Unsurprisingly, most collisions between birds and moving vehicles happen by accident, with cars moving so quickly that low-flying birds are caught off guard by a sudden impact.
Birds do not have a ‘deathwish’, and accidents, sometimes fatal ones, occur on a fairly regular basis. But why is this the case? Why do birds fly in front of cars? And can anything be done to stop it from happening? Read on to find out.
Each year, hundreds of millions of birds around the world are killed in collisions with cars and trucks. Accidents are the leading cause, with sudden impacts happening before birds are aware of the threat of the oncoming vehicle.
While some birds may be killed outright, others may survive the initial impact with broken bones or other serious wounds, while others may simply be stunned and will fly off from the scene once the initial shock has worn off.
Birds are unable to see glass, and will often mistake a pane of glass in a window or a windshield for an extension of their natural environment, confused by the reflection. Another theory states that birds may fly at vehicles instinctively, thinking that they are challenging an intruder or predator near their nest site.
We’ll be looking at the types of birds that are involved in collisions, and discussing the suggested course of action if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having accidentally struck a bird with your car while on the road.
If you’re interested in finding out what to do if a bird hits your car, then please do keep reading.
Less agile birds, like doves and pigeons are commonly killed by vehicles, as they are less able to quickly move out the way of oncoming vehicles
One of the most common places for collisions between cars and birds to happen is on fast-moving highways, especially those that route through rural areas, where high-speed impacts may be hard for birds to avoid.
Many birds hunt along roadside areas, attracted by rats and other rodents that live alongside the edges of areas crossed by humans.
Birds tend to fly low to the ground when they are hunting, either insects or ground-dwelling mammals, which puts them in the direct striking range of vehicles as they share the same space.
Certain game birds, such as pheasants and grouse, as well as ducks and geese that spend a significant amount of time walking instead of in flight, are also among the species most frequently affected by vehicle impacts.
Larger, slower birds may commonly get hit by moving vehicles, for example, pigeons and gulls. They are less acrobatic than smaller, more agile birds, and this impacts their ability to successfully pull off a last-minute swerve.
Feisty, territorial bird species may deliberately swoop into the path of oncoming visitors, as an instinctive reaction to challenge what they initially consider to be a predator invading their patch.
A pair of Pheasants walking on the road - Pheasants are commonly involved in collisions with vehicles
A 1994 survey of birds killed in vehicle collisions in the UK ranked house sparrows as the species most commonly recorded as a fatality after an impact with a car. Blackbirds and wood pigeons were second and third, respectively.
Similar research from the U.S. lists small birds, including sparrows and warblers, among the most common casualties in vehicle collisions on the country’s highways.
Research published in the Royal Society Open Science journal suggests a link between a bird’s brain size and the likelihood of being involved in a vehicle collision, with smaller birds found to be more likely to be injured or killed in road traffic accidents.
In the UK, Blackbirds often get hit by cars, particularly in the countryside
Unfortunately, it's not recommended to swerve or to make a sudden stop, as this may cause a substantial accident on the road, putting people's lives at risk. This is especially the case when you're moving fast on a highway or motorway.
Only if it's safe to do so, for example, if there are no cars around you and you're traveling at a speed where any sudden movements will not cause danger, should you attempt to break or swerve to avoid colliding with a bird.
On normal roads, swerving could potentially result in a head-on collision with another vehicle, which could mean the loss of someone's life, so it really should be avoided.
Traveling at the speed limit and being aware are probably the two best things you can do, but unfortunately, there's just nothing you can do to avoid these situations.
If you struck the bird, and it has sustained an injury that leaves it stunned or visibly injured on the ground, then action must be swiftly taken to help it. If it is safe to do so once you have safely parked up, move the injured bird from the middle of the carriageway and place it in a cardboard box while you seek assistance.
If possible, cover the box with a tea towel or similar, so the bird is kept as calm. Birds that are simply stunned by the impact may well be able to fly off once they’ve had a chance to recover. For birds that are more seriously injured, the best advice is to call a wildlife rehabilitation center for their expert support.
It’s important to stay in control of your vehicle and, if you need to, pull over safely so you can clean your windshield.
In the US, sparrows are warblers are two of the most common species to be affected by cars - pictured, a Pine Warbler
There is no data available for a global total number of birds killed by cars in the world, and it would be almost impossible to quantify accurately. However, it is estimated that the annual toll would be in the hundreds of millions.
2021 estimates indicate that between 49 million and 340 million birds are killed in collisions with cars each year in the United States.
A report into the numbers of birds in the UK involved in collisions with cars each year, released in 1994, stated that at least 30 million individual birds were killed in such incidents that year, with more generous estimates of up to 80 million annually also discussed.
Australian numbers are unconfirmed, with around 10 million animals dying in road accidents each year, including mammals and reptiles as well as birds.
A duck family crossing the road
Care should always be taken when driving along rural roads, or using highways that run through forested areas, and speed limits should always be followed.
It is also advised to not throw food scraps from vehicle windows – discarded food along the roadside is a surefire way to attract rodents.
Birds of prey hunt rodents, particularly at low altitudes, and are, therefore, at risk from collisions with vehicles.
Birds of prey may commonly be involved in collisions, due to their tendency to hunt along roadsides flying at low heights in pursuit of rodents or other small mammals.
Due to their size, many birds of prey are more robust than smaller birds that might be killed outright in vehicle collisions. At low speeds, birds of prey may be more likely to survive the initial impact and be able to recover once the shock has worn off.
Research shows that barn owls are among the most commonly named birds of prey to be involved in vehicle collisions.
Barn Owl perched on a road sign
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