Government and Sustainability

Bird-safe glass helps birdbrains avoid window mishaps

Proposed legislation would require all federal buildings to have bird-safe glass.

March 4, 2016
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Birding is a $107 billion industry that raises $13 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue. ©

LANSING — You hear an unpleasant thud; unsettled and surprised, you investigate. The culprit is a bird, dead on arrival.

Like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, birds are crashing into windows at alarming rates.

An estimated 365 million to 988 million birds die annually from window collisions in the U.S. and Canada, according to a recent study.

You may say, “Birds crash into windows, who gives a cluck?” Actually, quite a few people do.

For example, the Kalamazoo Nature Center built a preschool with windows that are easier for birds to see.

“The preschool was built at the edge of the woods, and we were concerned about bird strikes,” said Sarah Reding, the center’s vice president of conservation stewardship. “The windows seem to be working really well for us.”

Preschoolers watching birds die on impact is a disturbing thought. Like the bird-safe glass, a new bill may save the birds and the preschoolers some trauma.

A member of Congress from Illinois has proposed a bill to bird-proof the windows of federal buildings.

“Birds have intrinsic, cultural and ecological value to humanity,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who introduced the Federal Bird-Safe Buildings Act last May.

“Migratory birds are not only beautiful creatures eagerly welcomed into millions of Americans’ backyards every year; they help generate billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy through wildlife-watching activities.”

Birding is a $107 billion industry that raises $13 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Great Lakes cities, such as Detroit, Chicago and Toronto, are beneath the flyways of birds that migrate between the north and the south, according to the Audubon Society. When tired birds hit the city, tall buildings covered in glass windows morph into a sinister house of mirrors.

Toronto residents have advocated for ordinances geared to prevent bird and building collisions with the Fatal Light Awareness Program since the mid-2000s. They require that windows have decals or bird-safe glass, said Michael Mesure, founder of the Fatal Light Awareness Program and co-author of the new study from the University of Toronto.

In 1989, Mesure didn’t believe bird/window collisions were a leading cause of migratory bird death.

He changed his mind when he “saw bird after bird lying dead on the street” during a night walk in Toronto. He started collecting dead birds and recording information on buildings with high body counts.

This became the model for 40 citizen science projects across North America that collect and count the avian victims of building strikes. But even so, Mesure struggled to get building managers interested in the problem.

“People don’t like change. They have priorities that don’t include saving birds,” he said.

That changed when one of Canada’s largest commercial property owners faced charges for bird deaths in 2010. The company’s Yonge Corporate Center had killed hundreds of migrating birds, due to its highly reflective window surface.

“Experts were able to prove that the reflection of light coming off the building was technically radiation that was killing birds,” Mesure said. “The radiation could be considered a contaminant, and the companies could be charged.”

The company was acquitted because the court said it was taking steps to prevent future bird strikes, such as using window decals.

The judge’s ruling means the Ontario Ministry of Environment must determine a plan for buildings that are incurring high death rates for migrating birds, EcoJustice lawyer Aaron Koehl said.

Anti-bird strike ordinances have created a new demand for bird-safe technology, Mesure said.

The Kalamazoo Nature Center knew decals and fish wire could keep birds away, Reding said, but the group wanted the woods outside to be seen from inside the building.

Birds can see ultra-violet light. Some spiders incorporate UV reflective strands of silk in their webs to make them visible to birds. Bird-safe glass has an ultraviolet pattern within the glass that is invisible to the human eye, but gives birds a heads up.

The bird-safe glass “breaks up the forest for the birds, so they are less likely to fly into the windows thinking it is forest,” Reding said. “But it’s also great because we can still use our windows for seeing outside.”

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