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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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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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