All good naturalists note the passing seasons not just by the calendar, but also by changes in day length and the phases of the moon. However, Audubon Society of Rhode Island naturalist Kim Calcagno jokingly adds one of the surest ways to determine the season is to answer the phones at Audubon headquarters or one of the many Audubon wildlife refuges throughout the state. Caller inquiries about the natural world change as regularly as the tides.
From the third week in March to the beginning of June, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island receives hundreds of calls about birds exhibiting vociferous, sometimes destructive and tiresome behaviors. These behaviors are not at all unusual and represent breeding and territorial instincts being acted out.
Probably the most common behavior reported is that of American robins and northern cardinals flapping and fluttering at windows, glass doors and the side mirrors on cars. Callers often describe them as ‘trying to come in the house’ or ‘attacking the glass.’ “They are witnessing male birds trying to defend their territory,” notes Calcagno. “These birds view their reflection in the glass or mirror and believe they see a rival male who has invaded their space. Sometimes they will attack this reflection for hours on end, leaving droppings and scratch marks on property. It is not uncommon for them to injure themselves in the process. The instinct to protect their nesting area and babies is very strong, and while the visual annoyance of droppings and wing prints on glass can easily by hosed away, the repetitiveness of these birds’ stubborn and sometimes violent sprees can take its toll.”
There are a couple of ways to keep this behavior away from your home and cars. One is to make the area unappealing or seemingly unsafe by introducing items that move in the wind such as ribbons, foil pie pans, whirligigs or wind chimes. “Birds will be hesitant to approach anything that is startling, moves unpredictably or that might entangle them,” adds Calcagno. The other approach is to simply remove the reflection. This can be done on cars by moving the car up or down the driveway until you are out of their territorial space or parking the car in a different direction. Covering the mirrors with plastic bags or big tube socks also works. Windows and glass doors can be covered on the OUTSIDE with paper, plastic trash bags, window soap/wax or window clings so that the glare of the reflection is removed. Thankfully, this behavior usually lasts for a few days to a couple of weeks. When the breeding season is well underway, the male becomes too busy caring for his hatched young to worry about attacking himself in the glass.
Another breeding season annoyance that Audubon naturalists frequently receive calls about is that of woodpeckers. When males, usually downy woodpeckers, seek to attract a mate, they do not sing but instead show off their prowess by drumming on a resonant tree, or on homes. This is a territorial and breeding behavior and thankfully is not usually a sign of termites or ant infestations in your house. “Your wooden shingles or clapboards appear to them essentially as a dead tree,” explains Calcagno. “The pecking simply sounds ideal to the woodpecker. The problem is that they do make holes when they drum, which can be unsightly and somewhat costly to repair.”
“As with the robins and cardinals, you can use ribbons, wind chimes or foil pie pans tied to strings and allowed to blow in the breeze to deter them,” suggests Calcagno. “If you can catch them in the act, you can squirt them with a spray bottle of plain water or a squirt gun. You can also cover the area where they are pecking with sheets of plastic. Sometimes they do peck up very high or in multiple places, which can be hard to access. Again, thankfully, this behavior is usually short lived, occurring briefly in the spring and then again in the fall–usually with young, first-year males who haven’t quite gotten the hang of things yet. Some homeowners may encounter it just once; others may experience it year after year. It has been postulated that they are attracted to darker, more natural colors such as gray, brown and green houses, but there isn’t universal agreement about this.”
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island presents many programs about wildlife and local issues. To learn more, visit to www.asri.org.