OK, it is January–which means this is the month to head out and count birds at your local urban parrot roost! I’m helping to coordinate the first World Parrot Count. If you have parrots or parakeets in your area, check out the count page and let us know how many of each species you have. I’ll be doing more reporting on the count here as the month progresses, so stay tuned. In the meantime, we need folks to count Monk Parakeet nests in NJ, NY, CT and elsewhere in the Northeast. Also need lots of people to help out across Florida with the widespread exotic avian zoo down there! But no matter where you are, please help us start keeping track of these exotic birds that are becoming a larger part of our urban birdscapes!
Next month is the first World Parrot Count. This count is organized by the “extra-tropical“ department of the parrot researchers group of the International Ornithological Union (IOU) and is being led by Roelant Jonker (CML Leiden University) and Michael Braun (Heidelberg University). It is designed to help us monitor urban parrot populations around the world. If there are parrots in your neighborhood or local communities, help us out by helping us count them. For more information on the count, check out the World Parrot Count web page.
I will be helping to coordinate the count in the United States, so you can contact me (Rob Fergus) for more information at birdchaser AT hotmail.com.
Last month I drove up to Allentown, Pennsylvania to have lunch and spend the afternoon with Dr. Dan Klem, Professor of Biology, and Sarkis Acopian Professor of Ornithology and Conservation Biology in the Department of Biology at Muhlenberg College. Dr. Klem has spent decades studying the problem of birds colliding with glass windows, and is the leading expert on this grave threat to birds. You can read his published research on his website. To give us the latest information on birds and windows, Dr. Klem graciously agreed to posting this exchange, where we discuss his latest research findings and experiences in addressing what is probably the #1 source of human-caused bird kills in North America.
Urban Birdscapes: As early as 1990 you demonstrated that windows were a significant threat to birds on a continental level, killing perhaps up to a billion birds a year in the United States alone. What more have you discovered as you have continued to study this issue over the past 20 years?
Dr. Klem: Through documented observations and controlled experiments I have further confirmed and reaffirmed my interpretation that birds behave as if clear and reflective sheet glass and plastic are invisible to them. That bird-window collisions are possible wherever birds and windows coexist, and that this is true the world over, not just in North America where I spend most of my time studying this unintended and unwanted source of human-associated avian mortality.
I believe my work has further documented and provided convincing evidence that the best predictor of how many birds are killed striking windows at any one location is the density of birds in the immediate vicinity of the offending window. Migratory birds are attracted to urban light, water areas, and vegetation; all of these features in the built-environment landscape contribute to increasing the density of birds near windows. More space covered by glass equals more opportunities for birds to become victims when they are deceived attempting to reach habitat seen behind clear glass or reflected on the surface of mirrored panes.
Unflatteringly, I have also confirmed and reaffirmed that I have not been a very effective educator in enlisting the help of the conservationists, building industry professionals like glass manufacturers and architects, government officials charged with enforcing bird protection legislation, and members of the general public interested in the welfare of birds who are also in turn the most powerful of all constituencies capable of stimulating measures to protect birds from windows by creating a convincing market for short- and long-term solutions.
What do we still not know about windows killing birds? What additional window kill research needs to be done?
I believe we have an excellent understanding of the window-side of the issue. Clear and reflective sheet glass and plastic is invisible to birds, or more accurately since none of us are birds and really cannot know what they actually see and do not see, that birds act as if windows are invisible to them. This explains their vulnerability to windows and the frequently lethal consequences of collisions.
I would also suggest, as documented in the published results of my most recent studies addressing preventing bird-window collisions, that we have an elegant and what I believe most of us would agree is an aesthetically acceptable solution to protect birds from windows. That solution is the use of ultraviolet (UV) signals that can alert birds to the presence of the glass. Birds can see these UV markings, while humans cannot, permitting birds to successfully identify and avoid windows as barriers and at the same time permitting us humans to enjoy an unobstructed view through the windows we value and enjoy so much. This lets us protect birds from collisions while we still enjoy the out-of-doors from the comfort of the indoors.
What we still know precious little about is the bird side of the issue: the overall avian toll exacted by windows and the differential attrition and level of vulnerability of specific species. We still don’t know enough to be able to predict and attempt to responsibly manage this threat, as well as the geographic regions and habitat types where conventional human construction using conventional non-bird-safe windows most influences the health of local bird populations.
At the 1998 Ornithological Congress in St. Louis, you found two window-killed birds—a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Red-winged Blackbird—at the conference site, and brought them to your paper presentation, where you asked your ornithological colleagues why your research on window collisions was failing to gain traction among professional researchers and bird conservationists. Do you find that the situation has improved at all in ornithological circles over the past decade? Is this issue getting the attention that it deserves?
To be sure there has been progress in educating professional ornithologists and conservationist about this source of avian mortality. However, in my view the topic receives no-where near the relative attention it deserves based on what we know about comparative avian mortality with windows and other human-associated bird mortality, most obviously that attributable to cats, oil spills, pesticides, vehicles, wind turbines and others.
A careful and objective assessment of the evidence associated with comparative avian mortality attributable to human structures and action reveals, at least to me that other than habitat destruction the attrition of birds by other human-associated sources is meager, exponentially lower, than the casualties at windows.
At a recent professional meeting I began to comprehend more clearly that the disproportionate attention to the less significant threats to birds has everything to do with what funding is available to address the threat and seemingly having little or no influence is the documented scale of the threat. Many power utilities have been willing to invest in bird studies to measure the threat of wind turbines and power lines, but with only one exception I am aware of glass and glass-coating (glazing) manufactures have been unwilling to invest in how to mitigate or eliminate bird kills at windows. From my interactions with these companies, it seems that they have been unwilling to invest in developing bird-safe glass products because they do not see a viable commercial market for these products. Sadly, history has taught us that we usually need governments to craft laws to help guide human protective measures–in this case the defenseless natural resource of birds. Just because a solution is ethically and morally correct does not offer enough of an incentive to stimulate a volunteer effort to bring it about.
How is the architectural community responding to the issue of window killed birds? What are some building projects you can point to that have done a good job of addressing this issue?
Here again, although I believe progress is being made to inform and enlist the help of architects and the use of their creative talents in saving more bird lives from windows, in general the progress is slow and I judge relatively insignificant given the frequency of attention architectural designs address bird protection from windows.
I enthusiastically support the green building initiatives that are expanding throughout the world, but even the best LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified buildings are not green to me if birds are being killed flying into windows designed to ensure internal natural lighting.
A few exceptional architects have prepared designs that protect birds from windows, including the late Margaret Helfand of Helfand Architecture (New York City) who used fritted glass with a dot pattern in the new science building on the campus of Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania. The Studio Gang Architects of Chicago used creative netting to protect birds from windows in their award-winning design of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center outside of Chicago, Illinois. The Convenience Group is a company in Toronto, Ontario that creates and installed external window film, and they used one of their designs to retrofit the windows of a government building in Markham, Ontario in the Greater Toronto Area in Canada.
What are the most effective steps a home or business owner can take to make windows safer for birds?
First and foremost doing something is going to save lives more than doing nothing, no matter how concerned you might be. There are many ways to transform a window into a barrier that birds will see and avoid, but none to date that do not in some way interfere with our ability to have an unobstructed view through the window. Currently, some “visual noise” to humans is necessary to alert birds to the presence and dangers of windows.
How much visual noise a homeowner or building manager is willing to tolerate will determine how much protection they can provide to the birds in the vicinity of their windows. The use of stickers or decals to alert birds to the invisible window barrier can be very effective in the right configuration. The decals can be of any shape and size, but to be most effective they need to uniformly cover the window in vertical columns separated by four inches, or in horizontal rows separated by two inches. These patterns are known to transform a window into an object that birds as small as sparrows will avoid, completely eliminating the collision threat to birds.
Unfortunately, windows with fewer decals offer less protection from lethal collisions. In one of my earliest experiments I found that even a window with one decal on it reduced the number of birds striking the window, though the difference was not statistically (mathematically) significant. In that experiment over a 54 day period, nine fatal strikes occurred at a window with one decal on it while 12 strikes were recorded at an unaltered control window.
If decals are not deemed an option, the same effect can be had by using other multiple objects hung in front of windows, such as cloth, tape, strings, feathers, or used CDs. One important point about the use of decals or other objects hung near windows is that they must be placed over the outside surface of the pane. Since even clear glass will dangerously reflect sky or habitat at times, patterns on the inside of the window will not be visible to birds outside and they will continue to collide with the mirrored reflections.
Applying external films to windows has also been effective, but it is costly and my experience indicates that only the most dedicated, and perhaps emotionally affected, commit to such window protection for birds.
What types of products would you like to see in the future to help make windows safer for birds?
Ideally, the long-terms solution to protecting birds from windows is to have a coating (glazing) applied to sheet glass such that it offers a pattern of UV-reflecting and UV-absorption areas that birds see and we do not; such panes need to be available for sale and use in all new residential and commercial construction worldwide. Until such time as this bird-safe glass is available, existing windows should be retrofitted with external films having the same UV signal pattern and the same visual deterrence for birds and unobstructed viewing for us.
Moving away from science towards science fiction, what would you hope the future would look like regarding birds and windows?
I do not have to invoke science fiction to have a vision of how I hope windows in human structures will look in the future. They would look the same as they do now; the difference would be that future windows will have the bird protecting coatings (glazing) that birds see and we do not. If the results of my repeated and validating experiments are correct, UV signals are effective in eliminating bird-window collisions because birds see them and avoid the space they cover while we look unimpeded through the same space.
This would seem to be a reasonable solution worth the investment to save our birds, but so far that knowledge has not been enough to incite meaningful action to do so. My biggest and most important future challenge is to convince the building industry that investment in new bird-safe windows and external films is an ethical and moral cause required by bird protection laws (at least of the United States), and that by creating informed consumers there exists a worldwide market to justify it. To fulfill this challenging vision I welcome help from anyone likewise passionate about protecting our birds from the unintended and unwanted invisible window hazards that we have created!
As I reviewed it over at the Birdchaser blog, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America is the newest and biggest guide to birds, but one place that it isn’t that useful is with exotic birds in the urban jungle. I’m not sure why, but the Stokeses limited their book to birds accepted as established by the American Birding Association. That means that dozens of species of birds commonly seen in urban areas–especially in California, Texas, and Florida are not included.
Peach-faced Lovebirds are common in the Phoenix area, and will probably be accepted as established by the ABA soon. Ditto for Black-hooded Parrots in south Florida. But they aren’t included here, along with 20 other exotic parrots illustrated in the Big Sibley guide. Five parrot species are included (Monk Parakeet, Budgerigar, Green Parakeet, White-winged Parakeet, and Red-crowned Parrot. But there are dozens of other species in the urban parrot flocks are among the most conspicuous wildlife spectacles in many cities and neighborhoods, so this is an unfortunate bias against exotics here.
Same thing for exotic waterfowl. While Sibley illustrates eight exotic species and four domestic waterfowl breeds commonly found in urban parks, the Stokes guide only includes feral Mallards and Muscovies–as well as White-cheeked Pintail which is occasionally seen as an exotic, and sometimes as a presumed natural vagrant. No sign of the myriad domestic geese and other waterfowl that grace parks and ponds across the country
No big deal, right? Except these are some of the most commonly seen birds in American cities, and Stokes leaves people unable to identify them. As surveys show, more people travel a mile or more to view waterfowl than any other birds. And I’d venture to guess that many of those ducks and geese aren’t in the Stokes guide. Just this week I had a student report a Ross’s Goose to me in New Jersey. Turns out to be a common domestic goose–it just wasn’t illustrated in his bird guide so he went with the closest thing he could find illustrated.
I’m a fan of the new Stokes guide in many ways, but seriously wish they had included the exotic birds that are among the most likely birds that many people are going to be see in parks and other environs in American cities.
Nonmigratory Canada Goose populations have been increasing in many parts of the country. You know if you have them–they are making a mess on your lawn or in your parks! What to do about these big birds? Well, the problem isn’t so much the geese, as our landscaping practices. If you create a lawn next to water, you’ve made a goose Shangri-La. You built it, and they came! Pretty simple!
So what to to about them? Take away what they like, if possible. You don’t see too many geese walking through the forest. You can plant cattails and other aquatic plants to create a barrier between the water and a lawn or grassy area. You can rip out the grass and put in native landscaping. If you can’t get rid of the lawn, you may be able to treat it with chemicals that are noxious to the geese, but otherwise apparently harmless to humans and other wildlife.
And there is always GeesePeace, the organization that can help you humanely haze the geese or otherwise limit their numbers in your area.
Check out some of the following resources for more help:
Back in 1973, Stephen Kress got to pondering the disappearance of Atlantic Puffins from islands off the coast of Maine and came up with a plan to bring back the puffins by transporting young birds to where the birds once nested and attracting them back with decoys. Project Puffin was born and eventually the puffins started nesting again on the islands.
While you may not be able to get a puffin in your birdbath, you can follow Dr. Kress’s lead and bring back the birds that once lived in your neighborhood. By restoring or creating new habitat, you may be able to bring the missing birds back.
For some initial ideas of birds you may want to try and bring back to your yard or neighborhood, check out Audubon’s Birds to Help pages. Choose a bird that you think should be in your yard or neighborhood, and follow the guidelines on the species fact sheets for providing what that bird needs to thrive.
Pigeons can be a nuisance in urban areas, but German and Dutch innovators are creating pigeon lofts to house and control roosting of urban pigeon flocks. Check out the details online here.
Over 3,000 House Sparrow boxes are helping bring these birds back in Mumbai. Check out The Times of India news story here.
The fifth annual Urban Birding Festival is being held May 13-16 at various locations throughout Minneapolis-St. Paul. It’s a free celebration of springtime birds, especially those which inhabit urban areas.
“There are excellent birding opportunities in the heart of a metropolitan area,” said Liz Harper, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) nongame wildlife specialist. “Experts can help birders of all levels learn where the best birding spots are in the Twin Cities.”
The festival is billed as “Where Birds and People Meet” and is being organized in part by St. Paul Audubon and the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program. It features a day-long series of events at Fridley’s Springbrook Nature Center and daytime and evening bird walks at various locations.
Once upon a time (January 2004) I started Urban Birdscapes on Blogspot (see original here) as a way for me to keep notes and share interesting news stories I found while working on my urban bird conservation dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin. It was pretty bare-bones and ugly.
When Audubon hired me to lead urban bird conservation efforts across North America, I stopped blogging at Urban Birdscapes and proposed starting up an official blog for Audubon. It took three years of lobbying, but the powers that be at Audubon finally let me put up an Audubon Birdscapes blog in 2008.
We had a lot of fun over at Audubon Birdscapes, but when Audubon cut my urban bird program in 2009, they took down the Audubon Birdscapes site. I was hoping somebody else there would keep it going. But since that didn’t happen…
…Urban Birdscapes is back!