Designing Bird-Friendly Buildings

  • In Chicago, many migrating birds are attracted by the lights on tall buildings. This attraction causes some birds to crash into the buildings, often resulting in death. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Scientists estimate up to a billion birds are killed every year when they collide into building windows in the United States. Now, a group of bird watchers, biologists and architects are working together… hoping to lower the death toll. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lynette Kalsnes has the story:


Scientists estimate up to a billion birds are killed when they collide into building windows in the United States every year. Now a group of bird watchers, biologists and architects are working together, hoping to lower the death toll. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium Lynette Kalsnes has the story:

If you call the group the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, you’ll hear this message:

“If you have found an injured bird, please place the
bird gently in the bottom of a brown paper sack. A
grocery bag is just fine. Please put the bag with the bird in it in a quiet, dark place that’s warm. Inside, please.”

That’s the voice of the group’s founder and director Robbie Hunsinger. She’s followed those same instructions herself hundreds of times.

During migration season, in a single night, thousands
of birds fly over Chicago. They are attracted to the
lights on tall buildings and crash into the windows.
Hunsinger and other volunteers get up before dawn so
they can rescue the injured birds before the rats and
gulls get them.

After a morning of picking up injured birds, Hunsinger
has filled her car with brown paper bags containing
hurt swallows and cuckoos. Then, she’s driven up to 3
hours round-trip to get the birds to wildlife

She’s even cared for some of those birds herself.
Hunsinger has filled her music studio with mesh cages
and used up all her dishes for food and water. She says she decided to do something to help the birds three years ago after she saw 80 dead birds one morning in just a small area downtown.

“It was horrendous. Everywhere we looked, there were
birds, and they kept coming down. They were still
hitting when we were out there. So you’re standing
there, and birds were falling out of the sky.”

Hunsinger says she found the fallen birds clustered on
the sidewalks just as the busy city began to wake.

“It was rather surrealistic. Especially as the sun
started came up, and people started coming to work.
People were stepping over birds everywhere. People in
suits, people in high heels, coming in from the train
stations, going to their jobs in the Loop.”

Hunsinger says something changed in her that day. She
says she could no longer be an armchair
So, she formed a group of volunteers to help her save
the birds.

But rescuing injured birds didn’t seem to be enough.
Now she’s working with biologists, architects and bird-watchers to make buildings safer for birds.

Chicago already asks the managers of its tall
buildings to turn out the lights at night during
migration to avoid attracting the birds. But it’s
become clear that something more has to be done to
prevent so many birds from crashing into the building

This spring, the city and the Chicago Ornithological
Society will host what’s believed to be the first
conference on bird-friendly design. Those who’ve studied it say the problem is that birds
don’t recognize glass.

“The glass surface will act as a perfect mirror.”

That’s biology professor Daniel Klem Jr. of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. He estimates that collisions with windows kill a billion birds a year in the U.S.

“A bird is not capable of determining that that image
on the glass surface is not a real tree. It attempts
to fly to it. Or it attempts to fly to light seen in
the window, as if it was a passageway to safety. And
the bird gets whacked and dies.”

Klem says installing windows at an angle or using
patterned glass can help. So can shades or
decals. Klem’s also pushing for research to develop special
glass or coatings that would be invisible to humans
but visible to birds.

It’s a new field. Limiting bird crashes isn’t part of
building design. Ellen Grimes is an assistant architecture professor at
the University of Illinois at Chicago. Grimes says
architects think about light, heat, power, water and
human traffic, but not bird traffic.

“When architects have approached sustainable design,
it’s been an engineering question. But there has not been a lot of consideration of
the biological interactions.”

Grimes acknowledges the issue of protecting birds
might be a hard sell because it might mean
compromising other design elements. But she’s hoping bird friendly design becomes as much
a part of green buildings as energy efficiency.

The rescue group’s Robbie Hunsinger says we share the
migrating birds with other nations. We have an
obligation to be good stewards of the birds.

“This can be fixed. These our our buildings. And we
should do it. We, by God, should do it.”

Meanwhile. Hunsinger is among a group of bird
watchers pushing for a center in downtown Chicago to
care for injured birds that collide with the building
windows. She’d like to keep the cages out of her home music
studio so she can actually practice music.

For the GLRC, I’m Lynette Kalsnes.

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