The birds of war

A robin at the window shares an unexpected lesson in fury and folly.
Crosscut archive image.

This bird has better things to do.

A robin at the window shares an unexpected lesson in fury and folly.

A surprise guest flew in to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War’s launch last week — a visitor who wordlessly and unwittingly did more to illuminate that undertaking for me than all the punditry poured out in the major media, more even than the stony silence of the politicians involved.

It started in early morning with a furious tapping from the kitchen, too loud even for our temperamental refrigerator. A plump robin was hammering on the east-facing window above the sink with its beak. The bird flapped its wings at the glass, then hopped up, spun around, and gave it a full body slam. When I tapped the glass and faced up close, the robin retreated a yard or two on the fence gate, stared balefully back, and then attacked the window again.

I worried, not for the glass, which suffered nothing worse than tracks of bird spit resembling a Mark Tobey painting, but for the bird. Would he break his break, twist a wing, crack his skull pounding against it? And if he wasted his precious time and energy pounding at windows, how would he ever fatten up on worms, trill to lure a mate, build a nest, and fulfill his genetic destiny?

The robin returned each morning, even after I hung light-colored curtains in the window to reduce whatever mirroring effect it had. Now it merely inspected the premises — and moved on to attack my neighbors’ glass doors.

Was this mad robin disease? An outbreak of toxic Pseudo-nitschia, the plankton that, ingested via shellfish, drives humans and other vertebrates crazy, and which caused the real-life incident that inspired Hitchcock’s The Birds?

It turns out this behavior is not so rare after all. Perhaps Edgar Allen Poe heard a robin in the morning and recast it as a raven at midnight. Robins, bluebirds and, back East, cardinals are all prone to slam at windows in spring. Two explanations have been offered: The birds, frantically staking out territory in the nesting season, try to get at the alluring landscape they see reflected in the glass. Or, much more plausibly, they mistake their own reflections for rivals and try to drive them off — literally and figuratively seeing red. Unlike elephants, apes, dolphins and magpies (which pass the famous mirror test of self-awareness), they don’t seem to recognize their own reflections. Some succumb to their own fatal attraction: If they don’t injure themselves with bashing, they may get so distracted that predators pick them off.

Silly birds, tilting at phantoms, while real needs call and real dangers lurk! And then I realized that, as usual, the fault is really ours: Driving off rivals is adaptive behavior for territorial birds, or was till we added reflective glass. And I wondered: Though our species passes the mirror test, are we really so much smarter than these mad robins?  Is our behavior any less self-defeating?

Consider those neighbors whose door my robin moved on to attack. They lavish money and attention on ever newer and grander automobiles and defend their parking spaces like, well, robins. Meanwhile, their house rots away above them, its roof a mossy patchwork, the soffits tumbling and the rafter ends frayed like old toothbrushes.

Or consider the decision (if you want to call it that) to invade Iraq in March 2003. The war’s proponents insisted, against all evidence and logic, that Saddam Hussein was hiding nuclear weapons and canoodling with al Qaeda, or would be soon, or might be, or… a Chinese box of justifications within justifications.

They too tilted at their own reflections: George Bush, the prodigal son striving to both please and outdo his father. Donald Rumsfeld, who shook the tyrant’s hand when Saddam Hussein actually was gassing his own citizens. All the old hawks and chicken hawks pining for the Cold War and trying to refight the Vietnam War: “This time we win.”

Neocon drumbeaters like Daniel Pipes and Laurie Mylroie strenuously urged backing Saddam (“the de facto protector of the regional status quo”) against Iran in 1987 and just as strenuously urged overthrowing him in 2003. Never mind that it would — and did — only strengthen Iran’s ayatollahs, persuading them that, if they wanted to thrive like North Korea’s Kims instead of falling like Saddam, they'd better get nukes.

Or me, and maybe thee? What windmills do we tilt at while time creeps at its petty pace and Birnam Wood stalks our Dunsinanes?

In the end, the robin offered a hopeful example. It still stops by some mornings for a quick feint at the glass, just to cover the bases. But then it quickly moves on to more useful activities: gorging on the backyard worm bonanza and nesting and brooding somewhere in the surrounding thickets. Would that we could all learn so well from our mistakes.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.