Why Are Birds Attacking My Windows?

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Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Nothing says “springtime” like the maddening, irregular percussion of a bird's beak rapping repeatedly against your window. But why would any animal do this to itself (or to you, for that matter)?

It's not personal. We promise.

Each year, as the warm weather rolls around, migratory birds like robins (Turdus migratorius) and cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) stake out their territories in our neighborhoods. These nesting sites will be where they find mates and make babies, which means that location and security are of vital importance. A good mate-to-be will guard its territory against any unfamiliar bird face—even when that face is its own.

"What did you just say about my girlfriend?" Image credit: Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

To you—safe, if irritated, inside your home—your windows appear transparent. But to belligerent birds in bright daylight, you may as well have tiled the exterior with mirrors. A robin looking at your house sees another robin looking back at him. And then, of course, they fight. (Turkeys attack clean, shiny cars for the same reason. No bird attacks a dirty car. We’re just throwing that out there. We’re here to help.)

Window attacks are different from bird strikes, the violent collisions that occur when a bird thinks your house is the sky and flies straight into it. Strikes are dangerous and often deadly for the birds involved. Territorial attacks are mostly just annoying for everyone, including the bird.

If you do hear a bird strike or your avian assailant attacks too hard for its own good, you may want to go outside and check that it’s okay. If the bird looks all right—both wings in place, eyes focused, able to sit upright—just leave it alone. It should be fine. If you can see some kind of injury, the best thing to do is to get the bird to safety. Use a clean towel to lift it into a dark container, like a shoebox, and set it down somewhere safe and quiet. After 15 minutes or so, try opening the box outdoors; the bird might fly out on its own. If it still shows no signs of recovery, take it to your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center.

If you tend to find your home beset by angry birds, there are some concrete things you can do. For starters, move any feeders away from windows to discourage visitors. Then stand outside on a bright afternoon and check your windows for glare. You can cover any offending surfaces with fine mesh netting or a drop cloth to disrupt the reflection, or apply one-way film to make the glass appear opaque from the outside. If you’re really desperate and have some time (and extra cash) on your hands, you can install shutters on the outside of the house.

Unfortunately, covering one window may simply push your problem a few feet away. American robins in particular have been known to attack as many as 15 windows in a single house. “A territorial bird can be very persistent,” the Massachusetts Audubon Society notes on its site. “The best course of action is to be patient and wait for the breeding season to end [usually around August].”

Hang in there.

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What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

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What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

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What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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