I know of a suicidal cardinal.
Let me make something perfectly clear, as a disgraced former President used to say, I am most emphatically not talking about a high Catholic official. I’m referring to a little feathered friend that’s been pestering me lately.
A female cardinal has apparently decided that my office window is the worst threat she and her babies have ever faced. For the past month or so she has been attacking it dozens of times a day. The top-right window pane (too high to reach from the outside without a ladder) is now covered with marks from the times she has tried to peck it to death.
By the way, I am not alone. Two of my neighbors also have cardinals that are driving them crazy with their all-out attacks on their windows. Dean, the gentlemen on my left, has gone to extremes to find a preventative.
First, he went to the local hardware store and asked if they had anything that would help. “Sure thing,” they responded. They sold him a very handsome wooden hawk that stands about two feet high.
A few days later, Dean reported the results: Zero. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. His cardinal was still attacking his window with wild abandon. So he called the hardware store to complain that their “solution” didn’t work.
“Where did you put the hawk?” he was asked. “On the lawn in front of the window,” was his reply.
“Well, that’s your problem,” he was told. “The bird can’t see it down there. You need to hang it in front of the window she’s attacking.” “How do I do that?” was his response.
When they tried to sell him a pole he could put in front of his window, to hang the hawk from, he asked if there wasn’t any other solution he could try first. “Sure,” they told him. “Cover the inside of your windows so the bird doesn’t see her reflection. That’s what she’s attacking — she thinks it’s another bird invading her territory.”
So now Dean has newspapers taped all over his front windows. The blackout seems to be working fairly well. Most of the time the bird leaves him alone, he tells me. It’s only when the sun strikes the window exactly right that she’s back, flying against his window again and again.
“What about the hawk?” I asked him. “It’s still on the ground in front of the window,” he told me. “I like it too much to take it back. And who knows? Maybe it’s keeping the squirrels from invading my attic.”
“And how do you like having your window covered with newspaper” I asked him. He just looked at me.
A few days later, Dean and I were talking with our across-the-street neighbor, Dale. It turns out Dale has the same problem Dean and I have been experiencing — a delusional cardinal keeps attacking the windows on the eastern side of his house. Dale said he done a little research and learned the following:
First, cardinals are incredibly territorial. They mate for life, use the same nest over and over again and go crazy when any other cardinal tries to invade their territory. I knew this was true from experiences I had back in Atlanta. We abutted a tributary of the Chattahoochee River and all of the acreage behind us had been declared wetlands. It was strictly off-limits to developers, so we had all sorts of wildlife back there. The deer were so prolific that they became a threat to landscaping — and your car. A friend had a nasty accident when one ran right in front of him and he couldn’t stop in time.
We had several bird feeders in our back yard and a family of cardinals was quite happy to make their home in the area. That is, until the following year, when their offspring became adults. I thought it would be cool to see two or three generations of cardinals gobbling down the seeds we put out for them. Nope. Year after year, mama cardinal drove her sons and daughters away.
Dale and I enjoyed a hearty laugh as Dean explained the on-going battle he was engaged in. Dean, a kind and gentle soul, was determined to keep his bird from killing itself. Dale and I disagreed with him.
“I’m sorry, Dean,” I told him, “but I believe in the survival of the fittest. If my bird is so stupid that it knocks its brains out, or even kills itself, I’m not going to interfere. Maybe other babies will be smarter.”
I also said that, in time, her eggs would become babies and her babies would grow up. When that happened, I was willing to bet, mama bird would cease her attacks on my window.
When I repeated the story to my wife, she glared at me. A few days later she dropped a small package on my desk. “Put these up,” she ordered.
It turns out she had done something Dale, Dean and I never thought of doing. She went to the nearest Wild Birds Unlimited store and asked them what to do. If you’re not familiar with Wild Birds, it’s a national franchise composed of local owners who are dedicated birders. In addition to all sorts of bird seed, including unique blends made just for that area, they sell bird feeders, fountains, recordings and more paraphernalia than you knew existed, all related to birds. I was such a good customer of the store near us in Atlanta, I think that when we moved away the owners sold it and retired to a wealthy community in Arizona.
Anyway, Wild Birds said they had the answer. The package my wife dropped on my desk consisted of two plastic decals of hawks. The package promised that, if I would peel ’em off and stick them on the outside of my windows, Mrs. Cardinal would not bother me again.
The package for WindowAlert® proclaimed, “Millions of wild birds are killed each year from flying into windows. You can help reduce this loss of life,” it promised.
Here was the explanation I found inside: “The decal contains a component which brilliantly reflects ultraviolet sunlight. This ultraviolet light is invisible to humans, but glows like a stoplight for birds. Birds have vision that is up to 12 times better than that of humans.”
For those of you who are more technically minded, the insert went on to explain that we humans have only 10,000 color-vision cells per square millimeter, while our bird friends have 120,000. Also, we have 200,000 low-light rod cells per sq/mm, while birds have 500,000. And here, for me, was the clincher: Our eye retina is three-cone, or trichromatic, while birds’ are four-cone, or quad-chromatic.
Of course they’ll see a hawk decal that is invisible to me!
So as soon as I finish this Straight Talk column, I’m going to get the extension ladder out of our garage, place it against the roof in front of my office window, climb the darned thing and carefully affix the plastic hawk decals to my window.
I gotta tell you, if I fall off that thing and break my neck, my parting thought will be imagining mama cardinal bragging to her husband how she beat the big creature that tried to scare her off. “Our babies are safe!” she’ll trill.
Well, actually not trill. Cardinals don’t make beautiful music, like many other birds. Their “speech” is sort of a monotone stutter. Still, I’ll try to keep the one who has adopted us from killing herself.
I’ll report back in two weeks whether or not the decals worked. Of course, even if mama bird does leave us alone, how do we know the decals were the reason? Maybe her babies were born and she’s been too busy feeding them to bother about a reflection from my window.
Yes, I know. Some of you will think this story is strictly for the birds. And I can’t say I blame you.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.