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: