Thunk! The sound was loud, harsh, and unmistakable. A bird had flown full speed into our living room window. From the sound alone you could tell the outcome would not be a good one. Sure enough, a dead robin lay feet-up at the edge of the front garden.

Deb summed it up: “Oh crap damn.”

As home dwellers, we have a certain responsibility to try and encourage things to live. We plant, fertilize, water, and hope. Nevertheless, stuff dies. Bugs get squashed, shovels sever worms, plants collapse (given our sporadic care, I suspect many Schiddygarden plants are suicidal). And every once in a great while a bird flies pell-mell into one of our windows. Most shake it off, take a couple of deep breaths, and fly away. But some don’t.

Birds colliding with objects isn't rare. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology estimates that one billion birds die from window strikes each year in North America. Make that one billion and one.

A bird death feels especially tragic. They’re such free-wheeling, generally chirpful, curious yet wary, often beautiful, and frequently entertaining creatures. We’re dismayed when dead ones show up on our property or in the mouths of our cats. Yes, there are things we can do to help prevent accidental bird deaths—more on that in a bit.

Meanwhile, an existential question looms: Where are the dead birds? We see the carcasses now and then, even occasionally witness their demise. But consider—there are some 9 billion birds in North America, with tens of thousands if not millions of birds flitting about in any particular neighborhood or countryside. Given that population density and an average bird’s natural lifespan of three to five years, you (actually me) might deduce that hundreds of local birds die every day. But where are the carcasses? Why aren’t dead birds literally littering the yards and sidewalks?

Because I am nothing if not insatiably curious about stuff that nobody in their right mind would care about, I asked the question of Josh Morris, the Urban Conservation Manager for the Seattle Audubon Society.

“It’s an interesting question and one that we think about a lot,” says Josh who, it turns out, is definitely in his right mind. In fact, part of Josh’s professional responsibilities is to try and estimate the number of birds that die from collisions with man-made objects, especially windows, and to create programs and guidelines to help reduce bird deaths.

According to Josh, a main reason we don’t see bird carcasses is that they’re hard to spot. “They’re small and tend to blend in with whatever substrate they’ve ended up on, and injured birds may hobble to underbrush to hide before they succumb,” he says.

In fact, the Seattle Audubon team was so intrigued by the question that they conducted an experiment. They secreted dead bird carcasses all over the city, then gave a group of bird-finders specific instructions on the coordinates, surroundings, and even photographs of the carcass locations. Bird finders went out three times each day for a week, and in the end only located less than 50 percent of the hidden bird bodies. Although scavengers such as ravens and rats probably account for some disappearances, Josh Morris thinks scavengers aren’t the complete answer to Where are the dead birds? “We’re trying to figure that one out,” he muses.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a foolproof solution for preventing birds from flying into your windows. They mistake reflections of trees, shrubbery, and the sky for the real things, sometimes with ill-fated results. The remedy is to apply deterrents such as stickers, exterior screens, or hanging cords that disrupt reflections and present a more solid-looking surface that birds will avoid. They’re readily available—you can find a large selection of adhesive-free stickers and other deterrents in a variety of colors and styles at nature stores and online.

It would be impractical to apply those kinds of defensive measures to every window in a house, and impossible to predict the changing light patterns and flight angles that might cause a bird to be fooled by a reflection. But in general, large windows are the most likely culprits. For more information about how to prevent birds from flying into your windows, check the websites of the Cornell Lab and the American Bird Conservancy.

Meanwhile, on the not-dead side of this blog, there’s Merlin, the free bird-identification app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Take a photo of a bird with your smartphone, and Merlin will sift through its recognition database to come up with an I.D. Or, you can record a bird’s song, chirp, or call and run it through the app to let Merlin make an audio identification of your very-much-alive winged companion.

Here's a great photo of a not-dead yellow crown sparrow taken by David Pederson:

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  • John R

My father cut off the ends of two of his fingers while reaching for a stick that poked out from under the lawn mower he was pushing. Zing! Blood and bone.

It was a seminal event for a man whose upkeep of the family home and property was the very essence of his soul. Everyone was amazed that he’d ignored common sense in doing what he did, common sense being one of my father’s fortes. In fact, a self-inflected accident was such an out-of-character, image-shattering gaffe that he began to wonder if perhaps he was not entirely at fault. Perhaps if someone had been a more conscientious raker-of-lawns, then the stick would not have been there in the first place, and he would not have had to reach for it, and he would not have inadvertently let the index and middle fingers of his left hand drift ever-so-slightly beneath the rim of the lawnmower deck, and so on.

In my defense, I submit that I was, and always have been, a reliable lawn steward. Growing up, I raked up hundreds of bushels of leaves and sticks, dug out thousands of dandelions, and cut square miles of lawn. I even cut the neighbor’s lawn until their 25-year-old parrot died after choking on some scrambled eggs. No more Polly want a cracker croaking from the lilacs. The facts of their parrot dying and me not cutting their lawn any more were unrelated—I was headed off to college. But I liked that parrot. She was a classic of parrotness. Her name really was Polly and she did loudly insist that she wanted crackers. Unfortunately, she got scrambled eggs.

Which brings us to England.

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), British gardeners have about 300,000 gardening accidents per year. Lawn mowers are leading culprits—no surprise—and are involved in about 6,500 annual mishaps (one imagines hundreds of stray digits scattered about the verdant lawns of England).

Flowerpots are a close second, accounting for more than 5,000 calamities. Thankfully, it’s difficult to imagine a flowerpot causing the mayhem of a lawn mower. Nevertheless, don’t turn your back on any flowerpots—obviously not all of them are well-intentioned.

Pruners grab third place on the list and unfortunately, it’s not at all difficult to conjure up the kinds of injuries that pruners are capable of administering.

Of course, picking on the Brits is low-hanging fruit because they’re so far away. Also, they have Prince Charles, who sort of looks like the poster boy for a-gardening-accident-waiting-to-happen, and who indeed some years ago suffer an eye injury while trimming trees. Where the Highgrove groundskeepers were at the time is anybody’s guess, possibly at a meeting of the Royal Trimmers and Pruners Society. I’ll add that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents proudly displays the yearly number of folks who have successfully maimed themselves, which feels a bit unproductive, marketing-wise, for the RoSPA.

Nevertheless, with good old American sprit de corps, we Yanks can thump our chests and claim a vastly superior 400,000 garden-related, emergency-room-worthy accidents per annum. Of these, more than 60,000 involve a lawn mower, toes being the most well, you know…

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers some sage observations on garden safety, such as the fact that the moving blades of rotary lawn mowers are hazardous (who knew?!!), wearing flipflops while mowing is unsafe (but oh so comfy), and that pushing a mower over rocks is ill-advised.

So in early spring when warm days have encouraged our lawn and associated weeds to grow like, um, weeds, I retrieve our mower from the shed for the first lawn trimming of the season. It rattles and squeaks as I maneuver it over the concrete patio and put it in position for starting. Old Chopper is a venerable gas-guzzler that refuses to die and provide me the emotional license to switch to a more guilt-assuaging electric model. With unfortunate dependability it roars to life at the very first pull, shaking off a winter’s worth of mechanical ennui and sluggish oil, and belches a nice round ball of fumes. Then it settles in, shuddering with anticipation like a leashed dog watching a squirrel.

I’ve never had a gardening accident, knock on wood, although as man and machine sally forth there’s enough clattering going on that I wonder if the blade is coming loose and is about to slice through the back of the mower housing like the weapon of an android ninja. It’s possible. But I calm the fears and sally on, and before long I’m wrapped in blissful white noise and the heady scent of fresh-cut grass.

Then I spot it: a stick laying just 20 feet ahead. It’s a medium-size piece of wood, two-feet long and maybe half an inch thick. I have several choices. One, I can stop the mower and remove the stick from my path. However, this is an inconvenience and interrupts the meditative state that mowing induces and that I so desperately enjoy. Two, I can run the mower over the stick, disdaining the USCPSC’s advice not to do so and trusting in Old Chopper’s hard-nosed ability to grind it to rough mulch, calamitous noises be damned.

Or three, I can approach with due caution and, just before the stick disappears beneath the deck, with the engine running, reach down to…

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  • John R

Winter. Not a lot happens in winter in terms of actual gardening, which at our property greatly reduces the chances for haphazard plant care and troubling soil mismanagement. Within this respite of dormancy, we are hopeful. Because this coming year will be different. This year will be the year of a glorious horticultural breakthrough.

I say “we” although my betrothed, for all her goodness, does not take the promise of a Glorious Horticultural Breakthrough seriously. For one, she thinks “Glorious Horticultural Breakthrough” sounds like a North Korean marketing slogan. Also, she does not share my hopeful visions of peppers big as bowling balls and dahlia blossoms the size of dinner plates. She has seen me in action, muddling about in recalcitrant dirt, and her support is mitigated by history. She says, without rancor and with a fair amount of accuracy, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Ha! Gauntlet tossed and accepted!

Fantasizing about GHBs is a skill to which I’m particularly well-adapted. Stretched out on the couch, iPad perched on my tummy and aglow with images of magazine-worthy gardens and chockablock with bookmarks leading to vast stores of gardening expertise, advice, and no-fail step-by-step YouTube videos, I feel myself on the precipice of a truly magnificent growing season. (I probably should say approaching rather than on the precipice of; “precipice” suggests disaster is only a step away) Anyway, with so much knowledge at my fingertips, I’d have to be an absolute moron not to be able to grow gorgeous flowers and prize-winning veggies.

As I often do when engaged in a conscious manifestation of corpulent cultivars, I fall asleep. But not before admitting that Glorious Horticultural Breakthrough does sound like something cooked up by a sycophantic Minister of the People’s Cultural Affairs. I need to work on that. Maybe, Superhero Summer or The Little Garden That Could. It’ll come to me.

BTW, here are a few of my favorite places to fritter away the winter:

Garden columnist and blogger Margaret Roach is always chockablock (today’s favorite word) with smart stuff, including recipes. Find her at Margaret A Way to Garden.

Renee Shepherd has an online “garden to table seed company” called Renee’s Garden that’s stuffed (I hope you appreciate that I used “stuffed” instead of subjecting you all to another “chockablock”) with fantastic heirlooms and certified-organic seeds.

Speaking of heirlooms, there’s always the iconic Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Since its rustic beginnings, the Exchange has grown into a sophisticated operation. You can buy seeds (duh) or shop the online gift store. You can also visit and tour.

Speaking of peppers (way back in paragraph two; some sharp-eyed editor is going to catch that one and insist on a more relevant transition) I get reverential visiting Jim Duffy’s Refining Fire Chiles where the selection will make you weep with capsicum anticipation. Also, check out “Jim Duffy Growing Chiles” on YouTube.

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