A robin is hitting my window!
Image: Ann Cook
Every year people write to Journey North asking for help because
a bird — usually a robin — is flying into their window, patio
door, or car mirror, over and over and over. The people are sometimes
irritated by the noise, and usually worried about the bird. The window
often gets smeared with feathers and even blood. What are these robins
doing? What can we do to stop this behavior?
When American Robins start feeling territorial each year, they do their
best to keep other adults of the same sex outside of their territorial
boundaries. When a territorial robin notices its reflection in a window
or mirror within its territory, it gets agitated, raises the feathers
on its head, and assumes a dominant posture. Normally that is enough to
make any other robins leave the territory immediately. But instead of
flying away, the reflected robin seems to get equally agitated, raises
its head feathers, and gets in an equally dominant posture. The first
time this happens, the real robin often just leaves. If it's a male, he
often goes to his favorite song perch and starts singing. When he doesn't
hear a responding song, he's more certain that this is really his own
territory. If it's a female, she goes back to her daily activities and
stays on the lookout for other females.
If the robin
sees that reflection again, it gets more and more agitated —
but so does the reflection! Finally, the robin flies in to chase the other
robin away. But the reflection flies in exactly the same way, and the
robin hits the glass. And the reflected robin STILL doesn't leave! No
matter how aggressive the real robin gets, and no matter how hard it fights,
the reflection matches it. The real robin becomes more and more determined
to drive that upstart away!
Robins are not stupid. But during the nesting season their territorial
urge is even more powerful than their urge to eat or sleep. Defending
their territory is the way they ensure there will be enough food for their
babies. No wonder they work so hard!
But the whole
time the robin is fighting its reflection, it is NOT doing the things
that will really ensure its babies' survival. It needs to eat, sing (if
it's a male), build a nest, incubate eggs (if it's a female), and chase
REAL robins away. How can we help it stop this behavior?
way to do this is to break the reflection. Fortunately, we don't have
to break the window to do this! The simplest way, if it's a small window
or mirror, is to simply tape some paper or cardboard over it, on the outside.
Usually the paper needs to be up for three or four days until the robin
gets busy enough with other things to forget about the "intruder."
If it's a big patio window, it's harder to cover the whole thing. One
technique that sometimes works is to paper over the area where the robin
has been actually hitting, and then hang shiny helium balloons nearby.
Most birds are frightened of helium balloons, probably because they act
so different from things birds encounter in nature: they seem to fall
Try This! Vocabulary Stretcher!
Look up the word escalate in the dictionary.
What does it mean? How does escalate relate to a robin's
behavior when it is fighting at a window? Write a sentence about robins
using the word escalate.
Science Education Standards
- The behavior
of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger)
and by external cues (such as a change in the environment).
is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental
- An organism's
behavior patterns are related to the nature of that organism's environment,
including the kinds and number of other organisms present, the availability
of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment.