High time to make buildings safe for migratory birds!

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by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

From hummingbirds to hawks, and warblers to woodpeckers, New Jersey is home to hundreds of migratory and resident bird species. Our state’s location along the Atlantic Flyway means huge increases in bird traffic during the spring and fall migration seasons.

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Migrations are inherently risky, as birds undertake journeys of hundreds or thousands of miles with no guarantee of finding sufficient food, safe resting places or favorable weather conditions. The fall migration is especially challenging for juveniles hatched over the summer and heading south for the first time, since they lack the experience of adults.

One of the biggest hazards to migrating birds is collisions with windows. According to a 2014 study, up to one billion birds die each year in the United States due to window strikes. Buildings with large expanses of mirrored or reflective glass are especially dangerous.

As this year’s fall migration began, bird lovers in Trenton were heartbroken to discover dozens of dead birds on the ground, including many warblers and hummingbirds. All were found near the Riverview Plaza office buildings along the Delaware River, which have highly reflective glass.

“Dry statistics do not convey the dismay of finding scattered small bodies in the early morning at Riverview Plaza,” wrote Sharyn Magee, past president of the Washington Crossing Audubon Society, which serves the Trenton area.

The bird deaths in Trenton are far from being an isolated incident. In Chicago, nearly 1,000 songbirds perished in a single night earlier this month after flying into windows at an exhibition center along Lake Michigan. In New York City, a glassy, crescent-shaped condominium building overlooking Central Park has become known as a “death trap” for migrating birds.

In downtown Newark, bird rescuers from the New Jersey Audubon Society regularly patrol the grounds around reflective buildings where bird strikes are common, collecting both dead and injured birds. The survivors – the minority, sadly – are brought to the Millington-based Raptor Trust for rehabilitation. In Philadelphia, more than 1,000 birds were killed in a mass collision event in October 2020.

Bird collisions take place both day and night. During the day, birds see the reflections of sky and trees in the windows and fly straight into the glass at full speed. At night, the problem is lights.

Many migrating birds feed during the day and do most of their flying at night. Brightly illuminated buildings in urban areas can lure these birds away from their original routes and disorient them, leading to collisions. Windy, rainy or foggy conditions add to the birds’ confusion, and the death toll.

The shocking number of bird fatalities and injuries is prompting calls for solutions.

The Philadelphia incident three years ago led to the creation of Bird Safe Philly, a nonprofit working to make the city safer for migrating birds. The organization created and now manages the “Lights Out Philly” program, which seeks to prevent bird collisions by asking building owners to turn off unnecessary lights at night during the spring and fall migrations.

New Jersey Audubon also runs a Lights Out program for municipalities in the Garden State.

“These programs build public awareness of the problem in order to encourage governments, building managers and homeowners to take steps to protect migratory birds,” explains the organization’s website. “City governments can discourage any bright skyward-pointing lights; building managers can use motion sensors, shades, and localized lighting rather than full room lighting in glass buildings at night.”

Organizations are addressing the daytime collision problem by advocating for modifications to reflective glass windows — including films, coatings, decals, tapes and stencils. These treatments make windows look less like open skies or inviting patches of forest to migrating birds.

Bird Safe Philly recently worked to have a bird-deterring product applied at the Subaru headquarters in Camden, as well as at several Philadelphia sites. In New York City, the residents of the Circa Central Park condos are experimenting with adding a patterned stick-on window film to a section of the building to make the glass more visible to birds.

These solutions can’t prevent all bird strikes, but they’re a start. Nighttime songbird migration occurs at heights about two to three times that of the tallest trees, so many high buildings, powerline towers, and other structures are in the flight path regardless of confusion caused by lights. Songbirds are also killed in dark rural areas with tall structures, such as communication towers with antennas and guy wires. 

Kudos to building owners who are stepping up to save migrating birds! Bird populations have declined about 30% overall in the last half century, and glass collisions are the third leading cause of bird deaths, behind habitat loss and attacks from prowling feral cats.

In the future, more must be done to avoid creating death traps for birds, including possible restrictions on the types of glass allowed in new buildings. Window glass that mirrors the sky and trees may look cool – to humans – but it’s ecologically irresponsible, especially when the buildings are located along heavily-used migration routes like coastal areas and large river corridors.

We know that human intervention can correct environmental problems caused by humans. We can protect our species. Just one proud example is the action taken to bring back our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, in New Jersey. Our collective actions to curb harmful insecticides and protect critical habitat has resulted in a remarkable return of the species, which was down to a single nest in New Jersey as recently as the 1980s. We now have 250 active bald eagle nests in this state we’re in. We can do it – so let’s do it. Let’s do something.

For more information about Lights Out programs, visit the National Audubon Society website at https://www.audubon.org/lights-out-program.

For more on preventing window collisions, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/why-birds-hit-windows-and-how-you-can-help-prevent-it/?fbclid=IwAR2DE00Kz07TDLT_En_6FSzudAYoZaJpm6-29_1PX9Hidx4xetgkGHAn8bg#. The American Bird Conservancy website has additional information about products for making windows more bird-friendly at https://abcbirds.org/solutions/prevent-home-collisions/.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org

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