Frequently Asked Questions about Robins: Problems Near Houses

Calvin Rich photographed this robin, who was attacking his reflection in Calvin's window.
photo by Calvin Rich
Q. How can I keep robins from crashing into windows? color-blind, or do they use a particular part of the spectrum? I live and work in Snowmass Village, Colorado. At the beginning of every spring we have a problem at my office building. The windows are tinted so well that they reflect nature perfectly. The robins don't realize this and fly into the windows thinking they're going for a tree limb. One weekend five robins broke their necks because they were very persistent. I've thought of hanging wooden wind chimes and windsocks outside the windows to help distract them. My question is: are robins color-blind, or do they use a particular part of the spectrum? I've also thought of throwing seeds on the lawn near a real tree so in danger they can fly to that tree and not the one in the window. (Our town ordinance forbids bird feeders because it attracts bears). What do you think?

A. Robins are NOT colorblind--in fact, their color vision probably covers a wider spectrum than our human vision does. Robins fly into windows for two reasons.
  • They don't see it, and simply are trying to pass through.
  • They DO see it, or at least their own reflection in it. If a male sees a male robin, or a female sees a female, it goes ballistic and tries to chase it away.

It sounds like you probably have a fruit tree of some sort near the window, and when the robins fly off, the ones going the wrong direction crash. If there is some way of cutting the reflection in the windows, or making the windows more noticeable, such as hanging sun-catchers or helium balloons to them, you might solve the problem. Bird seed won't help, because robins simply don't eat it.

Q. Help! A robin has been crashing into my window. Every day for over a week a robin has been crashing into my glass patio door (or picture window, or car mirror). The window is getting smeared with droppings and blood, and I'm scared that the robin is going to hurt himself. What should I do?

A. Most robins that repeatedly crash into windows are territorial males. If a male sees his reflection in the glass, he thinks could be another male on his territory. Normally when one male robin intrudes on another's territory, he skulks around, and flies away when the actual holder of the territory approaches. Not so with a reflection! Every time your robin gets close to the window, that robin image also comes closer. When your robin assumes an aggressive stance, rather than turning tail and flying away, the image robin assumes an equally aggressive stance, and at every level of increasing aggression in your robin, his reflection matches it. Male robins spend a lot of time and energy keeping intruders away during the time the female is nest-building and incubating eggs.

The only way you can help is to get rid of the image bird yourself, by breaking the reflection (without breaking the window!). Closing a curtain from within seldom works, because birds can see very well, so even a faint image is very evident to them. Taping paper or cardboard to the outside of the window can be unsightly, and destroys the whole purpose of having a window, but is 100% effective. Soaping the window from the outside can work, but you really need to cover the entire thing. One thing that sometimes works is to hang helium balloons from the window, tied to a two- or three-foot length of string (or longer) floating at just about the level the robin is focused on. For some reason, birds seem to fear helium balloons--I think because nothing they ever encounter in the natural world "falls up" so the movements seem very unpredictable. A rubber snake or plastic owl sometimes works, but birds often figure out within a day or two that they're fake.

Once the baby robins hatch, your male will get so busy tending to their feeding and care that he will stop worrying about that phantom image of himself. Meanwhile, good luck!

Q. Help! How do I get rid of robins without hurting them or the eggs? I have a nest of robins on my back porch light. They are very aggressive and won't let me go in my back yard. This is becoming a problem because I have young children who want to play on their swing set but every time we go out there, they try to attack us. How do I get rid of them without hurting them or the eggs?

A. There is really no way to get rid of them without hurting them or the eggs. During this awkward time, you need to figure out how your children and you can use the backyard without
stressing the robins, leading to their attacks. They are at their worst just before the eggs hatch--once the babies are being fed, they USUALLY spend so much time finding food for them and protecting them from real predators that they don't have time to attack people.

How to deal with them right now? It has always worked for me to look them right in the eye and walk on by. Too scary? Birds defending their nests virtually always attack the highest part of their perceived enemy. Whenever you walk past, hold a broom, balloon, or pole so it is well above your head. DON'T strike the bird with it! Just hold it vertically, and if the bird is exceptionally aggressive and does approach close enough to hit, it will hit that instead of you or your children.

One other strategy I've heard a couple of people use successfully is to get someone else to tie up a LEASHED cat near the nest site and leave. As soon as the robins start making agitated sounds and dive-bombing the cat, go in and "rescue" them by getting the cat and bringing it in. They may well remember this kindness.