Oct 24, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Better buildings for the birds

Illustration of a bird with a hard hat on standing atop rolls of blueprints

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Amid this year's fall migration season, avian advocates are amplifying their calls to help birds avoid flying into buildings — a major threat to big raptors and tiny warblers alike.

Why it matters: Between 365 million and nearly 1 billion birds are killed in building collisions every year, per an oft-cited 2014 study published in the journal The Condor.

  • The North American Bird Conservation Initiative's 2022 State of the Birds report, meanwhile, found that U.S. bird population trends are down "in every habitat except in wetlands."
  • That's bad news for all those ill-fated birds, of course. But victims' remains have a habit of piling up on the street around big skyscrapers, inviting rodents and other pests, and making things generally unpleasant.

When birds see a reflective window, they see it as blue skies ahead rather than a threat.

  • "We've all walked into windows at one point or another, and we've been raised around them," says Dustin Partridge, NYC Audubon's director of conservation and science. "Birds don't have that benefit of growing up and learning about architectural cues."

What can be done: Windows can be modified to be less reflective, giving birds a better chance of seeing and avoiding them.

  • Artificial light, meanwhile, "disorients birds because it interferes with their star navigation," the executive director of Travis Audubon, Nicole Netherton, recently wrote in a letter to Austin, Texas-area developers. "A human analogy would be driving toward an oncoming car with its high beams on."
  • Dimming buildings at night can reduce bird-confusing light pollution, says the National Audubon Society. Drawing the shades when people inside work late can also help — as can "avoiding over-lighting with newer, brighter technology."

Bird strikes are a nationwide problem, but Partridge says they're a particularly big issue in New York because of the city's location on the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory route. (Think of Central Park as a kind of JFK for birds.)

Success story: Switching to bird-friendly glass turned New York City's Javits Center — a convention hall that's basically made entirely of windows — from "one of the city's major bird killers" into one of its most avian-friendly buildings, per NYC Audubon.

  • A green roof is now home to nearly 40 species, to boot.
  • The Javits project led to a new rule that went into effect last year beefing up NYC's bird-friendly glass requirements.

How you can help: Local Audubon groups in various cities are asking volunteers to help collect collision data.

  • Such efforts can identify particularly deadly buildings, says Partridge. Groups like his can then work with building owners to address the issue.

Worth your time: The National Audubon Society recently released a stunning, first-of-its-kind interactive map showing the annual migratory patterns of more than 450 bird species.

The big picture: Reducing bird deaths is about both keeping our feathered friends safe and creating better, cleaner and more livable cities.

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