Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Those crazy red birds - they've turned windows into battle zones
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 10, 2008)
I'm surrounded by crazy red birds.
There's one by the kitchen bay window and another pecking on the narrow glass in the hall. A third guards the double-hung above the laundry sink while a fourth has claimed the picture window in my old office.
TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away.
Return a few minutes later.
TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away again.
The house windows have become battle zones. Their reflective surfaces are ground zero -- sites for constant attacks. Welcome to what I call TDS, Territorial Domination Season, the time of year when male birds demonstrate supremacy by smacking their heads against glass panes to scare away their reflections.
These fierce fighters of feathery fortitude have no idea they're engaged in unnecessary battles. The bright-colored, brash, ostentatious birds don't realize the perceived intruders are themselves.
"Silly bird," I tell a cardinal whose face is pressed against the kitchen window. "Your battle is futile. Save your energy for other struggles, real struggles yet to come."
He doesn't listen. Even if he could, my words wouldn't resonate. Birds are driven by instincts so strong they defy logic and empirical evidence. So what if -- after being repeatedly pecked -- the enemy returns whenever the cardinal looks at the window. To the cardinal there's a foe. That's all that matters.
It's hard to ignore a bird when it intentionally flies into your window. This year cardinals are the culprits, but a few years back our house was surrounded by male towhees equally determined to defend their territory.
I learned during the towhee period that if a male bird is set on bashing his head against a window there's little a person can do to thwart those efforts. Curtains and window shades are useless. Taping pieces of newspaper to the interior glass doesn't work either. For a while, I thought keeping the window open might help, but ultimately it didn't. The birds merely moved to stationary parts of the windowpane while bugs took advantage of the openings.
In the past 16 years, I've become rather possessive of wildlife in my area. When birds repeatedly smack their tiny heads against the windowpanes, I wonder about their health. Do their crazy actions result in headaches? How about concussions? Do birds get stunned?
In North America, more than 100 million birds die from head strikes each year, according to the Bird Conservation Network and other wildlife authorities. Many others suffer head traumas, fractures and internal bleeding. Most of those deaths come when birds mistakenly fly into windows but some, like the cardinals in my yard, meet their demise while defending territory from their own reflections.
Why do birds persist in such painful, pointless and possibly fatal behavior? The answer in one word is: testosterone.
During spring and autumn, certain male birds experience what scientists call gonadal recrudescence. Surging male hormones send a message to the bird's brain. "Fight!" it shouts. "Defend your turf! Strut your stuff! Stop intruders!"
It's a good thing people aren't like that. Wait a minute . . . maybe we are.
We may not peck repeatedly at our reflections in glass, but at times we fly off the handle, act irrationally and engage in combat against perceived enemies. We humans like to think we're above such basic instincts, but in reality we're as affected by hormonal surges as our feathery friends.
You don't have to look further than a sporting field, gaming board or video console to find testosterone-filled warriors defending turf they've designated as their own or engaged in combat against supposed enemies. Sports and video games may be harmless ways of venting aggression, but what about more serious outlets for surging hormones?
Consider domestic violence, road rage or, dare I say, war?
Every season has its pluses and minuses, and I suppose one minus of Territorial Domination Season is the unnecessary war that male birds wage against themselves.
Short of covering the outside of my windowpanes, my only choice is to accept the unacceptable.
I can do that with birds, but how about with people?
TAP. TAP. TAP. I don't think so.
TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away.