For the Birds Radio Program: Window Collisions
(This transcript may be from 1998 or 99, with the recording from a later date?)
A couple of years 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. Blue Jays, Nature’s Perfect Birds, and chickadees, Nature’s Most Endearing Birds, virtually never hit windows, but finches, warblers, and some woodpeckers are extremely vulnerable. My own personal dining room window on Peabody Street 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 the bird hasn’t noticed it and flies into the window, it hasn’t built 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. Sun-catchers hanging from the inside of the windows also help. 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. Days 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 bird banders often hold healthy songbirds on their backs to keep them immobilized. If you find a songbird on its back, pick it up and hold it upright to see if it flies off. It if 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 seems simply 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.