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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2014 / 11 

Birds and windows -- a deadly dilemma

November 17, 2014

When a bird flew into the window of Becky Schneider’s office at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center last year, the avian ecologist rushed outside and found a stunned flycatcher that flew off shortly afterward. 

A few weeks later she heard a bird fly into her co-worker’s window; the scarlet tanager was not as lucky and died from the collision.

“I looked at the windows and saw how reflective they are — more like mirrors than windows,” said Schneider, a project manager with the Conservation Management Institute in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

With the permission of the corporate research center, Schneider and a troop of volunteers began surveying bird collisions with windows in the park last October. Over the past year, they have documented 203 fatalities.

“The birds often do not see the glass as a barrier,” said Schneider. “Instead they focus on the reflecting vegetation and sky and crash into the window.”

It is estimated that close to one billion birds die each year in the United States due to collisions with glass.

Photos and a running tally of the birds found are posted on Schneider’s blog, Hope Is the Thing With Feathers. The team has identified 50 species that have died from window collisions.

“People don’t realize the number of species that are being killed. They think it is just starlings and house sparrows,” said volunteer Kara Kosarski, a 2013 wildlife science graduate of Virginia Tech.

“Over the course of the project, I was amazed at how many species of birds I found and how frequently I was finding them,” said volunteer Chrissy Barton, a 2012 animal science graduate.

Kosarski and Barton both joined the project to learn about wildlife and the human impact on the environment. They are the longest serving of the project’s 17 total volunteers.

Schneider has a number of recommended solutions and some funds for the project, “so that we didn’t immediately have to ask the corporate research center to spend money,” she said.

The study has identified the worst of the corporate center’s buildings and narrowed it to specific sides of those buildings to target for treatment.

Window films are the best treatment and can last a few years, “but there is resistance because of the cost and the appearance,” said Schneider. Another method is to hang “curtains” of nylon cords spaced 4.25 inches apart on the windows’ exterior.

Coating the windows with UV paint is the least visible option, but the paint has to be reapplied every few months. However, “people might be more willing to use it if it works,” said Schneider. She has received permission to test its effectiveness on one of the privately owned buildings in the park.

The corporate research center is currently planning its second construction phase. “I hope we can have some influence and make management aware that if they use mirrored glass again, it will likely double bird fatalities in the park,” said Schneider.

“While I walk around looking for birds, a lot of people come out of the buildings to talk to me,” said Kosarski. “They care about what is happening. The hurdle is to turn caring into action.”

“It can be easy to ignore mortalities at a single site and to reason that the number of birds killed may not cause the population to decline,” said Sarah Karpanty, associate professor of wildlife science in the college, whose work includes preserving biodiversity. “However, our environmental laws require us to consider cumulative effects whenever possible.”

“Window mortalities at the corporate research center add to window mortality events at other sites, leading to a cumulative negative impact on the population,” she continued. “We must do something in our small corner of the planet because it is an important piece of the larger picture of avian mortality and conservation challenges.”

Birds-window collisions are a relatively unacknowledged problem, but Schneider hopes that with the recent attention on the Minnesota Vikings Stadium under construction and a public service announcement from the Audubon Society and Toyota, people will start taking notice.

“If you are not looking for it, you don’t realize the scope. But it is completely preventable, if people are willing,” said Schneider. “There are many threats to migratory birds, and this is one we can do something about.”

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