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Why Do Birds Fly Into Windows?

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The bird: majestic. Soaring. A creature of song. Muse of Alfred Hitchcock. And occasionally, apt to plunk its tiny head into your double-paned window.

More than 100 million birds are estimated to die each year as a result of flying directly into glass; even a bird that scoots away may suffer internal injuries. Despite being widely thought of as intelligent, most avian species are still vulnerable to this ignoble demise. Are they fooled by reflections of trees? Are they attacking their own reflection?

It’s a little bit of both, but that’s not the whole story. “Birds may be attempting a rapid escape when disturbed by people or predators,” says Graham Martin, B.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc., Emeritus Professor, School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham. “[They] probably perceive the reflections of the vegetation behind them as a safe haven.”

A bird anxious to flee isn’t likely to be able to process a lack of actual sky. In other cases, birds might interpret their own image as a rival during breeding season, but Martin believes these kinds of existential crises aren’t usually fatal. “They more likely walk up to their reflections,” he says. “Parrots, especially budgerigars, can spend a long time chattering to their reflection in a mirror hung in their cage, but it is not clear whether the bird perceives its reflection as another bird or whether the mirror is just a bright object that they take an interest in.”

Plus, bird turf wars in the air usually don’t result in high-speed impact. After a brief aerial tussle, Martin says, they take it to the ground, “When one bird can pin the other down and attack with bill and feet.”

Window collisions can be reduced if window decals or other signals (like branches) help give them some visual cues. Birds, like humans, can be guilty of “looking without seeing,” or relying on information that isn’t yet present visually. Martin believes birds are somewhat like automobile drivers in this regard: data on car collisions has shown an accident is more likely to happen when an unexpected obstacle is present, interrupting the pathway in memory.

So, if a bird flies into your window, it’s not because it’s stupid. It’s because it was scared. Or disoriented. And remember: we’re really not so different.

Additional Sources:

“Understanding Bird Collisions with Manmade Objects: A Sensory Ecology Approach,” The International Journal of Avian Science, 2011 [PDF].

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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