johnson Hitting a Bird With a Pitch

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The infamous day, March 24, 2001, when Arizona Diamondback pitcher Randy Johnson hit a bird with a pitch. YouTube

On March 24, 2001, future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson stood on the mound, facing down Calvin Murray of the San Francisco Giants in a spring training game. The 6-foot-10 power thrower, one of the best to ever play the game, let loose a fastball that likely reached into the triple digits.

But it never made it to the plate.

Instead, it hit a bird, creating an explosion of feathers. The crowd gasped. What had just happened?

Now, 15 years later, the event remains iconic, and the Big Unit says he gets asked about the incident nearly as much as he does about winning the World Series later that year with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not about his five Cy Young awards, his 4,875 strikeouts, his no-hitter in 1990, his perfect game in 2004, but that dang bird. (The bird died, by the way, obviously, and the throw was called a “no pitch.” The bizarre play is not covered in the official rules, and as instructed to do in such cases, the ump used "common sense and fair play" to make that call.) 

But Johnson seems to have made peace with the event. In fact, he even made a dead bird the logo of his photography company, a passion that now occupies much of his time.

In honor of the 15th anniversary of the feathery freak accident, we thought we’d ask a few ornithologists—people who study birds—about their thoughts on the event.

First of all, what kind of bird was it? There are conflicting reports.

Henry Streby, researcher at the University of Toledo: Based on the video and pictures I've seen, I'm reasonable certain it was a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).

Clait Braun, researcher with the Wilson Ornithological Society: Yes, it was a mourning dove.

The dove that Johnson hit was in the wrong place at the wrong time. MLB

Were you aware of this when it happened, and what did you think about it as somebody who studies birds? 

Braun: I remember it well. I was appalled, as I study mourning doves.

Jerry Jackson, emeritus researcher at Florida Gulf Coast University: I vaguely remember when it happened. Sad, to say the least.

Jonathan Hagstrum, research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey: [Regarding being asked to reply: “Just for the record, I'm not an ornithologist, but a research geophysicist interested in the geophysical underpinnings of avian navigation.”] Not being much of a baseball fan, this is the first time I've heard of or seen the event. It's absolutely amazing! The odds against such a thing happening must be astronomical.

Justin Lehman, ornithology graduate student at the University of Tennessee: I was 11 at the time, so I'm sure I found this event incredibly funny.  Looking back, I am just in awe of the incredibly poor luck that bird had.

Mourning-doves Mourning doves have soft feathers that they can shed when they are frightened. Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

Do you feel bad for the bird?

Streby: A little. At least it went quickly. I feel worse thinking it was probably a breeding bird that time of year, with a nest of eggs or hungry nestlings somewhere nearby.

Jackson: Absolutely! Not much different though from getting hit by a peregrine falcon—which in a dive can approach 200 miles per hour! In either case, the bird wouldn't have known what hit it.

Lehman: Obviously I feel bad for the bird. However, I'd imagine it probably had a very quick death and probably didn't feel much pain. Millions of birds die to human caused events each year (building collisions, feral/outdoor cat depredation, habitat destruction, etc.), so a few birds being hit by baseballs seems pretty minor in comparison.

Michael Wunder, associate professor at the University of Colorado, Denver: I didn’t feel bad for the bird. I’m an ornithologist who studies population demographics, which just means I am interested to know when where and how birds die.

Randy-Johnson-throws Johnson has the second-most strikeouts of all time, a total of 4,875, and is in the Hall of Fame. He's also the only player in recent memory to pulverize a mourning dove with a fastball. Marc Serota/REUTERS

Have you ever seen anything else happen even remotely like this?

Streby: I once had an American robin collide with the antenna on my car when I was going about 55 miles per hour. It was a similar explosion of feathers. I’m also reminded of the time [male supermodel] Fabio got hit in the face by a goose while he was riding a roller coaster. Everyone talked about poor Fabio, but imagine how the goose felt! [The goose died.]

Braun: Several species of gulls have also been hit and died or had broken wings from being hit with baseballs, usually as a result of the ball being first hit by a bat. 

Jackson: A peregrine falcon hitting a mourning dove. Same cloud of feathers—doves have very "loose" feathers. Indeed, they are capable of releasing a cloud of feathers sort of like "chaff" to escape a diving predator. This is a reflexive action called a "fright molt." The body feathers of birds are attached only to the skin and are replaced normally by an annual molt. In a sense, a fright molt is akin to a lizard leaving its tail behind to escape a predator.

How fast would a ball have to be going to knock off a bird’s feathers like this? It looks like the bird exploded.

Streby: Probably not that fast. The feathers you see exploding from the bird in the video are the [aforementioned] downy feathers that cover the bird's body. Those feathers tend to come out much more easily than the larger stronger tail and wing feathers. I'm sure a casual home run derby pitch would make a similar scene if it hit the same bird. A baseball is a dense 5.25 ounces. A mourning dove is about the same mass, but larger and much less dense. The bird is always going to lose a collision like that even with an off-speed pitch, and a poof of downy feathers would always be the result of a direct hit.

Hagstrum: Just how fast a ball must be going to knock one feather off a pigeon could be determined experimentally (if you could get permission), but the explosive nature of the event—the puff of feathers in all directions—indicates the extreme force of the ball compared to that of the flying bird.

Randy-Johnson Randy Johnson, one of the best pitchers ever, often gets asked about the time he hit a dove with a fastball. Joe Camporeale/REUTERS

How unlikely was this event, from your perspective? What are the chances of this happening?

Gavin Leighton, postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: This is an extremely rare event.... Since there are about 2,400 Major League Baseball games per season and about 250 pitches per game between both teams, and if we limit ourselves to thinking that this happened once in the last 20 years that we can be sure of—that amounts to 1 pitch in 12,000,000 pitches.

Lehman: I would have to think this is well over a one in a million shot. Just think of the hundreds of thousands of baseballs being pitched each year.... From my experience, most of the time pigeons and doves don't fly that close to the ground. The ball could have been a split second later, higher, lower, etc., and completely missed the bird or just clipped it instead of a direct hit. I found another video of a bird being hit by a pitch [in the minors], but it appears to be a swallow of some sort, which would probably be flying back and forth collecting insects instead of just flying through like the dove.

Wunder: Consider about 33 spring training games and 162 regular season games per team per year. Though each game is two teams, each pitching staff probably throws around 120 pitches per game, not counting warmups. So that’s something like 23,500 pitches per team per year. There are 30 teams, so about 700,000 pitches per year, just for the majors. If we consider the minors, then that’s about another three to four times as many pitches. This has only happened two times in my memory [once in the majors, once in the minors]. So the probability is like one in 50 million or so over the past 20 years.

Braun: The chances of a ball hitting a bird in a ball park are not rare, as there are a lot of birds attracted to where people provide food.

How well are birds equipped to avoid these kinds of projectiles?

Hagstrum: Like all prey animals, the [dove’s] eyes are on the side of their head, giving it about a 340-degree horizontal field of view, while humans have a 180- to 200-degree field. Like fighter pilots attacking out of the sun, I expect that falcons attack pigeons from behind, within their blind spot. Pigeons rarely fly in a straight line, which I expect has something to do with them changing the direction of their blind spot and not giving falcons the chance to dive on them, kind of like a maritime convoy zigzagging in submarine territory. If they do catch sight of a falcon diving on them, they wait until the last minute before "sidestepping" the dive, but if they miss the falcon incoming at over 200 mph, it's all over. It's clear in this case that the pigeon never knew what hit him.

Streby: Most birds have excellent vision and very fast response times and are pretty good at avoiding collisions with objects they encounter in nature. They have evolved to fly through and around dense vegetation and to evade predators. However, this dove was in a very unique environment and probably never saw the ball coming from less than 60 feet away. It probably flew through that same area plenty of times without any issues. Doves forage on the ground and eat mostly seeds. A baseball field is an ideal place to hang out when a game isn't going on.

Any other thoughts?

Streby: There are many reasons why Mr. Johnson should not feel bad about this event. First, the mourning dove is one of the most common species in urban areas of Arizona and across the country, and it is not a species of conservation concern. So he didn't impact the future of a species or anything like that. Second, although he did hit the bird outside of the dove season in Arizona, which happens in September, it is a game species, and there are plenty of hunters who wish they could get off such a clean shot. Third, millions of birds are killed each year by outside cats, glass windows, wind turbines, airplanes and other human-related problems. So in perspective, it is just an amazing coincidence that got caught on camera.

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