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Wild On The Prairie: Birds

Windows kill birds, but some birds try to kill windows!
September 8, 2002

“Whap! Whap! Tick-tick-tick-tick.” A number of folks are hearing such sounds this year, and when they find the source of the sound, it is a bird attacking a window. And the fool bird keeps coming back, attacking the glass for thirty minutes straight. “It is two o’clock and it is time for the mockingbird,” a homeowner tells a mystified guest. And lo, right on time, here comes the bird.

“Why? What is it doing?” Here at the Sibley Nature Center, a mockingbird came to our southwestern-most window everyday for three weeks. Every school group here at that time was fascinated by the silly goof. We answered with a question, as we often do. “Anybody ever see a mocker attack a cat or a dog, or even a person?” After the kids answered affirmatively, we then asked, “Why would they attack another animal?” Usually someone would soon answer, “Because they are worried that the cat or dog is going to eat their babies.”

“So what is the answer about a bird pecking a window?” The kids would think awhile, and then one would figure it out – “Oh, the bird sees its reflection, and thinks the bird it sees is real, and is in its territory, so it is trying to chase away the intruder.” Many species of birds exhibit the behavior. I had a cactus wren that spent hours on the side mirror of my truck, standing on top of it and bending over to attack the reflection.

A number of years back, A Midnat watched a female cardinal attacking a window. After a few minutes of the behavior, the male appeared. She quit and hopped to his side, started fluttering her wings rapidly and widely opened her beak. The male gently nuzzled her, touching his beak to hers and rubbing the side of his head against the side of hers. Within a minute the female settled down, sitting quietly. The male took up the fight, hopping to the window and gave it a few pecks. He then hopped away about ten feet, then flew at the window.

Right at the moment it neared the top of the window, the male would be at the apex of the upbeat, and would pop its wings against the window, and then slowly slide down the window, whapping it with its wings all the way to the windowsill. It would fly back to a nearby branch, bend and peer at the window for a few seconds, and then repeat the behavior. The female watched several repetitions of the action, then flew off. She never returned to attack the window again, but he did. Every day.

After a few days, the male backed even further away, to fly pell-mell headfirst into the window. After sitting dazed on the ground, the silly bird would repeat the kamikaze flight. After sitting a longer time, feathers in disarray, the bird shook himself, and did it yet again. After the sixth time, he just sat at the window, half-leaning against the side of the frame. After resting for at least five minutes, he tapped at the window, and kept up the weak and ineffectual ticking at a steady pace for another five minutes. Finally he tired, and sat, eyes closed, dozing in the afternoon heat.

A week later, the male added a new tactic. When he first appeared, he would smear the window with droppings. After several days, the window was liberally whitewashed. Risking a charge of excessive anthropomorphism, the Midnat decided the bird was displaying contempt. He based the theory on prior knowledge – coyotes are well known for defiling traps set for them. “Birds might be capable of expressing resentment, parrots are known to bite someone who teases them, and be gentle to those who feed them and scratch their head.”

When a bird decides to attack its reflection, it does not matter if the object that creates the reflection has not been there for a long period of time. On a field trip at a ranch along Midland Draw, I parked the truck, and opened the doors and windows to facilitate air-flow while I waited for some other amateur naturalists to join me. I drank a coke, ate some pistachios and looked about. After no more than ten minutes a pyrrhuloxia lit on the open door on the other side. It peered in at me, but I did not move. It hopped down to the top of the half-rolled down window and inspected me a second time. In a few seconds it reversed positions, and sat viewing the nearby pasture.

Suddenly spying its reflection in the side-mirror, it cocked its head this way and that, and then sidled down the window top. Its reflection was no longer apparent, so it sidled back, and bingo, it saw its reflection again. It flew at the mirror, appeared to fall towards the ground, but then returned to the window. Again it flew at the mirror and then disappeared. It soon reappeared, sitting on top of the mirror. It bent over and looked at the back side, looking for its rival. Hopping up and turning around, it repeated the bending over posture, and spotted its image again. It pecked at the reflection several times then stopped, and stood up straight.

I am convinced that the pyrrhuloxia thought the situation over. After a few seconds, it looked over its shoulder, looking down at the back of the mirror, then leaned a little forward and looked down. It could not find that “other” pyrrhuloxia, so it dropped to the ground. A minute later, it appeared from underneath the truck on my side. It looked in, then hopped up to the door frame just to the left of my legs. It peered in, searching the floorboard. It took one hop forward, but suddenly sensed it was mighty close to something that potentially do it some harm, and quickly spun around and departed.

One reaction to observing a bird doing something that seems pointless and idiotic is to think, “what a stupid bird,” and laugh at it, and mentally sneer. I like to flip the question around – “What do we humans do that could be conceived pointless or idiotic?”

Sibley Nature Center
1307 E. Wadley, Midland, Texas 79705
phone 432.684.6827
email info@sibleynaturecenter.org