Birds and Windows


(This column was first published in the July 7, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


One of my common contacts is a request for help. A bird -- most often but not always a beautiful male cardinal -- is attacking a window day after day and won't stop. Invariably the caller is not concerned about the window or the noise of the bird's thumping and scratching; rather, they worry about it injuring itself. Rarely does a serious physical injury result but it is a possibility. Psychological injury is another matter: the bird is clearly frustrated.


This is territorial behavior. Male birds establish personal homelands, in the case of songbirds one to ten acres in size. Then they spend much of their time announcing their hegemony, inviting in willing female partners through song and coincidentally defending their yard against other males.


Ornithologists who study territorial behavior find that they can plot the borders of these small kingdoms with great accuracy. Males in adjacent bailiwicks know their mutual borders as though a fence separated them.


The window the bird is attacking serves as a mirror and the bird, not schooled in physics, doesn't understand that its anatiomorphic image the other side of that glass isn't real. (That technical word means the same size and shape but reversed like two gloves. Mirrors do that. The only time you see an exact copy of yourself is when you look into two mirrors that meet at right angles.)


Please understand: I don't offer all that information to my callers. It simply doesn't solve their problem. In fact I have very little advice to provide.


One suggestion offered by feeder watchers: "Clean your feeders but keep your windows dirty." You might even spray the area the bird attacks with window cleaner and leave it whitened. (As you might expect, this suggestion is only acceptable to men.) Other possibilities offer similar problems. Windows are for you to look through and covering them in any way should not be a choice.


If any of you readers have better solutions, I invite you to share them through me.


In any case, I tell my callers, you're not alone. Here are some stories posted on the internet:


Westerner Francis Toldi told of a California Towhee "repeatedly trying to feed its reflection in the rear view mirror of my car. The bird would fly up with bug or whatever and try to stuff it into the mouth of its reflection." His solution: he put a hat over the mirror.


Floridian Cheri Pierce found a Yellow-throated Warbler attacking its reflection in the side view mirror of the car parked next to hers. "The bird let me approach to within about 4 feet before flying over the top of the car to the side view mirror on the other side where it resumed its attack." Several hats required here evidently.


And Minnesotan Roger Everhart described a cowbird that spent little time fluttering against his window, instead putting its effort into trying to stare down its reflection. I give that cowbird credit: this was at least a less physically exhausting response.


This kind of behavior is, of course, quite different from birds flying into windows simply because they could not interpret this invisible barrier. This is a still more serious problem as the bird is often killed, like the lovely fox sparrow that hit Mrs. Fastinnati's Williamsville window this spring.


I can appreciate this problem as I once walked into a glass door. The experience was like being flattened by Mohammed Ali.


Most callers tell me that they have little success putting up those hawk silhouette cut-outs.


I invite your responses to this problem as well.-- Gerry Rising