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For the Birds: Changing Our Windows on the World

Statistica tells us that: “The green building market is anticipated to be among the fastest growing industries worldwide.

By: Leah Kinthaert

The number of LEED-certified projects in the United States rose from 296 certifications in 2006 up to over 67,200 in 2018.” Additionally the “share of single-family home builders that have dedicated more than 90% of their projects to green building in the United States” has grown from from 18% in 2015 to an anticipated 33% in 2022. While this sounds like a great number, we need to remember that 70% of the residential homes are not anticipated to be green 2-3 years from now. As of 2015, we know that 21.5% of commercial office sector projects were green.

Fast Company offers up an interesting phenomenon: “Existing buildings hoover up about 40% of energy consumed in the U.S. and emit about 29% of greenhouse gases.” Often articles about climate change or pollution feature steaming factories or power plants with dark grey clouds of smoke, but indeed our own homes are a big culprit of carbon emissions. To make matters worse, our homes are silently causing extreme damage to our ecosystems.  According to Science magazine, as many as 988 million birds die  – in the United States alone – from crashing into windows each year. The American Bird Conservancy explains the situation: “Although most people have seen or heard a bird hit a window, they often believe it is an unusual event. Add up all those deaths and the number is staggering.” This not only affects our local native birds, but also the millions of birds who cross our country on their migrations.

Luckily the folks in the green building industry are doing something about this, working with groups from environmentalists to architects to bring about awareness and change. In late 2011, LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council program began offering credits to “bird-friendly” designs. Builders want to have LEED credits, because as USGBC explains there are: “wide-ranging marketing benefits; and most importantly, the unbiased, transparent assurance that the project team cut no corners in the making or updating of your Class A green building.” The Greenbuild event site also tells us that: “Across North America, a consensus is growing, with bird-friendly requirements in over 20 jurisdictions and counting, from cities to states to provinces.” I attended the Greenbuild 2019 session: “LEED in Atlanta: Bird-friendly Design in a City in a Forest” to learn specifically what builders and others are doing in this part of the US to both research and change the existing designs that are devastating our bird populations.

Birds Don’t Speak Architecture

The first presenter was Christine Sheppard, Director, Glass Collisions Program at American Bird Conservancy. Sheppard has a deep understanding of avian biology and synthesizes information from different disciplines to shed light on why birds hit buildings and create solutions. As Curator of Ornithology at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, she developed strategies to protect birds in the collection as well as wild birds on the grounds. Sheppard spent her presentation explaining why bird strikes happen and how to prevent them. Sheppard began: If we have 1 billion birds killed in the US, you may ask ‘why are we not seeing them?’… they disappear due to animals and other birds scavenging them, or buildings cleaners removing them before anyone can see them.”

Sheppard went on to explain exactly why clear glass windows are bad: “People learn about glass as a concept. Birds – even if you have decals on a window – will fly above or below.  Birds don’t speak architecture, they take what they see literally. Humans have depth perception. Birds don’t see the same thing with each eye. We see the world in front of us, birds see the world they are immersed in.”

Sheppard continued: “Birds see more colors, so lights can blind and disorient them. Lights at night also draw birds. Years ago we had dark cities with maybe one tower, there is so much light pollution now.” The whole pattern is insidious and sad, birds are drawn to cities by the light and then killed when they fly into the thousands of clear and mirrored windows in every city and suburb.

“The 2 by 4 rule, which is becoming the 2 by 2 rule,” explained Sheppard “is how you should protect birds.” Sheppard showed slides of various ways windows are treated, taking away the mirage of open space that birds see, and instead making it look to birds like they won’t make it if they try to fly through. Sheppard explained why such methods would work: “Birds have an accurate sense of body shape and size. Patterns, lines, dots, on glass will make it so that birds won’t fly through.” “We used to think, if we only turn off lights in our tall buildings” we can save the birds… “But that doesn’t work” Sheppard soberly noted. Ironically, “low rise buildings kill more birds than high rise, often in suburban habitats. Birds are most active in vegetative zone, at the height of treetops.” Additionally, “the more glass a building has, the more collisions happen.”

Think About Birds When You Design New Buildings

On a positive note, Sheppard told us that “New York City was poised to require that all new builds use bird friendly materials.” And urged the entire audience to “Think about it before you start your design” because “anything else is a retrofit.” Sheppard closed her talk with some case studies, such as the New York Times building that uses screens in front of the glass, the Intuit Headquarters, in Mountainview, CA which has bird collision requirements, where they reduced use of glass.  Sheppard also showed a slide of the Bronx Emergency Call Center. The bird friendly design they used there also helps with lighting, reducing heat costs and ensuring building security. So it was a win-win.

Next up was Adam Betuel, Conservation Director at the Atlanta Audubon Society. The first ever conservation director for the Atlanta Audubon Society with a focus on making the city a more bird-friendly place, Betuel started Project Safe Flight Atlanta and Lights Out Atlanta which provide extensive monitoring of bird casualties across the Atlanta area as well as partnerships with local organizations, government, and universities on bird-friendly construction and retrofits.

The goal of the Atlanta Audubon society, Betuel explained is to: “build places where birds and people thrive. Atlanta is ‘a city in a forest’ with over 200 species, the Chattahoochee River is a corridor for migrating birds. We fighting hard to slow down the mowing down of forest.“ Betuel related how in 2005 a study found birds hitting structures, but nothing was done with it. So “we created Project Safelight Atlanta, monitoring parts of our metro area.” The organization then went a step further, asking “How do we start partnering with architects.” “In the long term” Betuel said “they will be looking to legislation to take the lead NYC is setting.” (I looked up the NYC legislation, and unfortunately New York State Senate Bill S25 has been vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But the New York City Council bill could still happen, it’s “laid over in council.”)

Ruby Throated Hummingbird is the Most Common Species Dying

Betuel described their progress of monitoring the birds using crowdsourcing: “Peak migration is during spring and fall. Using an app called collector, it sets a walking route we can drop a pin where we find a bird. We can then pin point hot spots (where places are most dangerous to birds). The report is called a D-Bird report, anyone can put data in.” The research in Atlanta alone so far has been heartbreaking. In just a short time they have seen 1600 dead birds of 110 species. Betuel explained: “We don’t see (most of) them, cleaning crews, scavengers pick them up. The species number unfortunately shows that a lot of birds not making it. Ruby throated hummingbird is the most common species dying.” Betuel explained how they also find a great deal of injured birds which they send to wildlife centers for care.

Their research has found that “Atlanta ranks 9th most dangerous city during spring and 4Th in fall.” Betuel then went into showing case studies, mostly of nature centers, are trying to reduce use of clear glass. One building used a simple vinyl film, while another had complete coverage of their glass with photos or a grey patch of film.” Other examples shown were something called ceramic fritt, meshes, and shades. In closing the speakers emphasized that birds have tremendous value, they are allies to humans as pollinators and seed distributors, they are critical to health ecosystems. Like the ‘canary in a coal mine’ they also provide rich data sets to help us understand climate change.