Have you ever walked or run into something unexpectedly, like a truck mirror or a sign-post you didn’t see? It’s unpleasant at best. I vividly remember walking out a sliding door at party to visit a keg, turning to go back in after filling my cup, only to collide face-first with the glass door conscientiously slid shut behind me. I got away with a bloody nose. A lot of birds in our mirror-finished built landscape aren’t so lucky (and can’t blame beers on the incident).
According to a study released in 2014, scientists at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, found that between 365 and 988 million birds are killed each year by collisions with buildings. While this range is large, even the conservative end is startling. With this mind, think if you’ve ever found a dead bird on the Hill? No doubt the majority of us have, at our home, work, or simply walking down the street.
I don’t bring this up to be alarmist, but because there are options available to reduce impacts, even on an individual level.
Currently clouds of songbirds are making their way south to Neotropics, and even without our cars, buildings, cats, wind towers, pesticides, and less and less stopover habitat, it’s a hard go of it. The capacity of birds weighing next to nothing, to fly thousands of miles through challenging conditions, is a testament to evolution. However, this evolutionary capacity does not extend to interpreting our built environment’s mirroring of vegetation and the sky, nor lights left on overnight in skyscrapers. With the number of buildings that have suddenly popped up in the last hundred years on the Hill and across the country, we don’t really have time to sit and let evolution do the work.
I am buoyed by the Bird Safe Buildings Act of 2019 current in Congress. New York City (with estimates between 98,000 and 230,000 collisions each year) is currently trying to to reduce deaths, a great example of city council members who actually seem to care about how we continue to adjust to our cities to be more livable for all beings (without special interest groups whispering in their ears). The City of Seattle signed an Urban Bird Treaty in 2017, which supposedly means the City works to conserve birds and habitat, but the best of my knowledge there are no current laws to address collisions (though Seattle and Washington Audubon are both engaged in addressing it). And thankfully there are nationwide efforts to turn off city lights at night, which has been shown to confuse migrating birds (but note that Seattle doesn’t actively participate). Still, keep in mind that the above examples are largely aimed at making skyscrapers look less like giant mirrors or turn off unnecessary lights, largely through adjustment of building codes and ordinances. These are an important, but large, more complex part of the picture.
Closer to ground level, I am guessing most of us don’t own or build skyscrapers, but you might live or work in a building with windows. This is one place you can make real improvements with smaller resources. The American Bird Conservancy, an organization that works tirelessly to help improve our relationship with birds, has a great page about the various products that exist to reduce our impact. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology created great guidelines to follow too. I have personal experience with several of the options, including discovering that a couple clear, UV reflecting decal don’t do the trick on a large window, (you need dozens of decals spaced closely together to send an “opaque” message). Not all the options are particularly unobtrusive, including the highly effective Acopian BirdSavers, which while DIY and cheap, requires hanging a series of paracords down problem windows. Still, if you live or work somewhere that has frequent deadly collisions this may be what stops the problem. If you are remodeling or building a house, you can make choices to reduce this risk too, like creating shutters or awnings that reduce reflection, or installing windows with screens, all of which align with the quest to reduce our energy footprints as well. But, no sorry, dirty windows don’t let you off the hook.
Bringing up issues like this may feel a little futile in the face of Climate Change, a depressing political climate, projected economic downturns, and the vast inequalities and outright hate that are present in the world. You might have read this whole piece and thought to yourself, “who cares about birds,” which to you I say: read this. But emphasizing individual action alone is not a clear way forward. This is why legislation addressing bird-building collisions are a necessary part of the picture. According to a friend who works on the issue nationally, pushing for such laws and participation in Lights Out programs is the number one thing everyone can do regardless of your ability to modify a building you live or work in.
However, like the educational debt I am currently chipping away at, I like being able to take on a few smaller, achievable portions, while still approaching the larger issues. Even making a few modifications to smaller buildings, that may only kill a handful of birds a year, could reduce hundreds of millions of annual collisions nationally. I know I sleep just a tad bit easier knowing birds aren’t bonking their heads on my home overnight. What about you?
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