Hannah King, a sophomore at the University of Miami, was walking across a field on campus to her part-time job as an elementary school tutor last week when she felt a sudden knock to the back of her head.
King said she assumed she had been hit "with a log or something really hard and heavy."
It wasn't until she heard a swoosh by her ear that King saw the culprit, a hawk nesting in a nearby tree.
The attack left King, 19, with a concussion, she said. When she told the student health center what happened, "at first, no one believed me."
But for the past three years, hawks nesting in the area have attacked a few students a year in what Campus Police Deputy Chief Russell Clusman calls "one of the unique safety issues we have to deal with." Last year, there were crocodiles on campus, too, he said.
University spokeswoman Margot Winnick said, "It's the tropics. It's part of living in Miami."
Because hawks are protected under federal law, campus police have now set up a security escort armed with an umbrella to walk students across the field: the "hawk walk," as Lt. William Gerlach calls it.
Lynne Flannery of the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fla., said umbrellas appear less threatening to hawks and dissuade them from attacking.
Flannery said the group gets a handful of calls a year about hawk attacks, during nesting season, usually around March and April.
Hawks 'Very Territorial' During Nesting Season
"During nesting season, they're very territorial," Flannery said. "They're basically trying to defend their nest and their young."
Hawk attacks are relatively rare; it's much more common to hear of mockingbirds harassing passersby, according to Alicia King of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Migratory Bird Management in Arlington, Va.
Last year, three Federal Emergency Management Agency employees in Lake Mary, Fla., were attacked by hawks, sending all three to the hospital with minor injuries, said Josh Wilson, an agency spokesman.
As a precaution, FEMA closed the portion of the parking lot near where the bird was thought to be nesting and has been hawk-incident free so far this year, Wilson said.
The birds also have been known to attack small animals, which can be mistaken for squirrels or rodents.
Hawks Can Attack Small Pets
Tyler Tornello said a hawk attacked his two Chihuahuas, Paco and Vinny, which weigh 3 pounds and 10 pounds, respectively.
The dogs survived with deep claw marks to their necks after Vinny came to Paco's rescue, Tornello said.
"He was at the front door covered in blood and mud," he said of the larger dog. "You could tell he was in a very intense battle."
King, who plans to major in political science at the University of Miami, said the attack left her dizzy and nauseated for several days.
But she's satisfied that the school was taking steps to protect other students, she said.