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Glass windows kill billions each year. Scientists are trying to change this.
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Glass windows kill billions each year. Scientists are trying to change this.

A dead bird on the street in New York City

Divya anantharaman points her flashlight beneath the wooden benches around an office tower close to Wall Street. The streets of New York remain the exclusive territory of early risers at this time. She says it is crucial to start her weekly search and rescue mission at such an ungodly hour.

She is searching for victims of notorious bird killers: the glass skyscrapers. The dead will be found when the sun goes down. 

Anantharaman volunteers for NYC AudubonUrban conservation group that monitors bird death from window collisions. She examines every dark corner, checking planters, and making sure she doesn’t miss any victims of collisions. She finds a dead bird under a shining glass bridge connecting two buildings at the end of her round.

It’s an American woodcock she believes, a migrating bird that is quite common with a long beak. Woodcocks migrate through New York every spring after spending winters in Alabama and other Gulf Coast states. Anantharaman explains that this bird is stiff. It has just died. “The eyes are still so clean that it may have happened just minutes ago.” She snaps photos and takes a moment to close the eyes with her thumb before putting the corpse in her pink backpack. 

A dead bird on the street in New York City

New York City window collision: A victim

A billion birds and counting

NYC Audubon estimates that between 90,000 and 230,000 birds are killed each year by New York City buildings. The danger to winged travelers is especially high during spring and fall migration seasons, when the city’s buildings are illuminated.

New York is located on a migration route to South America where many birds spend their winter. Artificial nighttime light attracts or disorients birds, as they navigate using stars. The birds believe they are flying towards starlight but instead land in an unknown metropolis.

Kaitlyn Parkins, NYC Audubon biologist, says reflective glass is the biggest problem. Birds don’t see the reflection of a tree. It’s a tree to them. They fly at it and can accelerate very quickly, often dying instantly.

The US is where most of the research on bird collisions has been done. According to Daniel Klem, a pioneering ornithologist, buildings are responsible each year for the deaths up to 1,000,000 birds. Klem calculated this figure in the 1990s. But glass windows can be deadly for birds all over the globe. 

“Birds are susceptible to glass where birds and glass are combined.” They don’t see the bloody stuff,” Klem says. Klem adds that it isn’t skyscrapers that pose the greatest threat, but low- and middle-rise buildings.

Klem is now a professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and considers window collisions to be a fundamental issue in bird conservation. He states, “As a danger, I would place collision right after habitat destruction.” “Windows kill in an indiscriminate manner, and that’s what makes them so dangerous. They also take advantage of the most fit in the population. We can’t afford any individual to go, let alone good breeders.

A woman picks up a dead woodcock off the street

Volunteer Divya Anaantharaman finds a dead woodcock in the streets of New York

A global problem

Scientists and conservation groups have taken up this cause in recent times. Binbin Li heads one of two monitoring groups for window strikes in China. She is an assistant professor of environment sciences at Duke Kunshan University. She also earned a PhD at Duke. She met the leader researcher of the university’s bird collision project.

She says that she initially thought it was a Duke problem. But, in the States, it is not something she could imagine. She returned to campus and received reports within a month of her return that three birds had died. 

She now counts birds that have been killed on campus in Suzhou with a group of students. She notes that many of the victims are found under glass corridors just like the New York woodcock Anantharaman.

Li began a national survey to better understand the problem. There are three main migration routes that pass through China, but there is not much data about fatalities along these routes. Li said that bird collisions are not well-known in China.

“Just change the glass, and turn off the lights.”

In Costa Rica, Rose Marie Menacho had to convince her professors to let her investigate bird collisions as a PhD student eight years ago. She recalls that her professors didn’t know much about the subject and didn’t realize it was a serious problem. “Even though I was shy about it, I was still studying it. It was small, so I was embarrassed.

She now works with approximately 500 volunteers to understand the scale of the problem in tropics. Some people keep feathered corpses in freezers while others send her photos and reports. She said, “Not only migrating animals collide.” Her volunteers found vibrantly colored quetzals, and toucans with large beaks. Both are local species.

Divya Anantharaman picks up a dead woodcock

New York City: A dead woodcock was found on the streets

Parkins, the biologist, said that collisions can kill many birds who already have problems with habitat loss and climate change. It’s simple to solve, simply change the glass and switch off the lights. 

Parkins, along with her team, are trying to persuade owners of glass buildings to use the data they have gathered. They don’t often need to replace any of the glass. Special foil can make the glass less reflective and help to save energy for heating and cooling. Birds can see the structure by marking it with stickers. Volunteers found 90% less dead birds after a bird-friendly renovation at the Javits Convention Center. 

In January, New York City passed legislation that required public buildings to turn off their lights at night during migration season. Since last year architects must also design bird-friendly buildings. This includes ultraviolet coating on glass. This is visible to birds, but not to humans.

A good place to start is new regulations

Rob Coover inspects small birds on the sidewalk just in front of Brookfield Place. This enormous office and shopping centre is located at the southern tip Manhattan. He has been searching for dead birds for half an hours, even though daylight is still scarce.

He inspects carefully the piles and chairs that the workers of a coffeeshop will soon use on their terrace. He has already photographed a tiny, stiff corpse twice. He now takes his backpack and grabs rubber gloves and plastic sandwich bags to preserve the body.  

Taking a closer look at a victim of a window collision

Rob Coover takes photos of a victim in a window collision

Coover once found 27 birds within a single morning. One of her fellow volunteers made international headlines last September when she found 226 dead birds around One World Trade Center in just one hour.

Coover said, “It’s quite sad, all these dead bodies.” Sometimes he finds a survivor, and takes the injured animal to a bird sanctuary. Until he has the time to transport the bodies to the headquarters of conservation group, they are kept in the freezer. Some are then taken to museums. “Before the pandemic I went to work and did my rounds. Then, I put them in the office freezer.” He adds that no one noticed.

Volunteers in the United States, Canada and other countries are active in many communities. There is a growing number of local governments that are enacting legislation to protect birds and buildings. According to the nonprofit American Bird ConservancyNew York’s law is one the most useful additions. Daniel Klem is thrilled after spending almost 50 years studying bird collisions. He finally has the awareness he hoped for.

“Climate Change is also a serious issue that nobody wants to distract from.” It’s complex and it will take us some time to understand it all and convince people to be responsible.” he said. “Bird collisions, that’s something that we could solve tomorrow. It’s not complicated; we just have have to have the will.

Edited By: Ruby Russell

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