Bird's collision with car leaves ghostly mystery

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It started as a routine drive.

Retired teachers Joan and Bud Miller were on their way home to Fort Myers Shores after a funeral in Odessa on Saturday.

Bud Miller was going about 60 mph in the couple's Honda CR-V. 

As they headed south on Interstate 75,  just after the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, something caromed off Bud’s window like a cannonball.

"It was all of a sudden," Bud recalled. "The most ungodly thud — not a sharp report like a gun, just a very, very powerful thud."

When they looked, they saw a bird's ghostly likeness imprinted on the glass, as perfectly as if it had been drawn in chalk. The bird, however, was long gone.

The image was so clear, Bud said, you could even make out the tiny claws on the creature's webbed feet.

 

Imprint left by a bird that collided with Joan and Bud Miller's Honda on I-75

"The next day at church, everybody gathered around," Joan said. "They were amazed and everyone started taking pictures of it with their phones."

What no one could figure out is how the impression had been made. It wasn't powdered or shattered glass — the window wasn't even cracked — but what could it be?

And what was the bird that made it?

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A call to The News-Press kicked off an afternoon investigation into the couple's questions and mysterious image.

News-Press photographer and bird expert Andrew West was quickly able to identify the bird as a tern, a seagoing variety related to skimmers and gulls.

Imprint left by a bird that collided with Joan and Bud Miller's Honda on I-75

Finding out how the tern left its imprint on the glass was a bit trickier.

Elaine Swank, of Lee County Bird Patrol, was fascinated but not at all sure how it might have happened. The folks at Sanibel's Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife thought the white substance might be either the protein keratin, shed from the bird's feathers, or sand with which it might have dusted itself to keep clean and pest-free.

A little Googling turned up a few stories about similar crash souvenirs, then led to the American Bird Conservancy, where Christine Sheppard directs the non-profit's bird collision campaign, focusing on reducing bird-versus-glass crashes.

She's definitely familiar with such images, and without even seeing the Miller's, could describe it as a "white, nearly perfect impression as though it had been etched on the glass."

Bingo. But what was it?

The white residue, Sheppard explained, is something called powder down, "which is a dry lubricant at the base of their feathers that crumbles a bit when birds preen, plus some of the preening oil they dress their feathers with."

Imprint left by a bird that collided with Joan and Bud Miller's Honda on I-75

And while there are ways people in buildings can make their glass more bird-safe, there's no consensus on what — if anything — drivers can do.

"Some of the literature says to drive faster and some of it says drive slower," she said. The bottom line: "Birds just don't expect something to be coming that fast. Drivers can try to be more alert, but at a certain speed, there's just nothing to be done."

As for the Millers, they're counting their blessings. "If we had had the window down, or if that thing had gotten in the car and hit me in the side of the head, I might not be here," Bud said.

Plus, their unintended bird applique is quite the conversation piece — and hauntingly beautiful as well. "So we're not washing the car," Joan said, "and we're hoping it doesn't rain."

Follow Amy Bennett Williams on Twitter: @AmySWFL

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