Speaking of Nature by Bill Danielson: Upon reflection — this means war!

  • This male Baltimore oriole is probably a younger bird because he doesn’t have the jet black bead and blood orange of a full blown male. But, he did have a full blown attitude and did battle with his own reflection in my kitchen window. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 5/15/2022 4:02:00 PM
Modified: 5/15/2022 4:00:12 PM

This is a story that I have heard from many of my readers over the years. In the past I have heard reactions that are a mixture of humor and concern about this particular behavior and I have never been able to offer too much help in the matter. Fortunately, for most people (as was the case for me) this is something that is relatively short lived, but for anyone who has a drawn out issue I can offer some relief at the end of the column.

My particular story starts on the morning of May 8. Like many people, I woke up early on that Sunday morning with high hopes of going outside. In my case I wanted to do some birdwatching, but many of you might have had an early-morning walk in mind, or perhaps some yard work. Whatever your personal motivation might have been that day, I imagine that our collective response to the morning was quite similar.

The sky was clear above my house, but to the east there were heavy clouds. This meant that there would be no sun at sunrise and that was a problem. Then, when I wandered over to the kitchen window where the console for my weather station is located, I discovered that the temperature outside was only 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Not wanting to believe that this was true I went out onto the deck to check for myself. Yep, it was cold all right. Rats!

I stayed out long enough to fill the feeders and get everything in order for the birds, but then retreated inside to ponder my next move. I wanted to go down to the Thinking Chair, but 39 degrees was a little cold for that. Sitting in a plastic chair for hours in the cold is not a lot of fun and fingers stiffened by the cold have difficulty holding a pen and writing notes. So, with little choice, I made some coffee and sulked on the couch.

The coffee was warm and delicious, the couch was soft and sublime and I easily settled in with a good book. This was dangerous because time flies when you are comfortable and content. Before you know it you have missed the passage of two or three hours and the morning has gotten away from you. But I was undeterred. I was awake and I was not willing to surrender the entire day by going back to bed.

While reading my book in the quiet of the morning I was aware of the little noises that every house has. The mourning doves make a particular sound when they walk across the roof that is easy to recognize. The birds outside also make familiar noises that my brain classifies as “normal,” so there was nothing to do but enjoy then contentment of reading. And then something different came up.

I have no idea when I actually began to notice this noise, but it was clearly different enough to get my brain’s attention. It was a combination of very faint scratching and an even fainter tapping. What was that? I craned my neck to look out the windows, but from my comfortable position on the couch I couldn’t see anything. So, a little annoyed, I got up and went to check on what I was convinced must be a squirrel getting into some kind of trouble.

As soon as I arrived at the window by the deck I realized just how incorrect my assumption had been. Instead of a squirrel it turned out to be a Baltimore oriole and he was clearly in the middle of a heated disagreement with his own reflection. He would sit on a feeder hook, glare at himself and then finally attack the “intruder.” He was jacked up on hormones like a little kid who has eaten all of the Halloween candy and he was determined to establish himself as the king of these parts. It was hilarious. He didn’t even seem to notice me taking his photo on the other side of the glass.

Nothing in the evolutionary history of birds prepared them for windows. This relatively recent human invention produces reflections that the birds simply don’t comprehend. For them, everything they see is real and they may not possess the capacity to recognize the concept of “self.” For a bird, its own reflection is simply another bird. Catbirds and cardinals are famous for fighting their own reflections and I even personally watched a swan courting itself in the reflection of a chrome bumper on an old car. Remember when car bumpers were made of metal? Wow! Dating myself.

Anyway, the conflict between the oriole and his own reflection was very brief. He moved on and there has been no sign of this behavior since. But sometimes birds build nests in bushes near windows and the conflict can drag out long enough to become distressing. The only way to fix this is to tape white copy paper on the inside of the window. There will still be a reflection in the glass, but the bird won’t really notice it as well because there is no contrast between light and dark. If that doesn’t work, then paper must be taped to the outside of the window.

Things are really progressing nicely outside. My bluebirds have five eggs and all of the other nest boxes are occupied by tree swallows. The remaining migratory birds will arrive in very short order and the nesting season will be in full swing in no time. So, as I always recommend, get outside and enjoy. As Ferris Bueller might have said, “Spring moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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