Adventures with the Birds

ADV rider? Looking for adventure? Hit a bird at speed, while piloting a motorcycle, any year make or model, and you can suddenly find yourself in the adventure of a lifetime trying to stay alive.

Most recently I was given another taste of an adventure with a bird—a vulture, at 60 mph—when crossing Botswana. On a two-lane highway at cruising speed on a BMW F700GS, I approached three vultures on the road feeding on roadkill. Two lifted off the ground and vectored left, well ahead of me as I slowed from 70 mph. The third vulture flew upwards five or six feet off the dead animal, and then turned and flew directly at me. It hit the right side of the bar-mounted aftermarket windscreen, and then banged my right shoulder. A riding pal following me said that feathers flew like a pillow had exploded.

The bird weighed more than a football but felt like a grapefruit. Had it hit the handlebar end I would have been flip-flopping down the pavement at speed, possibly surviving, but likely doing major damage to myself and the motorcycle. I was lucky, but the adventure of riding a motorcycle across Botswana had ramped up into the red zone on the risk scale. I was also lucky that my Aerostich Darien jacket’s padded shoulder had blunted the blow to my upper arm and shoulder.

Earlier in life I was on my 1945 Indian Chief, riding very slowly at night in Montana. The 6-volt headlight was so poor I could only manage 25-30 mph to stay between the painted middle line marker and the dirt off the right side of the pavement. That adventure went into the red zone when an owl swooped out of the black sky, flew over the handlebars and hit me square in the chest. 

The owl died. Luckily, I was not punched off the seat and my heavy leather motorcycle jacket’s padding protected my upper chest. My hand came off the right handlebar, but that did not radically alter my speed because the Indian had a left-hand throttle. The spark advance was on the right side and I was able to grab back hold of the handlebar before any change in firing affected the speed or handling.

Artwork by Mr. Jensen

On I-95 south of Daytona Beach, Florida, during Bike Week, I was piloting my BMW R80G/S, when a bird that might have been a sparrow flew over my tall windscreen and lodged itself in the space between my uplifted face shield and the top of my helmet. At 60 or 70 mph it felt like someone had thrown a tennis ball at my head at 100 mph. As I frantically tried to slow the motorcycle, the bird flapped a wing in my eyes and it felt more like an eagle than a small, fist-sized bird. It died. 

Had it hit me three of four inches lower, it would have been a face hit, likely knocking me unconscious… and then I would have been on the pavement, another dead motorcyclist, another Bike Week statistic.

While traveling along the coast in Australia on a Yamaha 600 Ténéré, also with a  handlebar-mounted windscreen, a seagull committed suicide by dive bombing me. I had seen the bird floating on the wind well above the road as I approached, and thought it looked kind of cool, hovering there, about 50 feet in the air, seemingly not moving as I was about to pass under it. Instead of hanging high, the white-bellied bird turned into a projectile, like a shoulder-launched Stinger missile, and center punched my windscreen. 

The windscreen broke in half and the bird bounced around me and dropped onto the road behind. It was a wild adventure to keep the motorcycle upright as I wobbled to a stop. It was wild in that I lived, but not so wild for the bird, which died.

Splitting lanes on Interstate 280 approaching Highway 101, a disgruntled SUV driver swerved left to close the opening between him and the car in the lane left. My Kawasaki KLR650’s aluminum panniers were too wide to slip through. I thought the driver had just zoned out and drifted, so waited until the opening got wider and tried again. Again the car driver shut the opening on me.

It was then I knew I was dealing with a driver who had used toilet paper for a brain. The car driver in front of the toilet-paper-head had seen what was happening and slowed, causing the SUV driver to also slow. As he slowed I moved to the outside lane and went past. In my mirror, I saw the SUV driver saluting me with one finger, out of the driver’s side window.

Traffic was clogged and soon I was bogged down just in front of the jerk, forward movement again hindered by my KLR’s sidecases. But I noticed a chopper coming up behind the SUV, a color-wearing guy who had likely seen my encounter. 

Mr. Bird Giver rolled up his window. I smiled after I saw the Harley guy reach out as he passed the SUV, and with his balled fist knock the mirror off Mr. Bird’s expensive SUV.

The biker and I high-fived as he passed.

If there is a moral to these tales it could be “Sometimes the high bird gets me, sometimes I get the high-flying bird, and sometimes our hardcore Brothers of the Road deserve a well-earned high five.”

Dr. Frazier’s all-color coffee table book, Down And Out In Patagonia, Kamchatka And Timbuktu, available at Amazon.com, is the first-ever first-hand chronicle of a never-ending motorcycle ride by “the world’s most cerebral motorcyclist,” and is highly recommended by Grant Johnson of HorizonsUnlimited.com.

This story originally appeared in our April 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

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