By David Fair and Barbara Lucas
This story originally appeared on WEMU’s The Green Room and is republished here with permission.
Many of our most cherished North American songbirds are in trouble. It’s primarily due to habitat loss—whether through development, agriculture, or climate change. But cats and glass, i.e. collisions with buildings, are also huge problems for birds. Although there are definite challenges to reducing these threats, there are also solutions.
David Fair (DF): Ecologists are concerned about the plummeting populations of many of our North American songbirds—because every species is crucial to the health of our delicate web of life. Luckily, many birds do make it to our area every spring. In this installment of WEMU’s “Green Room”, Barbara Lucas looks at two of the biggest dangers migrating birds must contend with when they arrive.
Barbara Lucas (BL): I’m watching a Youtube video someone taped as birds repeatedly slammed into their office window.
BL: Ouch! Unfortunately, when birds see reflection on glass, they think it’s open sky. And buildings are everywhere now. Birds can’t alter migration patterns to avoid them.
BL: To Heidi Trudell, that sound is a call to action.
Heidi Trudell: I’m so sorry buddy, you did not have to go this way.
BL: Trudell’s talking to a freshly killed Robin we just found under a dorm window at Eastern Michigan University. She’s the volunteer leader of Washtenaw Safe Passage. She collects and records dead birds killed by windows at about a dozen Ypsilanti buildings.
Trudell: Oh, here we go. Here’s some pieces. I probably missed these pieces last time.
BL: Today I’m tagging along on her rounds. She does them at least once a week, during each spring and fall migration. It takes her hours.
Trudell: So we’ve got a wing and a half…
BL: Last fall she found 65 dead birds under windows in Ypsilanti—about half of them at EMU. Her goal?
Trudell: Ultimately, it would be nice to have a set of data to present to EMU when we start talking to the Facilities people to push for change.
BL: And what kind a change would you like?
Trudell: Frosted windows, fritted windows, dots on windows, they recently renovated the dorms we are about to go to next, and they added glass that was much shinier than the previous glass so that it looks really cool now, it’s up to modern aesthetics standards but it has killed multiple hummingbirds and a kingfisher and an ovenbird and all kinds of really stuff. Very frustrating!
BL: She blames society’s infatuation with shiny glass buildings that mirror the sky. Birds fly into them at skull smashing speeds. She wishes architects were more aware of the problem.
Trudell: And I’m sure they would be really bummed to know that birds are dying at their buildings.
BL: Some windows—due to their location or reflectivity—are more of a problem than others. A concern for Trudell is the Whittaker Library in Ypsilanti. The first time she checked it, in 2014, she found remains of about forty different dead birds, at least 11 different species.
Trudell: A really good diversity, but incredibly depressing to think that one building was doing that much damage.
BL: I head over to the library to see what could be so darn attractive to birds. Pulling up, I see a bank of windows over 70 feet high, mirror-imaging the lovely adjacent woodland. Inside, it’s a spectacular view, which apparently beckons not just birds, but people, too.
Lisa Hoenig: An average about 8,000 people visit the library every week.
BL: That’s Lisa Hoenig, director of the library.
Hoenig: And one of the big reasons they come here to the Whittaker library is because of the wonderful ambience and the aesthetics of these windows that you see. It’s just a very comfortable setting for study and dor learning.
BL: She says after Trudell’s complaints, they looked into applying a treatment to the glass that’s both bird-proof and clear.
Hoenig: Our findings were that to apply a film that would retain the aesthetics that you see would be really really expensive. To cover just the back windows here, the big bays that you’re looking at, would cost about $82,000.
BL: Why so expensive? Clear bird deterrent costs more, and to cut reflection, any treatment has to be applied to the outside. So unless it’s done during construction or remodeling, tall buildings like this one need special equipment brought in to reach those windows.
Hoenig: …and the film’s lifespan, the guaranteed lifespan of the film, is six years.
BL: Hoenig says such a huge and ongoing cost is simply not possible considering the library runs on local tax dollars.
Hoenig: So the limited resources that we have go toward getting library service to the many many people in the community who need it.
BL: Hoenig sends me a study about another problem for birds: cats—which the authors say kill three times as many birds as do windows, cars, and wind turbines combined. Trudell is right with Hoenig on that one. Back on her rounds…
Trudell: This little walkway here is my least favorite part of the EMU campus because you have both the “corridor effect” and feral cats that live underneath it.
BL: She says after slamming into a window, a stunned bird doesn’t stand a chance with a wandering cat, whether it has a bell or not. Even on full bellies, cats’ instincts drive them to catch and kill. But Trudell feels there are solutions. She sends me to the home of Dr. Cathy Theisen in Dexter. Her large windows overlook a pond and birdfeeders.
Cathy Theisen: I’ve always had strikes at these feeders but I just thought well that’s part of feeding birds.
BL: But as a veterinarian, her job is to heal animals, not to lure them to their deaths. So she asked Trudell for help.
Theisen: Heidi taught us that by putting up these little dots, we can make our windows more visible to birds.
BL: She says unlike hawk silhouettes, the dots are remarkably effective. About three inches apart, Theisen says the dense spacing is crucial, so birds don’t try to “squeeze past.”
Theisen: We have all these windows that look out over water and we really prize our view and we couldn’t imagine having dots all over our windows. But I can tell you we’ve gotten really used to it. Your brain sort of learns to look between the dots. So you can still see the birds and you can still see the view and everything. Cat meows. And Cleve has some things to say about that!
BL: Dr. Theisen loves her cats as much as her birds.
Theisen: Aren’t you a good kitty…
BL: So her three cats are indoor cats. Here are excerpts from her long list of dangers when cats are allowed outdoors.
Theisen: The biggest one that we worry about in this area is feline leukemia virus which is spread from cat to cat, we also have feline infectious viremia… Toxoplasmosis, parasites of any kinds… upper respiratory infections, and of course we all know about rabies…
BL: The list goes on. Dr. Theisen says her cats are not only healthy, but happy.
Theisen: We have a screened outdoor patio, so they can go outside and enjoy being outside. We also have an attached garage, and we let them out every single night into the garage, where they love to hunt for mice but they’re contained, so they can’t go anywhere. We call it enrichment for cats.
BL: Speaking of Shangri Las for cats, I visit another family that loves both cats and birds.
Pilar Fierro: Luca hola Bandito! They’ve been outside the whole day because it’s so nice today!
BL: Pilar and Cristian Fierro don’t have a screened porch. They’ve rigged up a tunnel which exits into their yard from a basement window. It’s made from wire closet organizer cubes. For extra cat fun, it goes up over their pergola, and down again into a sunny cage in the grass.
(BL): The Fierros say their deluxe “catio” was cheap and easy to build. Now the cats can enjoy the sun and birds safely.
Fierro: Especially that one. He can kill birds in the air. Yes, he jumps and kills them. He’s a born killer!
BL: Partly they built the “catio” to protect the wildlife. But the main reason?
Fierro: Mostly we don’t want them to get run over. That’s the main reason.
BL: The Fierros are building a house in the woods. Like their cats, they love to watch nature. They show me the plans.
Fierro: Lots of windows: window, window, window, window. We are especially concerned about those. Because those are the big ones.
BL: So the Fierros are ordering special “see through, but bird-friendly glass” for those windows. They cost more, but during construction is the most cost-effective time to get them. They’ve decided they’ll enjoy their new house a lot more if they’re hearing this…(songbirds)
BL: And, not this. (bird thuds against window)
In the Green Room” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89-One WEMU News.