Apr 10, 2023 - News

Helping San Francisco's birds

A gull is blurry in the foreground as it flies near an apartment building with extensive glass.

A gull flies by an apartment building near the bay. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

In 2011, San Francisco was the first city to write building ordinances designed to save birds. But avian advocates say the city should consider an update.

Why it matters: San Francisco's bird-safe building code regulates only buildings bordering big parks or open spaces, where birds congregate, or ones with certain facades. Newer ordinances elsewhere focus on the wider urban environment.

What they're saying: "It was the first, but it doesn’t meet our standards," Glenn Phillips, executive director of Golden Gate Audubon, tells Axios, adding that even though advocates celebrated its passage, "we all knew it wasn’t really good enough."

Zoom in: We're in the middle of spring migration season right now, when more than 250 bird species typically move through San Francisco.

  • San Francisco's "lights out" program, encouraging building owners to turn off lights during migration season, has few participants.

Context: "It's not that birds are crashing into a lighted building," Phillips says. The overall city glow is the culprit, he says, confusing birds' navigation and leading flocks to land in urban areas, where they have a higher chance of crashing into windows.

  • The big fix is to change the windows so birds can see them. That can be as simple as installing outside screens.

State of play: In the 12 years since San Francisco adopted its bird-safe building ordinance, Oakland, Alameda and Emeryville have followed suit. Now, Berkeley is considering a measure that would go further than any others, according to Audubon, requiring that new windows in all buildings over two stories be bird safe.

  • Berkeley is also exploring a "dark skies" ordinance, which would regulate the direction lights shine, as well as their color and wattage.
  • 19 states plus Washington, D.C., have laws regulating light pollution. Dark-sky advocates in California have failed so far to get a similar measure adopted statewide.

Between the lines: Birdwatching data from popular app eBird shows that most birds are spotted in San Francisco's green spaces.

  • But in the past month, 72 species were seen in Jefferson Square Park and 53 in Yerba Buena Gardens near Union Square.

The big picture: Improving green spaces, even in urban areas, can also help birds. Point Blue Conservation Science, formerly the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, monitored species recovery after habitat restoration in the Presidio and found significant increases in population among half the species studied.

  • "Relatively smallish pockets" of restoration in urban areas "can be really successful" for birds, the group's principal ecologist, Kristen Dybala, tells Axios.

Of note: Cats still kill more birds than buildings, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

What we're watching: The birds! Phillips is eager to see his first hooded warbler of this spring. He calls their yellow faces and black-capped heads "super cute" and their activity very animated.

  • "They're busy chasing little insects, constantly. They don't stop moving. So they're a lot of fun. And we only see them really in migration."
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