For the Birds Radio Program: Robin fighting reflection

Original Air Date: July 17, 2000 Rerun Dates: July 8, 2016; July 2, 2004

Why is a robin hitting my windows over and over?

Duration: 4′17″


This spring I got a letter from an Eagle River listener named Lucile Campbell, who has been having some robin problems. She writes:

Approximately two or three years ago, there was a robin which kept hitting the same spot on one of our windows over and over again. I finally kept sitting on the deck where it was perching after each attack at the window until it finally left. However, now there is a robin hitting at three other windows on our house alternatively, [going] from one to the other. Two have shades to cover them. It’s been a wake-up call for some time now at 6 a.m. each day until today when it was hitting at a window on the opposite side of the house. This window is also shaded. My hope is that you can tell me what impels the robin to do this. Jokingly, my daughter says perhaps it is my husband who passed away a year ago coming to haunt me.

Lucile, although I didn’t know your husband, I’m pretty sure he’s not haunting you, at least not in the form of that pesky robin. Then what is the bird’s problem? He’s simply a local robin who set up territory in your yard, and is being a little too zealous with his territorial imperative. Male robins are supposed to chase off other male robins, and female robins chase off other females, so they won’t have to share valuable food resources while raising their babies, but sometimes they get so hormonal that they chase not only real robins but images of them. Your bird sees the reflection of a healthy male robin glaring back at him, and works himself into a frenzy because no matter how hard he works, that reflected robin simply won’t get off his territory.

Robins have many wonderful qualities, from their lovely song to their normally pleasant manner, but when it comes to intelligence they aren’t exactly rocket scientists. When I’ve taken care of injured adult robins, they’ve never figured out that I wasn’t going to hurt them, and sometimes did themselves more damage trying to escape. With such a low IQ, it’s little wonder that when confronted with a mirror or window, some of them never figure out that the image isn’t real.

I’ve raised lots of baby Blue Jays, and they are usually fascinated with mirrors, but the fascination seems rooted in their discovery that the mirror is reflecting their every move. Blue Jays seem to have a rather human-like self awareness. But in my experience, baby robins don’t take much interest in mirrors, and simply don’t reason them out. As adults, they sometimes continue bashing against a window until the diminishing hormones of autumn bring welcome relief. This spring when I spent a week near Rhinelander, a pair of robins kept attacking their images in my car mirrors until I put some paper and a roll of tape in my car—every time I parked it I covered both mirrors. I kept them taped up for three days, figuring that by then the robins had probably forgotten all about it, but the first day I neglected to put the paper on, there was the female, shadowboxing her own image just as furiously as ever, and soon after, her mate joined the battle.

Old fashioned shutters that protect windows from storms would be the perfect defense against a territorial robin. And sometimes they get spooked by helium balloons, plastic owls or snakes, or falcon silhouettes. But even these remedies often fail. If nothing else, time will solve the problem—when robins start joining feeding flocks in September, they’ll lose every shred of their territorial instinct and you’ll get blessed relief at last. Meanwhile, you can take some comfort in the fact that Bill Gates has even more problems than you with Windows.