Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

The Attack of the Birds

The Attack of the Birds: The Things We Do for Love

I've become a character in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "The Birds." I don't remember auditioning for the part. I always thought the birds were my friends. We treat them nicely. We've planted a lush habitat. We have feeders. I even try to keep the birdbath clean during the summer. But this spring, the birds have attacked.

A woodpecker started the assault. Woodpeckers announce their presence, territory, and availability by pounding out a nice rhythm. Typically, we hear them in the woods behind our house. They also love the mostly dead birch tree in our backyard - the hollow core creates a wonderful sound. This spring, however, one woodpecker discovered the gutters and vents on our house. He (I'm assuming male) found the resonance appealing. The same taps made much louder bangs. The woodpecker was a musician switching from acoustic to electric. He was like the musicians in the movie "Spinal Tap" with amps that go to 11 instead of 10. It's louder. Louder at 5 in the morning, while great for the woodpecker's reproductive opportunities, was not so great for sleeping in the echo chamber formerly known as our bedroom. The woodpecker became a rock star. Play loud and attract the birds (a better pun if you're British). I ended up rooting for him to succeed: Quickly.

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Just as the woodpecker stopped his early morning percussion sessions, the robin attacked. More early morning assaults. The robin repetitively crashed into 3 different windows around our house. Occasionally in the past, we've had birds slam into windows. Dazed, they would fly off and not make the same mistake twice. The robin was different. The robin rammed the windows constantly. He (again I'm assuming male) would perch near a window, look at the window, and then attack. He wouldn't hit once and then fly away dazed. No. It was wham, bam, crash, slam. Even without Batman, the robin provided sound effects like those written in a superhero comic book.

One of my sons suggested the bird wanted to come in. None of us thought he would make a very polite guest at the breakfast table. After all, he was making a mess of the windows and windowsills with his attacks and splats. We didn't think he would clear his place at the table or volunteer to do the dishes.

I suspected a different problem. The attacks were particularly numerous when it was light outside but dark inside. The windows had become mirrors and the robin was seeing his own reflection. Like most non-human animals, the robin didn't recognize himself (see my earlier posts on why this means most animals can't remember past events: Dogs Don't Remember, and Dogs Don't, But Maybe Chimps Remember). The robin saw his reflection as another robin, a competitor, a trespasser on his territory. He attacked. Take this and that, tough bird. Judging by how violently and constantly he attacked, the robin was serious about defending his territory.

bird attacking mirror

I tried a simple solution for the robin problem. I taped pieces of paper inside the windows at his assault sites. Doing so eliminated the mirror qualities. Now instead or seeing a competitor, he saw a white blob. Not a threat. He ceased his morning assaults and returned to being the early bird catching the worm.

Mornings are quiet now. The woodpecker must have succeeded with his rock star routine or else moved on to playing arena shows. The robin finally got rid of his competition. The things males do for love when spring is in the air. I am, however, still worried about Hitchcock's birds. I'm careful when I walk outside for the morning paper.

 

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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