CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Monday afternoon I was at my computer, which faces a window. I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye and looked up just in time to see a small bird slam into a window pane with a resounding, "Thunk!"
I stepped out on the porch and there, flat of its back, lay a tiny downy woodpecker, clearly not long out of the nest. I could tell she (or he) was alive but was seriously down for the count, unable to even stand up in my hand.
As a wildlife professional, I have preached for years that the best thing anyone can do for injured wildlife is to leave it in the wild. They generally stand a far better chance surviving on their own than they do under human care. In many cases, if the trauma of the injury doesn't kill them, the stress of being handled or transported by human hands will.
But sometimes even I have a hard time practicing what I preach.
I gathered up the smallest box I could find, lined it well with fluffy cedar shavings normally reserved for my chicken coop and snuggled the little bird down in the shavings in hopes of reserving some body heat.
After two or three hours I checked and she had perked up some. She was well enough that I could hold her up and she would hang on to a wire screen. But she was still weak and nowhere near being able to take wing. FYI, woodpeckers do better hanging onto something vertical rather than perching on something horizontal like most birds. Their bodies are built for the vertical so they can do what they do best - peck wood.
It was nearing dark with a cold, misty rain falling. So, I opted to tuck her back in her box for the night, closing it up so all was dark and quiet - and so she wouldn't wake up and start flying around the house.
The next morning as I poured my coffee, my wife said, "I can hear your little bird hopping around in the box."
Sure enough, the little woodpecker looked bright and perky. We took her out on the deck. She wouldn't fly away on her own but I felt sure she was well enough that, over my wife's objections, I could force her to "wing it," literally.
Indeed, when I tossed her up in the air, she took wing. However, her first attempt to land in a nearby crepe myrtle bush was unsuccessful and she plopped to the ground. I retrieved her as she was calling out with a voice far larger than her tiny body, no doubt yelling for Mom to come find her.
I pondered on what to do, deciding the best option might be to place her in a bird house that had a warm little nest, recently abandoned when a family of chickadees fledged. I figured she could rest some more until she wanted to exit and fly on her own.
I was carrying her in my open hand to the bird house when all on her own, she took flight. In a heartbeat she gained good altitude and disappeared into the leafy crown of a big maple tree. I couldn't see her in the tree, nor did she fall to the ground so I could only assume she landed somewhere successfully.
I trudged back to the house with the tune "Born Free" bouncing around in my head, thinking, "Live long and prosper little codger."
My friend, David Aborn, a UTC professor/ornithologist, has been studying bird strike fatalities at UTC for 22 years. In 2021 he reported in a scientific paper that he had documented 854 bird casualties, comprising 76 species.
Aborn wrote that,
"My numbers are likely an underrepresentation of avian window casualties on the UTC campus. I am not checking every day, not checking every building and scavengers may remove carcasses before I find them. (Another study) found that over 67 percent of carcasses were scavenged, meaning there might have been as many as 1,435 birds that have hit buildings I check."
Aborn went on to say, "While it might seem unfeasible to retrofit the existing windows, there are relatively inexpensive options for reducing window collisions..."
That is not only true for large buildings but true for your own home as well. Bird strikes into man-made objects are a real issue. One research project estimates as many as 250 million birds die annually after striking windows in residential homes.
Large picture windows that reflect the outdoor landscape are the biggest problem.
This article from Cornell University "All About Birds," or this one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list numerous inexpensive ways you deter birds from crashing into your windows.
If you do it, baby downy woodpeckers will thank you.