A Death In The Family

chickadee.jpg

From Gene Logsdon

A tragedy, like the dead chickadee in the photo above, seems small compared to what is happening in the calamitous world we live in now, but not to me. That chickadee was a member of our farm family in a real way, along with the two blue jays, six juncos, four house finches, one red-bellied woodpecker, four nuthatches, two tufted titmice, four cardinals, four white-crowned sparrows, six goldfinches, and three downy woodpeckers that are regularly coming to our bird feeder in the winter. We think of them as part of our livestock, like the chickens and sheep, but mourn the loss of the chickadee more than we would a domestic animal because we have some control over the population of the latter.

Keeping a flock of wild birds turns out to be a little like keeping farm animals. First of all, the birds provide us with many hours of entertainment, even drama when the hawks swoop to feed on the birds feeding in the feeder. They often prove to have different personalities, just like sheep and chickens. Cardinals are much less domineering than blue jays, for example. Some goldfinches are more nervous than others. Juncos are not supposed to know how to pluck seeds out of a cloth stocking the way goldfinches do, but after watching the goldfinch for awhile, one of ours jumped on the sock and kept experimenting until it learned how to get seeds out too. None of the other juncos have followed suit and we can tell because this one is lighter in gray color than the others. For several years, the tufted titmice disappeared completely and we mourned the loss, fearful that some change in th environment might have extinguished them from our neighborhood. But this year, a pair is back.

One of our birds last year had only one foot. Several have had eye injuries. One cardinal had its head tuft removed, probably by a hawk. We have also found that there are little differing genetic details between birds of the same species. One downy woodpecker, gone this year, we called “Dirt Bag” because its feathers had a slightly sooty cast to them. It looked like it needed a bath. One goldfinch has a white feather in the tail where the others do not. Some male juncos are darker than others. There must be infinite variation within the genetic code that allows for an “accidental” trait to suddenly show itself. So much mystery!

The chickadee was a comparative newcomer to the feeder and we were thrilled to have yet another species boarding with us. But as a new arrival, it had not yet learned, as the birds usually do, that the reflection of the woods in the picture window was not real airspace, and when the sharp-shinned hawk suddenly swooped in, the chickadee bolted to escape directly into the glass and broke its neck.

The tragedy raises a grave philosophical issue for me. The immediate fault of the death, and I can’t deny it, is the window. But the cause-effect issue is not so clearcut. Our birds often thump against the window, usually without ill effect. Several times, they have been stunned, and we bring them inside, in a dark shoe box, until they recover. They generally seem to learn, in fact, to distinguish window reflection from the real thing and quit flying into the window. They even learn, although some people don’t believe us, to flutter in front of the window, their wings actually brushing the glass sometimes, to inform us that the feeder is empty.

Yes, I could shutter or shroud the window, I suppose, but then I could not see the birds. Must I deprive myself of sunlight and the lovely view of the woodland, just to avoid the very rare occasion when the window kills a bird— less than ten birds in 35 years in fact? Even if I could find insulated window glass less reflective, there is no guarantee that a bird fleeing a hawk would not bash into it anyway. Or how often in those few cases when a bird dies, would Old Sharp-shin (who has learned that a bird feeder is a source of its food too), have gotten the bird anyway, “saving” it from colliding with the window? The sharp-shinned hawks presents another philosophical problem. They eat lots of smaller birds, and sometimes are smart enough to build their high nests in the tree directly above our bird feeder. Should I shoot them to save the other birds? I decided that nature knew best. Sure enough, the number of birds at the feeder, after nearly ten years of sharp-shinned (and other) hawks in residence, has not decreased, except for the tufted titmice. The only other bird down in population is the pestiferous English sparrow which is reason enough to leave the hawks alone.

In light of the literally millions of migrating birds that are being killed by high tension lines, airplanes, and now giant wind generators making so-called “green” electricity, can I excuse my window for its tiny addition to the danger? I can point, with some justification, that since we have introduced red cedar trees and other winter fruit bearing plants, the bluebirds stay on the farm all winter, even come to the feeder on occasion, instead of flying south on now dangerous migration routes. Might not I excuse myself even more by pointing out that by feeding the birds in winter, we have probably saved more bird lives than the few killed by crashing into the window?

I don’t really know the answer. Does anyone?
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Author:
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
Gene’s latest book: The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Gene’s Posts
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15 Comments

Thanks Judy, I’m sure a lot of readers will be glad to know this. Gene Logsdon

I don’t know if you’re still reading comments here, but there’s a very effective product called WindowAlert that has eliminated window strikes at my house. They’re clear plastic decals you place on the outside of the window to break up the reflections. They “contain a component that brilliantly reflects ultraviolet sunlight…that glows like a stoplight to birds.” (From their packaging.) I was losing 3-6 birds a year to window strikes, and having more near misses. Now I have none. It took awhile to figure out how many decals I needed and where to place them, but every time there was a strike, I slapped up a new decal. I have about 3 or 4 on each of my big picture windows. They’re visible to me, but I don’t care–they’ve saved me a lot of heartache over the years. Here’s a link to the Amazon page where they’re sold:

http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=windowalert&tag=googhydr-20&index=aps&hvadid=3402124527&ref=pd_sl_815byl48av_e

We too have had a death in our bird family today, though it was a sparrow. The neighbor’s cat usually is the culprit. I am sad to learn that your’s was a chickadee. We just discovered that what I thought at first glance was one of our nuthatches was indeed a chickadee. Upon further watching, we learned we have about 4 or 5 visiting our feeders. The greatest competition: the squirrels. However, they are still amusing to watch as we try to foil their attempts at getting at our bird feed. Still, we are able to enjoy the nuthatches, three types of woodpeckers, chickadees, flickers, juncos, blue jays, cardinals, doves, and (dare I say it) the sharp-shinned hawk in the garden in the middle of busy Washington, DC. The starlings, however, we can live without.

Linda Richter I would think hanging anything on that window would help. Flying into the flag though sounds mystifying. It’s possible that the jay has had an eye injury. It is possible that you have a new hawk in the neighborhood that is swooping down on the jays and they aren’t used to it. We often have “our” bird crash into our windows when a hawk dives in over the bird feeder. Gene Logsdon

I was glad to find this website. I was beginning to get a creepy feeling. I have a large tree outside of my craftroom window. The window is large and cranks outward. It is this cranked out section that the crashes have happened on. In the last two days, I noticed a bluejay banging into the window. It has happend three times to my knowledge in the last two days. I also saw a jay fly into a flag we have hanging on the porch of our shop. I have to say I never noticed it before and now there have been a few incidents in just a couple of days…so you can understand why I find this creepy. Perhaps this is a “new jay” and is unfamiliar with the layout. We do feed the birds year round. If I find a wounded one…I take it in. So, you can understand why I am upset about this bird or birds potentially doing itself harm on my window. I was wondering if hanging a windsock near the window might help. The colors are bright…but so too were the colors on the flag the poor thing crashed into. Perhaps it is just one bird and it is ill? Any insite would be appreciated🙂 Linda R.

sherry in maryland July 11, 2008 at 4:40 am

the solution to birds flying into the window is taping several small strips of aluminum foil (randomly) on the outside of your window.
i learned this from a website. it works!!!(what i also tried but doesn’t work is drawing the curtains ’cause the birds still see the outside reflection)

Your life and death bird story was beautiful. Every creature impacts its environment to some extent, with consequences for the other members of the community. Awareness of those consequences is something that is truly lacking from our human cultures at this time.

I was struck by your veiled reference to the mysterious diversity in the genetic code that we understand so poorly. As an eco-farmer and a father I find ‘scientists’ mucking around with genetics very alarming.

They also make a spider-web attachment that you can stick to your window that is supposed to keep them from crashing in … something about the “design” in the web… I was going to stock up during Halloween, but never got around to it. Tell Carol to quit washing the windows! (Just kidding)

Response to Ann: your philosophy about death is beautiful.

Response to Tamara Griesel: Lots of us will want to try your shiny ribbon suggestion for keeping birds from flying into windows.

Response to Nick Rouse: Now that’s a new thought for me. The less number of birds killed by transmission lines, the more die of starvation.

Response to George Fleming: great photo of chickadee!

Response to urbangardener: Your point can’t be made too often. Domestic cats kill many many songbirds.

Place feeders closer to the house/windows to reduce flight speed into the glass reflection.

Domestic cats kill more birds annually. Reduce their bird species extinction impact by keeping them indoors.

I enjoyed this article very much. Here is a great photograph of a chickadee perching on the photographer’s face. http://www.groundtruthinvestigations.com/about.html

Because the rich part of humanity has for the last 200 years or so for the most part been able to live till decrepitude finally gets us, it has allowed us to forget that all other species (and ours too in the past and I fear in the future) have had their population limited by some environmental factor (food shelter micronutrients predators etc.).

Like trees rushing to fill the gap in the forest when an old tree dies where those trees would have died young or not germinated with the canopy intact, the death of your chickadee has left room for another to thrive that would have otherwise died. This may be hard to take when you have come to feel affection for an individual but however much you support local wild live there will be a limit to this support and that will set a limit on the population and that limit will be policed by starvation or other hard means, generally by most of each years brood dying in the autumn when food supply diminishes.

The same is true of the birds killed by transmission lines and wind turbines. There may be millions killed, if this statistic if true, but there are billions killed by starvation or other environmental limits. Only if they are sited near the habitat of rare and endangered species will such deaths have much effect on population number. Less dying on the transmission lines would mean more starvation.

I don’t have an answer to the morality of small dangers to animals, but I can tell you what we did at the nature center where I worked a few years ago. We had a bird watching area with feeders and a picture window.

Take some pretty, fluttery ribbon (shiny ribbon is especially effective) and tack it at intervals so it hangs down in front of the windows, not so much that you can’t see out, just enough to flutter in the breeze and catch the birds’ attention. No one knows for sure why this works, but it does seem to help cut down on bird/window collisions.

Tamara

Gene,
I think we are too traumetized by the thought of death. It is a fundamental of life. It is what happens to all life. It goes. Somewhere maybe? We don’t know. But it always goes. So will ours. Where ever your chickadee went, so will we all go. Trust him. Trust all who have gone before us. They have nourished us. We will nourish the beautiful ones who come next.

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