On Bird Brains, Etc.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Photo by Me!

English speakers don’t often ascribe intelligence to birds, quite likely for good reason. A cursory examination of bird-related figures of speech shows we call the dim-witted among us “bird brained,” sometimes dismissing them as “silly geese.” The long-extinct dodo is now synonymous with stupidity, and we safely assume that crows fly in straight lines because that’s all their little brains can comprehend. Rumour-mongers questioned about their sources often say “a little bird told me,” and the resulting lies they spread don’t remotely advance our appreciation of avian brainpower.

A bird in the hand (even a lame duck that’s no longer a spring chicken) is worth two in the bush, which you can kill with a single stone if you’re lucky; they’re so feeble-minded they likely won’t see it coming.

Coots are bald, loons are crazy, and wet hens are mad. Birds of a feather flock together, and the early ones catch worms, but this is more a testament to hard work and perseverance than cleverness and ingenuity; a cautionary tale against sleeping in with a path to success achievable without regard for intellectual capacity.

In our most common sayings about birds, only owls are wise. But this story isn’t about an owl. It’s about one of those other birds, one of the not so bright ones.

Hopefully it won’t ruffle your feathers.

I’m not now, nor will I ever be, a bird watcher. Although I’ve often envied them their expensive telephoto lenses and their apparent leisurely lifestyles, I’d rather do almost anything else given that kind of downtime. To me, whiling away the hours looking at birds is, quite frankly, for the birds.

In one of the more awkward moments of my life, I met a birder while walking my dogs one morning along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. A middle-aged woman who might have passed for sane if not for the pair of binoculars she carried, she insisted on showing me the delicate yet rarely seen mating rituals of the Buffleheads out on the lake. How do you turn down a proposition like that? Take my advice; do it quickly, and bluntly if necessary. You won’t miss much.

To say I have a low opinion of birds puts it mildly. I feel an ire and disdain for them commonly reserved for cannibals, wife beaters and young conservatives. This bird loathing likely goes back to my childhood. I remember my big sister Maureen had a Cockatiel that delighted in defecating on me. Surely I wasn’t its only target, but I felt singled out all the same. Today, I call pigeons “rats with wings,” and my pet name for seagulls isn’t fit for mixed company. In short, I don’t see my attitude toward fowl getting better anytime soon.

As luck would have it, my wife Penny and I are of the same mind. Our mutual contempt of birds is one of the cornerstones we’ve built our twenty-plus year relationship upon. Her mistrust also stems from childhood trauma. For some ineffable reason, flying birds are dangerously attracted to her head. They may not hit it as hard or as often as they hit Tippi Hedren’s head in that Hitchcock film, but I have borne witness to several near misses and a few certified collisions when birds have deemed my wife’s skull inconveniently unavoidable. She is a woman who’s truly been through Hell.

On a Tuesday afternoon just after Easter, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into our lives by repeatedly flying into our living room window. Perched on a branch outside, he launched itself at the glass over and over, the bright red plumage at the top of his head standing straight up like a punk rocker’s Mohawk to show that it was both male and agitated. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what he was doing or why he decided to interrupt Jeopardy to do it, but he kept right on doing it with tireless resolve anyway.

I’ve heard tell of birds who have died flying into windows after a someone put a building in their migratory flightpath while they were away, but that couldn’t be the case here. Small, wild, migratory songbirds like this usually pass on before reaching their fifth birthday, and our house has stood here for at least fifteen years. There had to be some other reason driving this bird’s erratic behaviour, but none that I could comprehend.

While I pondered the Kinglet’s motivation, Penny went in search of Widget, our cat. She figured that the bird wanted to invade our home, and keeping vermin like birds out of a house was the only good reason to have a cat. (Her attitude here might explain why the cat likes me better, but I digress.) If the bird penetrated our perimeter defences, surely an airborne assault on her head was imminent.

Penny found the cat sleeping nearby and carried him to the window. “Look,” she said, “a bird!” Then she put the cat down on an end table by the window. He promptly tried going back to sleep. Minor variations on this routine played out for a minute or two before Widget finally woke up and caught on. Suddenly, we had two problems on our hands; the first being the small bird trying to come in through the window, and the second being the much larger cat hellbent on launching himself through the other side of the window to kill said bird.

The hilarity might have ensued ad infinitum if not for the mesh screen on the interior side of the window. Designed to keep bugs out of the house while the window is open, since the cat’s arrival the primary function of this particular window screen is trapping felines. The points of Widget’s claws easily slip through the holes in the mesh, leaving him hopelessly ensnared – like a child stuck in a Chinese finger puzzle – until he deduces how to slowly, delicately extricate himself claw by claw.

When Widget managed to snag all four paws in one fell swoop I decided to end this madness. I went round the side of the house, barking like a maniac, shaking a rolled up newspaper in front of me. The dogs thought it great fun, and joined in with barking of their own. The bird, however, quickly decided he was having none of it, and I watched him fly off to a tree in the front yard.

Mission accomplished, I went back inside proclaiming myself the conquering hero, but the bird was back at the window before we finished eating dinner a mere two hours later. And next morning, he was back again.

It’s not that the bird had chosen that tree to build a nest in. I’m familiar with nesting behaviour; it usually involves a bird flying away from time to time and returning with building material in its beak which it then uses to make a nest. The Kinglet did none of this. He just kept obsessively flying at the window like he could scare it away or something.

Further research into the matter lead me to believe that this observation had some merit. The bird could see his own reflection clearly in the window; the well-lit southern exposure and the relatively dark room inside had turned it into a pretty decent mirror. Also, the mating season – that magical time of year when young male birds looking to get lucky do all they can to drive away the competition – had just begun. In his own reflection he saw a rival he must defeat. While I merely saw him fly into the glass, he saw himself physically assaulting a challenger for breeding rights, even if that challenger existed only in his imagination.

I found online articles on avian psychology advising that I could stop this behaviour; simply pulling down the blinds would greatly diminish the mirror-like reflection, thus ending the poor creature’s torment. As I went to make this happen, though, I realized I no longer needed to. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet had apparently had enough and flown off. After diligently trying to face down his rival over a day and a half, he conceded defeat to the better bird; his own relentless, stoppable reflection.

I told you at the outset we weren’t talking about a smart bird here, but I do hope my fine feathered friend finds someplace nearby where a nice, unattached Ruby-crowned Queenlet really digs him and his magnificent ruby-red Mohawk. I hope they nest down together and hatch plenty of Princelets and Princesslets in the process. Maybe they can make it work if there are no reflective surfaces nearby. So long as they steer clear of my wife’s head, we won’t have a problem.