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‘What’s good for birds is good for people’: State moves to make buildings more bird-friendly

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“It is so unnecessary that we continue to build in a way that endangers animal lives,” said one state senator

Mark Keelan/Getty Images

State lawmakers want to create a “Bird-Friendly Building Council” that would establish criteria to make existing buildings and new construction across the state safer for birds, who often fatally crash into their glass facades.

This week, the state Senate passed the Bird-Friendly Building Council Act, which would amend conservation law to create a 15-person commission within the Department of Environmental Conservation. Such a board would be made up of wildlife experts, architects, real estate inustry reps, glass manufacturers, and academics to study avian collisions—which NYC Audubon say kills 90,000-230,000 each year in New York City—and develop rules and regulations to create bird-friendly structures. The state Assembly is working on a companion bill.

“It is so unnecessary that we continue to build in a way that endangers animal lives,” says state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who sponsored the bill. “I represent midtown Manhattan that has a number of skyscrapers sheeted in glass, and I think on any given day you can find dead birds at the base of buildings.”

The problem is particularly bad during the spring and fall, when dozens of species of birds pass through New York City, which is along the migratory superhighway known as the Atlantic Flyway. As migrating birds seek perches, they may spot greenery behind glass or encounter highly reflective glass near a park, which tricks them into seeing a haven where there isn’t one and smash into the surface. Birds migrating at night can also find themselves disoriented by illuminated structures and drawn like moths to a flame, leaving them exhausted and vulnerable.

Rita McMahon, the co-founder of the Wild Bird Fund, which treats between 600-800 birds annually who have suffered such traumas, calls the city’s glass skyscrapers a “wall of death” for the creatures. “As they fly up the Hudson River that’s all you see, just glass, glass, glass,” she says. “It’s a 50-50 chance if they’re alive when they get to us.”

Those that aren’t instantly killed usually have concussions, internal injuries, broken wings; if they’re alive when they fall to the cold pavement, they can die of hypothermia, says McMahon.

As glass towers have proliferated in recent decades, so to have calls to make those structure less lethal. Cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Toronto have begun to rethink how they build to try and avoid the avian carnage. The United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit industry group that encourages environmentally conscious buildings, launched a bird safety credit in 2011 as part of the LEED certification process. Legislation is also pending in Washington that would require federal buildings to incorporate such designs. Major players in New York City’s real estate scene aren’t opposed to the idea either.

“We support the convening of a council, representing relevant interest groups and subject-matter experts, to provide holistic recommendations on bird-friendly design and construction best practices,” Real Estate Board of New York president John Banks said in a statement.

Some in New York City are already taking steps to reduce the threat of their buildings to birds, but it undoubtedly can be a costly undertaking for existing buildings, and studying revenue sources for such endeavors would fall under the purvey of the Bird-Friendly Building Council. The Javits Center, for instance, went through a half billion dollar renovation including new glass panels imprinted with patterns that have slashed bird deaths there by more than 90 percent.

But going the extra mile is not merely for the benefit of birds, says Kathryn Heintz, the executive director of New York City Audubon.

“What’s good for birds is good for people,” she says. “It’s about making better buildings all around. If we build buildings to be sustainable, bird-friendly is equally important to an environmentally-embracing building.”

Heintz wants a council made up of wildlife groups, builders, and real estate experts to bring all perspectives to the table, and says NYC Audubon hopes to use its voice there to emphasize the importance of birds in the global ecosystem.

“Making buildings bird-friendly is not a standalone issue, it’s part of a package of things,” Heintz says. “Losing birds in our natural environmental would be unimaginable and unhealthy. They eat a lot of insects; they’re part of a healthy thriving ecosystem for all living beings.”

Volunteers and staff with NYC Audubon often comb through the bases of glass buildings across the city to help measure bird strike deaths. They’ve also created an online crowdsourcing data collection tool called D-Bird to give the public a way to report deaths or injuries that helps NYC Audubon with its research.

On a recent weekday, Holyman and his 8-year-old daughter were walking through Midtown when they discovered the broken body of a dead wood thrush at the base of a glass tower.

“I was trying to explain to her what had happen,” Hoylman says. “But she didn’t understand why we’re making buildings that kill such elegant animals. The innocence of her question really points at the strategy we need to take.”