For the Birds Radio Program: Head Bonking

Original Air Date: Dec. 4, 1996

When Laura Erickson gets hit on the head, she sees birds. (4:11) Date verified. A later program about window collisions was modified from this one.

Audio missing


A couple of weeks ago, I was walking along when BAM! I slipped on a patch of ice and in a split second found myself flat on the ground, looking up at the sky in a daze, thinking “wow! This must be what it feels like to be a bird hitting a window.” When I stood up, blood spurted out my nose the way blood sometimes comes out of a bird’s beak after a window strike. I even ended up with a goose egg, though to be truthful, the only birds that ever get a goose egg are geese.

Every year bazillions of birds get killed by windows. “Bazillions” is obviously an estimate. The real number is beyond ornithologists’ ability to reckon. My own personal dining room window used to be a terrible killer, taking out more than one bird every month. We solved this problem by screwing a platform bird feeder into the window frame. Birds sitting in the feeder usually notice the window and avoid hitting it, and if a bird hasn’t noticed it and flies into the window, it hasn’t build up enough momentum to hurt itself. Since putting the feeder up in 1991, we haven’t had a single window fatality.

Another strategy for avoiding window strikes is to hang hawk silhouettes on the window. Birds may recognize the pattern and actively avoid it, or the silhouette may simply help birds to notice the window glass. Either way, silhouettes do sometimes seem to help. Suncatchers hanging from the inside of the window also help. [UPDATE–not at all] Some people hang fisherman’s netting, streamers, or other material on the outside of the window, but depending on how much stuff you hang out, this can defeat the whole purpose of having a window in the first place.

When a bird hits a window, sometimes it dies instantly, but often it survives the initial impact. Sometimes a hairline fracture of the skull, a concussion, or other injury may kill the bird within a day or two. In his charming book Golden-crowned Kinglets, ornithologist Robert Galati tells of a little kinglet he and his wife raised, who bonked into a shelf in a grocery store and was momentarily stunned, but seemed to recover completely. Later, it keeled over dead, and when Galati prepared it as a specimen, he discovered a massive blood clot on the front portion of its head. So prevention really is the best cure for window kills.

But if a bird does strike your window, don’t give up hope and just leave it flat on its back. When I fell, I was dazed but not disoriented. Birds are designed for upright living, and when they’re on their backs, they often go into what seems like a hypnotic trance, becoming completely helpless. That’s why banders ofte hold healthy songbirds on their backs to keep them immobilized for a bit. If you find a songbird on its back, pick it up and hold it upright to see if it flies off. If it has an obviously broken wing or a crooked beak, put it in a fairly small cardboard box and bring it to a rehab clinic. If it simply seems stunned, put the box in a safe place protected from severe weather for 10 or 15 minutes. Then bring the box outside, open it, and hope the bird flies off. If the bird hasn’t flown off in an hour or so, bring it to a wildlife clinic.

There are many bird-killing things in this modern world that we as individuals can’t do a thing about. When we make our windows safer and rescue birds we find beneath them, we aren’t doing much to help bird populations, but the birds we’re helping are our own backyard birds—the ones we enjoy when we look out those very windows. It’s the least we can do.