As Howard County glass buildings kill birds, local groups aim to save avian lives

A new expansion of the Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant education center features big glass windows allowing for generous views of the native plant garden and historic farmstead. There was just one problem: It was killing birds.

And for an organization that values sustainability, that was an issue, says executive director Meg Boyd. So she reached out to a local group called Safe Skies Maryland for help. “It was something that we wanted to take action on as soon as possible,” she says.

During the spring and fall migration seasons, birds flock to Howard County to breed or as a stopover on their routes north or south.

“Howard County is just a beautiful place for birds,” says Beth Decker, director of Safe Skies Maryland. “We have lakes and parks and green spaces, tree cover and functioning habitat. We have a lot of bird watching activities.”

But they’re at risk, Decker says. Migrating birds can’t perceive glass; thinking it’s open space, they frequently fly into windows at full speed. Usually, the impact kills them. Safe Skies wants to raise awareness of the growing problem of bird window collisions.

As many as 1 billion birds — mostly songbirds — are estimated to die every year in the U.S. from building collisions, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

The problem could get worse, says Decker, as the use of glass becomes more prevalent in modern architecture. Buildings in downtown Columbia gleam with broad windows that allow in natural light and shine from the outside. Many are avian death traps, Decker says, but “you can use a lot of glass and you can do it in a sustainable way.”

On its website, Safe Skies recommends various measures to reduce bird mortality, such as keeping glass to less than 40 percent of the overall surface area of a building or home. Additionally, architectural features like balconies can serve as visual cues to prevent bird collisions.

Parents can turn prevention into a fun family project by taking a chalk pen or tempera paints and drawing on windows.

Other suggestions are even simpler. Decker says that leaving a screen on your window during migration season can increase the chances a bird will survive collisions. Homeowners who have Venetian blinds can leave them open, allowing them to serve as a visual deterrent. Specially designed films can serve as a visual barrier that birds can see from the outside — but don’t obstruct the view from the inside.

Decker stresses that such changes can be temporary: It’s most important to leave them in place during migration season. Spring migration typically lasts from mid-March through May, while fall migration begins in mid-August and ends early November.

And even the smallest effort is enough, she says. “If you do something, that something is better than nothing at all.”

This year, Safe Skies is partnering with the Audubon Society of Central Maryland to prevent bird collisions in Howard County. At events like the Howard County Greenfest in April, the groups have demonstrated ways to prevent bird deaths for homeowners and businesses. Tools include Acopian BirdSavers — cords dangled outside windows — and bird-alert stickers, said Julie Dunlap, education chair of the local chapter of National Audubon Society. The two groups will also hand out fliers on bird collision prevention at a Hands Around Howard County event at Lake Elkhorn next month.

They’ve also supported legislation that would make state buildings more bird-friendly.

Safe Skies’ efforts mirror initiatives happening around the world to curb bird deaths. Toronto is generally credited with initiating the first major effort to document and curb bird deaths caused by flying into buildings. Canada’s largest city launched the Fatal Light Awareness Program — or FLAP — in the early 1990s.

The National Audubon Society reported in 2013 that Minneapolis advocates had recruited about 60 buildings to adopt bird-friendly practices, and this year the University of Minnesota is putting the finishing touches on its new $79 million Bell Museum, which is fitted with “fritted” glass — a dotted pattern designed for both bird safety and energy efficiency. The Audubon Society of Portland, Ore., recruited 2,500 residents and 13 buildings last year to turn off “unnecessary” lights, and last month, the Apple store in downtown Chicago announced it would dim lights at night to help curb bird collisions.

Closer to home, members of Lights Out Baltimore coordinate walks to collect the carcasses of birds that have crashed into windows of city buildings. Volunteers from the group, one of 20 local chapters, head out early in the morning in the hope of finding the victims before building custodians dispose of them.

While homeowners may have grown accustomed to finding a dead bird or two outside a particular window, Decker says the problem is likely much worse than they realize. Predators like hawks and rats will eat the dead birds before there’s any evidence of a collision. “What a person sees is usually a fraction of what is actually going on,” Decker said.

At the Howard County Conservancy, Safe Skies installed Acopian BirdSavers, which would prevent birds from flying into the windows. Boyd said she was pleased with the results. Though she was originally concerned they would obstruct the view, she said, “People don’t even notice it.”

But the birds do. And in the weeks since the curtains were installed, says Boyd, there hasn’t been a single crash on the treated windows.

This article has been updated.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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