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Why Birds Hit Windows—and How You Can Help Prevent It

american goldfinch killed by window strike
Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab.

For birds, glass windows are worse than invisible. By reflecting foliage or sky, they look like inviting places to fly into. And because the sheer number of windows is so great, their toll on birds is huge. Up to about 1 billion birds die from window strikes in the U.S. each year, according to a 2014 study.

The good news is that you can greatly reduce the danger your home’s windows pose to birds with some simple remedies, according to Christine Sheppard, who directs the Bird Collisions Program of the American Bird Conservancy. The group offers extensive information on preventing collisions on its website. The Fatal Light Awareness Program also offers great information on preventing bird collisions.

What happens to birds that hit windows? Sadly, the bird often dies, even when it is only temporarily stunned and manages to fly away. Many times these birds die later from internal bleeding or bruising, especially on the brain. Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College has researched this issue since the 1970s. He writes, “Glass is an indiscriminate killer that takes the fit as well as the unfit of a species’ population.”

Why Birds Collide With Windows

imprint of dove on plate glass window
The window imprint left by a Mourning Dove. Photo by Priscilla Bradley/PFW.

There are two main types of window collisions: daytime and nighttime. In daylight, birds crash into windows because they see reflections of vegetation or see through the glass to potted plants or vegetation on the other side. At night, nocturnal migrants (including most songbirds) crash because they fly into lighted windows.

For reasons not entirely understood, lights divert nocturnal migrants from their original path, especially in low-ceiling or foggy conditions. In the lighted area, they mill about, sometimes colliding with one another or the lighted structure. As a subsequent hazard, migrants drawn off course by urban lighting may roost safely nearby, only to become vulnerable to daytime reflections in windows the following day. The BirdCast project and the Fatal Light Awareness Program have more about this problem.

There’s one additional reason: birds sometimes see their reflection in a window and attack it. This happens most frequently in the spring when territoriality is high. Although it can be annoying to the homeowner, it’s seldom a threat to the bird’s survival. Most of the remedies suggested below for window strikes will also help solve the problem of a bird attacking its reflection.

How to Safeguard Your Windows For Birds

reflection of foliage in window - hazard to birds
Reflected landscapes can confuse birds and cause deadly window strikes. Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab.

Start by identifying dangerous windows, including large picture windows, paired windows at right angles to each other, or windows with feeders outside. Go outside and look at your windows from a bird’s point of view. If you see branches or sky reflected in or visible through the glass, that’s what the birds will see, too. Past recommendations about safe distances for feeders outside windows are no longer thought to be valid, Sheppard says. “If you’ve got windows near a bird feeder, you should make them bird friendly and don’t worry about how far away they are.”

Treatments for Existing Windows

To deter small birds, markings such as decals on windows should ideally be spaced uniformly 2 inches apart across the entire outer surface of the glass. (This will safeguard the windows for even the smallest birds such as hummingbirds, gnatcatchers, siskins, kinglets, and the like.) Acopian BirdSavers, made of paracord, can be spaced 4 inches apart because of their greater visibility. All marking techniques should be applied to the outside of the window.

  • Tempera paint or soap. Mark the outside of the window with soap or tempera paint, which is inexpensive and long lasting. You can use either a grid pattern of 2 inches by 2 inches (see above), or get creative and paint patterns or artwork on your window.
  • Decals. Put decals, stickers, sun catchers, mylar strips, masking tape, or other objects (even sticky notes) on the outside surface of the window. These are only effective when spaced very closely (see above). Note that hawk silhouettes do little to deter birds. Remember: placing just one or two window stickers on a large window is not going to prevent collisions—they must cover most of the glass with the spaces between too narrow for birds to fly through.
  • Dot Patterns and Tape. Long-lasting tape products offer an easier way to apply the correct spacing of dots across your window. Products such as those available at Feather Friendly work well in preventing collisions.
  • Acopian BirdSavers. Also known as “zen curtains,” these closely spaced cords hang down over windows. They do the work of tape or decals but are easier to install and can be aesthetically pleasing. They are highly effective and are the method we use to safeguard windows at the Cornell Lab headquarters. You can order them to fit your windows or make your own.
  • Screens. Installing mosquito screens over your windows is very effective, as long as they are on the outside of the window and cover the entire surface.
  • Netting. Cover the glass on the outside with netting at least 3 inches from the glass, taut enough to bounce birds off before they hit. Small-mesh netting (around 5/8″ or 1.6 cm)  is best, so that birds don’t get their heads or bodies entangled but will bounce off unharmed. You can mount the netting on a frame, such as a storm-window frame, for easy installation and removal.
  • One-way transparent film. Products such as Collidescape permit people on the inside to see out, but makes the window appear opaque on the outside. They can reduce the amount of light that comes in your window (this can also reduce your cooling costs), according to Sheppard.

New Homes and Remodels

  • Install external shutters and keep them closed when you’re not in the room or taking advantage of the light or view. (These can be huge energy savers, too!)
  • Install external sun shades or awnings on windows, to block the reflection of sunlight. Remote controlled shades are available.
  • On new construction or when putting in new windows, consider windows that have the screen on the entire outside of the glass.
  • Add interior vertical blinds and keep the slats only half open.
  • Avoid visual paths to sky and greenery. Bright windows on the opposite wall from your picture window may give the illusion of an open path to the other side. Closing a window shade or a door between rooms can sometimes solve this situation.

Lights Out

Lights Out initiatives are gaining ground in U.S. cities including Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and New York. The all-night glow of office buildings and streetlights in cities is especially dangerous for drawing migrating birds off course, delaying their migrations and making them vulnerable to window collisions. Turning off nonessential lights and installing downward-facing lighting are relatively simple ways to reduce the problem of artificial light at night. It’s still wise to take precautions against window collisions using any of the above methods, especially for homeowners.

How to Help a Window Collision Victim

When a bird strikes a window, its best chance for recovery is to get help from a wildlife rehabilitation facility immediately. Window collision victims may suffer from pain and internal injuries that are not visible at first but will worsen with time. They are vulnerable to predators and pedestrian traffic if left alone. If you find a bird dazed from a window collision, here’s what to do:

  • Try to capture and contain it. Approach the bird from behind and use both hands to gently cover it. The bird may flutter or call out—don’t be startled. Note that small birds are very fragile, so don’t close your fingers or hand tightly around their body—hold the bird gently but securely. 
  • Find a suitable container such as an unwaxed paper bag or small cardboard box lined with tissue paper or paper towel to allow the bird to grip. Place the closed container somewhere dark, quiet, warm, and away from children and pets.
  • Do not handle, feed, or water the bird once it’s in the container. Remember, wild birds may perceive humans as predators, so try not to stress the bird. 
  • Find a rehabber near you (via this  online directory) and contact them for further instructions. If you are unable to transport the bird, let the wildlife rehab facility know and they may be able to offer other options. 
  • If the facility instructs you to try releasing the bird, take it to a wooded area (or other habitat as appropriate for the species) far away from buildings. Before releasing the bird, keep some distance from any trees/vegetation so you can assess the bird’s flight. Point the bag/box in the direction of vegetation and slowly open the top. If the bird does not fly well, try to recapture it and reconnect with the wildlife rehab facility for more guidance.  
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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library