May 26, 2014
Glass Is Killing Migratory Birds
Migratory birds face a lot of hazards, from illegal hunting to natural predators, exhaustion, starvation, and bad weather. It now turns out that one of the most dangerous of all hazards is man’s love of glass and, in particular, the presence of those huge skyscrapers that seem to be nothing but windows — like giant windows in the air. By some estimates, up to a billion birds a year die in America alone as a result of flying into glass buildings. The figure is around 100 million a year for the UK. Flying into glass is the third most common “non-natural” cause of bird deaths after cats and collisions with vehicles.
Birds get confused regularly by man-made structures. In one memorable incident many years ago, dozens of Manx Shearwaters (a pelagic or purely marine species) were blown off course and inland by a big storm and were found on the roof of an old flour mill near where I lived. The most likely explanation is that the mill’s larger flat roof area, wet with rain and shining from the night lights, looked to the birds like a patch of water.
Birds frequently fly into the window panes of the patio doors that open onto our garden. Many times I have been frightened half to death when a big, fat old pigeon has hit the door like a flying sack of potatoes. The problem is that birds do not see or understand glass. In certain lights, the glass itself acts like a mirror, reflecting their natural environment, so naturally they just try to fly through it. Those giant, modern corporate temples made of reflecting glass are just great big deadly mirrors to migrating birds. Unlike the birds that hit your windows at home, migrating birds tend to be flying at a fast cruising speed. The impact often drives the beak backwards into the bird’s brain. If that doesn’t kill them, the fall to the ground, which may be hundreds of feet, probably will.
The problem has become so large that architects are now designing buildings with bird safety in mind. The American Bird Conservancy has published guidelines for building and even retrofitting buildings with bird-friendly designs. Meanwhile, bands of volunteers around America are monitoring the numbers of casualties and campaigning for safer construction methods.
The “Fatal Light Awareness” project (FLAP) began in Toronto back in 1993, collecting the bodies of birds killed after hitting glass. They have documented thousands of casualties from more than 150 species and provide suggestions on how to make your own property safer. They aim to “Create a 24 hour collision free urban environment for migratory birds.” The idea has been taken up in cities all across North America.
The message is getting through — the planned new Americam embassy in London will incorporate bird-friendly designs. It will have an “outer envelope” structure in which the glass panels will not only produce solar energy, but also provide shaded and angled windows that will deter bird strikes. But the cost of making existing structures less deadly to birds means that this is a problem that won’t go away in a hurry.
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