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Why birds head for plate-glass windows and, therefore, towards death

In the US, it is estimated that 1 billion birds die every year owing to crashing into plate-glass windows of skyscrapers and houses

Written by Ranjit Lal |
February 21, 2021 6:36:40 am
birdBird’s-eye View: Juvenile kites have a predilection for crashing into windows (Photo credit: Ranjit Lal)

It happens unfailingly every summer: you are working quietly in your room when you are startled by a sudden, loud but soft-edged somewhat sickening whump! You look out of the plate-glass window with dread — there’ll be a bird that has flown straight into it and is lying on the floor, hopefully, just having knocked itself out and nothing worse. Just observe it for a while, don’t offer any succour. If it’s okay, it will awake, look around dazedly and whirr off as if nothing had happened. If not, you will have to step in.

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Juvenile kites and female koels seem to have a special predilection for crashing into our windows. Others that I have found kayoed include a female sunbird and laughing dove (laughing no longer — but it recovered!). One gorgeous young kite, with gold stippled dark umber wings, was lying knocked out in the garden, we brought it in wondering if it were alive and fearing a cat might get it. It was just about conscious, but the moment I picked it up, it collapsed. I lay it on the grass and concealed myself behind the dining-room-window curtains to watch.
After a few minutes, it perked up its head, looked around and began hopping towards the hedge. I went and picked it up again — and, hey presto, it collapsed yet once more in my arms! (So much for me being a miracle healer!) Ultimately, I decided to just leave it in the garden and watch it until it was strong enough to fly. Which, to my delight it did, taking off with blustering wings in a few minutes. Another kite just stared at us fiercely as it recovered.

As for the lady koels, they just lay panting and looking utterly dazed, but recovered on their own in a few minutes as did the sunbird and dove. But most birds are not so lucky — in the US, it is estimated that 1 billion birds die every year owing to crashing into plate-glass windows of skyscrapers and houses. This happens because they see the reflection of foliage in the windows and fly towards it. Several years ago, before they had been wiped out, a vulture crashed through the plate-glass window of a neighbour’s flat, for possibly this exact same reason: coming in for a landing, it saw the reflection of trees in the window and headed straight for it. The poor bird thrashed around inside the bedroom, bleeding, but managed to let itself out and flap away, before the stunned neighbours could react.

But this can’t be true of skyscrapers where the only reflection would be that of an adjoining skyscraper! It’s probably that they don’t see the glass at all — it’s invisible to them and they fly straight into it at high speed. Birds like swallows, swifts and raptors in a hurry would be susceptible to this — and if you crash at 90 miles an hour, well, that’s pretty much it. To prevent such disasters, there are stickers available that you can put on your windows which warn off the birds and prevent disaster.

But some birds take deliberate “pangas” with reflective windows: Not only windows but any shiny metallic, reflective surface. The door of a dark blue Mercedes was horribly pockmarked and scratched by a furious peacock in full regalia, who thought that the reflection it was looking at was some tatty interloper trying to claim its territory and harem. This afternoon, one was hammering on a newly-fitted plate-glass window in the dining room. Of course, you could do nothing — if you raised a stink, surely, you’d be jailed for sedition!
Jungle babblers used to go berserk alongside the hubcaps of Ambassadors, hammering away at them, shrieking loudly. But several times, they have come around to hammer at the plate-glass window too, glowering away in that utterly charming manner of theirs. There are other species, like green barbets, who do this, too — sometimes, the birds injure themselves in these encounters. While the dudes do this to warn off (imaginary) rivals from their territory, the dudettes do this to protect their nest and eggs.

Mammals, too, have issues with reflections. The swaggering “sab-janta” (know-it-all) rhesus macaque can’t seem to make up his mind if the reflection, he is seeing, is of himself (such a handsome macho dude) or of an interloping bounder who needs to be taught a lesson. He’ll peer at the reflection, then look behind the mirror, and, finally, rub the mirror hard against the ground in frustration.

Other animals, higher up in the intelligence stakes, like elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, magpies, even the cleaner wrasse (tropical fish), seem to have this self-awareness, which brings them closer to us! Chimpanzees examine their teeth and other hard-to-see nooks and crannies on their bodies. Our Boxer Chops either cocks his head from side to side staring at his reflection, or, once, simply laid down in front of a mirror for hours and admired the handsome dude relaxing before him. Of course, he knew who it was!

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