Flight, Interrupted

When Glass Towers
Become Bird Killers

If you never liked modern architecture, and the shiny, glass buildings that have been popping up all over lately, we’re about to add a killer argument to your cause: they’re also killing birds. Not just a few of them; some 100 million to one billion a year, only in North America, according to estimates.
Now a global effort by architects, ornithologists, environmentalists and bird watchers is trying to find ways around it, before our own bird-dependent species begin to suffer another consequence of our expansive lifestyle. Like few other threats, this one can, indeed, cause our extinction.
If you live in a big city like New York, you’re probably facing at least one such tall skyscraper right at this moment. There are many reasons why they’ve become so ubiquitous, not the least of them, because they are weather-adaptable, allowing optimum light exposure and saving lots of energy consumption.
Due to marvels of contemporary construction, they can also be built relatively fast, and may serve to both housing and office space, often, combining the two. It’s a devilish irony then that, after finding lighter and more environmentally-friendly materials, builders ran into such a disheartening problem.
Going back to the Big Apple, construction of big glass towers has reached a feverish pitch, and one group of buildings stand above all others, for what they mean to the city: the ones that are rising at Ground Zero, some already receiving their first tenants, and the tallest of them all, World Trade Center 1, slated to be completed in a year.
Like the doomed Twin Towers they’re now, at least physically, replacing, they may become also death traps to thousands of migratory birds every year. It’s very likely that you’ve seen one of them crashing into a building or you know someone who did. It’s not a pretty sight.

We don’t know what will happen after the new buildings are completed. But since 2002, the site has marked the Sept. 11 ceremonies with Tribute of Light, two beams of high wattage spotlights pointing straight up, recreating a ghostly image of the fallen towers. For many people, it was also the first time they saw the birds.
From a distance, they look like dust falling in and around the beams. A closer inspection reveals that it’s actually the image of thousands of birds crossing the light. The same way they probably used to do with the towers, and will do with the new buildings: except, of course, that, as they used to, they may very likely smash into the glass more often than not.
The problem with the glass up there is that birds have a hard time seeing it. American Bird Conservancy ornithologist Christine Sheppard says that its reflection confuses their limited depth of perception, and that can be fatal. Along with biologist Luke DeGroote and others at the Pennsylvania’s Powdermill Avian Research Center, they’re trying a number of things to address the problem.
One such experiment is a pattern of lines, painted inside the glass. The pattern has a ultraviolet reflective material which birds can see well, and may be able to avoid flying into it. They hope one day materials such as this will be a standard part of the building code, without interfering with the buildings’ esthetics, or raising its costs.

Many architect firms have recognized the problem and have been studying alternatives that would be even less visually intrusive and, possibly, more effective to prevent the death of birds. Toronto, which sits right next to Lake Ontario, is a kind of highway for North American migratory birds, and as such, has seen its fair share of dead ones littering its streets.
It is also where and why Michael Mesure runs the Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP, since the 1990s. Their main idea is to get big buildings to turn out the lights at night because they attract migrating birds. As the group’s Website shows, they have had limited success convincing corporation to go along with it: a dead bird count clock doesn’t seem to have slowed down in a long while.
Even in New York and San Francisco, where officials have acknowledged the issue and there’s some effort to turn off the lights of city buildings, a simply night walk shows that many do not. Despite the high costs of energy, companies and bureaucracies alike follow the tradition, supported by tourism agencies, to leave the lights on all night long.
Now, the problem has spread out to places far from urban centers too. As it turns out, the warning red lights of communication transmission towers, which have been multiplying all over the world, also represent a threat to birds. Studies showed that they interfere with their navigation systems.

Again, animal lovers are trying to convince officials and companies to turn out their lights, with the same mixed results, according to a story on NPR’s Michigan Radio Website. That despite a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s research that found that about seven million birds crash annually into those high towers in this country and in Canada.
The solution is already known: to replace the lights with flickers, which birds can better identify as a fixed structure, and are easily spotted by airplane pilots, of course. But despite the huge profits that the telecommunications industry routinely posts, there’s no sign that they’ll be promoting any changes to their field networks, unless forced to.
So for anything to be done, and research toward bird-friendly materials to get any traction, public awareness has to rise up to the occasion. Possibly from city dwellers such as readers of this blog, who are likely to come across avian carcasses daily, on their way to work or home.
Such alert has to be sounded off real soon, though. As Sheppard points out, ‘birds are seed dispersers; they eat tons of bugs. So every bird that’s killed on a building is an ecological service that we lose.’ Not unlike bees, who’re also under threat of extinction for many reasons, these invisible soldiers assure our survival on the planet.
Even if radiation doesn’t kills us, or melting glaciers don’t come flooding our cities, or acid rain doesn’t ruin our crops, or widespread fracking doesn’t pollute our aquifers or provoke fatal earthquakes, or, well, hordes of hungry zombies don’t come raging after our flesh, we still may not be in the clear.
That’s because without birds, and bees, and bugs, doing what they do best, or rather, second best, which is, carrying seeds and pollen back and forth, and keeping nature running its course, and us alive, well, there won’t be much of ‘us’ any longer.
Or rather, the ‘us’ will probably refer to another species, unlike us, capable of flying, and unlike birds, able to avoid crashing into tall buildings: cockroaches.
Read Also
* Winged Fate
* Of Birds & Beams
* Birds on Wires

2 thoughts on “Flight, Interrupted

  1. That is awful. That threat is greater than Belaud who sits on the balcony to watch a colony of Blue Jays living in the trees. I was a witness to one accident of the kind you describe. A poor bird came crashing into a window. Not my window, but a window. Take care, MW


    • colltales says:

      It is indeed. At the same time, cats get a bad rap when it comes to birds. Hope now at least that record is set straight. The guilty party is (surprise, surprise) us. Thanks


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