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Bird-friendly buildings bill takes flight in City Council

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“What the Council did today is going to save thousands of lives.”

Brigitte Blättler/Getty Images

The City Council passed legislation Wednesday that mandates all new construction and major building alterations use bird-safe glass on facades below 75 feet.

The bill, which was introduced by Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal, passed in a 41-3 vote and is the culmination of years of advocacy by urban wildlife activists. The legislation will take effect December 2020.

“It’s a landmark decision,” says Rita McMahon, the director of the Wild Bird Fund, which treats some 1,000 birds who crash into New York City buildings each year. “What the Council did today is going to save thousands of lives, and hopefully, other cities, builders, and architects will follow New York City’s compassionate lead.”

New York City Audubon estimates that up to 230,000 birds crash into glass building surfaces across the five boroughs annually. The city is a stop on the migratory superhighway known as the Atlantic Flyway, meaning that the problem is especially bad during the spring and fall. Migrating birds that seek a perch to rest on may spot greenery in reflective glass near a park, tricking them into seeing a haven where there isn’t one; when they fly into the facade, it can cause injuries or death. It’s an especially troubling trend in light of recent findings that show 29 percent of birds have vanished from North America since 1970.

“Birds are an incredibly vital part of our ecosystem and I am proud that New York City is taking responsibility for our role in this ecosystem that existed long before our towering skyscrapers,” said Espinal.

A northern cardinal recovering from striking glass at the Wild Bird Fund on the Upper West Side.
Wild Bird Fund/Phyllis Tseng

The issue of how to reduce avian deaths in cities is at the intersection of urbanism and ecology with no one-size-fits-all approach. Different fixes are necessary for different structures and habitats, but if those approaches are baked into design they can be relatively painless. When it comes to making glass facades more bird-sensitive, that can be as minor as using patterned glass.

“Bird-friendly building design should not be seen as an add-on or an extra,” says Dr. Christine Sheppard, the Glass Collisions Program Director for American Bird Conservancy. “Many strategies for controlling heat, light, and even security can be bird-friendly strategies, too. These can be incorporated into almost any building style, but should be built into project design from the outset to minimize additional costs.”

State legislation introduced in May sought to create a “Bird-Friendly Building Council” with the goal of making new and existing buildings across the state less likely for birds to fatally collide into their exteriors. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed the bill in November because of fiscal concerns. The Council’s legislation picked up where the state left off and will push New York toward the forefront of environmentally-conscious construction.

“This is a significant step in protecting our feathered friends,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “The hope is that when you have other big cities that put this requirement on, it’s going to increase production and, hopefully, bring costs down. We think that other cities are going to follow us on this.”