• Donald Attwood

Safer windows


If a bird happens to strike your window, put it in a small box and place it in a warm, quiet place away from predators and to prevent it from happening again, there are simple and affordable window treatments available.

Last summer, a Downy woodpecker struck our kitchen window and fell to the ground. (Downies are the smallest of our woodpeckers.) Following advice on the website of Le Nichoir wild bird conservation centre, my wife put the stunned bird inside a shoe box and left it in a warm, quiet place for an hour. When we checked again, the bird had not recovered, so we took it to Le Nichoir for treatment – there it became case number 14740. We called next day and learned it had not survived.

This bird had been using the feeders in our backyard; we invited it to visit and then it got hurt. How did this happen? Perhaps it was startled by a hawk and flew the wrong way. Birds find window glass confusing. Sometimes a bird, such as a male cardinal, will see its reflection and attack, thinking it’s challenging a rival. In other cases, birds may think they see trees and sky ahead, a path to escape.

In aggregate the problem of window strikes is huge. Biologists at Environment Canada found that such collisions are a leading cause of bird deaths. A recent newsletter from Le Nichoir notes that, in Canada, more than 22 million birds die every year from collisions with house windows. (That amounts to more than one death per household.) Last fall, as I thought about window safety at home, a huge study on bird populations revealed that, compared with 1970, there are now 3 billion fewer birds living in North America. This study was sponsored in part by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. From their website, I got a list of things we can all do to protect birds. Top of the list – Make Windows Safer.

I read online about various techniques for averting window strikes. It used to be thought that a silhouette of a hawk on a large window would deter collisions, but this method is not very effective. Small birds don’t see these shapes as real hawks, and if there is plenty of space near a silhouette, they may try to dodge around it. Big windows should look crowded to a bird.

One system that is quite effective can be found on the windows of the new main building at Le Nichoir. This involves the placement of small, adhesive, silvery squares in a grid on the outside of each window. Looking out, these squares barely obstruct the view. But from the other side, reflections are broken up and the glass surface becomes visible to small birds. As a first step, I bought a role of tape with 600 little squares to cover our kitchen window.

Fall and winter weather intervened, and meanwhile I was having second thoughts. Decorating our kitchen window from the outside would mean working on a stepladder, and I have always been clumsy. I can work on ladders, but it’s a good idea to hold on to something with one hand. Yet to be effective and look nice, the squares should be applied in a carefully aligned grid. The more I tried to visualize this work, the more I realized I would need both hands free most of the time. And I would need to shift side to side to cover a wide window. That is, I would need a scaffold, not a stepladder.

As I was mulling this over, two or three birds (I think they were newly fledged Downies) hit the window in just two days. Luckily, they bounced off and kept flying, but it was clearly time for action. I went back to Le Nichoir and bought several packets of translucent decals shaped like leaves and butterflies. These reflect ultraviolet light, which we can’t see but birds can. These decals are many times larger than the little squares and can be spaced in irregular patterns, which meant I could apply them one-handed. With trial and error, I found I could cover the upper two-fifths of the kitchen windows with ten leaf-sized decals, leaving not much space between.

When stuck to the window, these decals look like designs in frosted glass. They do not dim the light inside nor obstruct our view of the bird feeders. I was pleased with them, so I also washed the front windows and put decals on them.

That put an end to window strikes, at least for this season.

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