Patient of the Week: Western Tanager Recovering After Window Strike

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

On September 1, we received a Western Tanager after a good Samaritan found them on the ground, unable to fly, outside their SE Portland home. This bird was still alive after colliding with the window, but a fellow Western Tanager wasn’t as fortunate, and was found dead near the survivor. Unfortunately most window strikes are lethal, with an estimated ~50-75% of birds dying from the collision. Even if they survive the initial strike, many birds suffer injuries such as neurological damage, fractured bones, jaw or eye injuries, internal bleeding, and more. During fall migration, which is currently in full swing, wildlife rehabilitation centers see an influx of patients that have hit windows. A devastating amount of birds have been found killed in this way.

The Western Tanager perched on a natural stick inside their small indoor enclosure.
The Western Tanager perched on a natural stick inside their small indoor enclosure.

This Western Tanager was very lucky; we didn’t find any fractures or severe injuries on intake. However, they were slow to respond–very unlike a bird–and made no attempts to fly. People often mistake this state for “calm” or the bird being “friendly” but healthy wild birds are not calm or easily approached by people. Instead, it is head trauma that prevents them from being aware of or responding to predators and other stimuli the way they should. This is a frightening and vulnerable state for a bird to be in. If you find a bird in this state, it’s important not to pet the bird, or treat them like a domesticated animal. People are seen as predators by wildlife, and touching them when they are vulnerable only heightens their stress.

After being in care for two weeks, with medication and cage rest, the Western Tanager had improved enough that we were able to move them to one of our outdoor flight enclosures. The tanager was being housed with many other songbirds who were recuperating from various injuries, many of whom had also struck windows. After an additional two weeks regaining strength, the bird made a complete recovery! I knew this would be a quick one, so the release video was taken in slow-motion. I was only able to open one side of the transport carrier before the bird flew up and away. We are so happy they were able to be released and will be able to continue on their journey south!

Western Tanagers are brilliantly colored, stocky songbirds, somewhere between the size of a sparrow and a robin, with short, thick beaks. Males have a bright red-orange head, yellow body, and black wings, back and tail. The amount of red on their head can vary, some males having just a bit around their bill, and some with a fully covered head. Their wings have two bold bars, one yellow and one white. Females and all juveniles have a duller yellow-green plumage with gray-black on the back, wings, and tail. Their wings also have two bars, but both are white. Western Tanagers mainly forage for insects, slowly and methodically gleaning tree branches. Although they primarily eat insects, they will search for small fruits in fall and winter. These birds live and breed in open woods and forests across much of the West, but actually spend most of their year in Mexico and Central America. 

Western Tanager
Western Tanager, photo by Scott Carpenter

One of Oregon’s summer residents, they become common to abundant in between spring and fall migration, gracing us with their presence throughout the Willamette Valley–in city parks and neighborhood trees! Many folks reach out to us every year to help identify this tropical-looking bird. They particularly like evergreens, and often stay hidden in the canopies.

The Risk of Migration through Our Urban Landscapes

​Long-distance migrants, like the Western Tanager, travel at night using celestial cues and magnetic field detection for navigation. Light pollution from our bright cities (or “sky glow”) can drown out the stars, obscuring these migrating birds’ natural “compass,” and luring them into cities where they are at high risk of colliding with windows. The only remedy for this is prevention. By turning off non-essential indoor and outdoor lighting, we can have a huge impact on migratory and native bird survival rates.

Portland Audubon actively works with individual building owners, city governments, and agencies to adopt more bird-friendly building and lighting guidelines, but we can all do our part to save wildlife, not just during peak migration, but year-round! Nearly half of all window strikes take place at residential homes, or most commonly within the first 3-4 stories of a building. As Portland grows, the risks to birds also increase. You can help by minimizing the incidence of window collisions at your home or business by making your glass windows visible to birds and reducing light pollution. Click here for more tips regarding DIY solutions, including naturescaping, decals/window film, and netting/screens; and click here to participate in our Lights Out program.

What to Do If A Bird Hits Your Window

    • Some window strike victims recover quickly and are just “stunned.” However, in this state, the bird may be vulnerable to predators. If possible, you can gently cover the bird with a towel, and place them in a shoebox or other container you can secure, then place them somewhere quiet and safe.

Wait one hour, then attempt to open the box outdoors. Hopefully the bird will be alert and be able to fly away. Do not try to throw the bird to get it to fly; this can cause more injuries than they initially had. If you did not contain the animal, check back in an hour or two to see if it’s in the same area.

    • If the bird doesn’t fly away, the best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water.
    • Take action to prevent further injuries at that window!

 

Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center accepts new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email wildlife@audubonportland.org and one of our wildlife solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation.

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We’re building a new Wildlife Care Center and need your help! If you would like to help injured and orphaned wildlife, please consider joining our crowdfunding campaign and making a gift to make this new facility a reality. We’re doubling the square footage, adding a surgical suite, and making many more important changes to provide the best care for our patients. Learn more at ForPortlandAudubon.org

If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your support helps us save lives.