by Carol Roll, Development Director 

More than 200 bird species make a living among the towering skyscrapers and taxi horns of the New York City metro area. Their urban environment can be dangerous. We sat down with New York City Audubon’s Molly Adams, Advocacy and Outreach Manager, and Kaitlyn Parkins, Senior Conservation Biologist, to find out about their work to make NYC safer for birds. Initiative 1482B, the “Bird Friendly Building Materials Bill” was approved by the New York City Council in December of 2019. It aims to reduce bird collisions with glass and other materials and is the most broad-reaching bird-friendly building policy in the country to date. Seattle Audubon envisions similar legislation for our city and is grateful to be the recipient of their knowledge and experience.  

What led NYC Audubon to recognize that birds colliding with glass was a problem?

In 1997, NYC Audubon volunteers started noticing dead birds around the city. In typical birder fashion, they started counting them. This was the start of Project Safe Flight, a community science effort to monitor and mitigate bird-window collisions. The decades’ worth of data from Project Safe Flight proved to be invaluable in providing context to both law makers and community members advocating for bird-friendly buildings legislation. A key component of Project Safe Flight is D-Bird, an online platform that allows anyone with an internet connection to report observations of birds that have died after colliding with a window.  With this wealth of community data, NYC Audubon estimates that between 90,000 – 200,000 birds die in NYC each year due to building collisions. 

What was the Bird Friendly Building Materials Bill trying to achieve?

In March 2019, Councilmember Rafael Espinal introduced the Bird Safe Building Materials Bill to the NYC Council for consideration. The original draft required 90% of glass in the city to be bird friendly. During bill revisions, that requirement was later decreased, and it was limited to glass and other building materials below 75 feet. This height was based off the typical maximum tree height in NYC and data showing most bird strikes occur below the 11th story of a building. 

How did you go about building a coalition of support?

NYC Audubon gathered board members, staff, policy makers, scientists, designers, architects, and volunteers through their community connections into NYC’s Bird Safe Building Alliance. This coalition was critical in generating support both publicly and behind the scenes. Volunteers were instrumental in generating public support through social media, postcards, letters, and other grassroots advocacy efforts. Kaitlyn noted that, “Social media played a huge role in getting the awareness out. We can post and send out our newsletters all day to the same audience who care about birds. The ability to reach audiences that don’t normally listen to us I think was critical.” 

What were the most significant concerns raised by sceptics and what convinced them?

The NYC Archdiocese was concerned about implications this bill might have on historic stained-glass installations in their buildings and the potential added expense of retrofitting or replacement. Stained glass is already bird friendly building material due to its lack of reflectivity so [their buildings were not] impacted by this bill. 

Through the process, developers and building owners also expressed concerns over added costs of materials and the impact on building aesthetics. Since each building project is different, it is difficult to determine in advance how or if bird-safe design impacts overall project expenses. However, some common design solutions, such as fritted glass or external shades, can improve a building’s energy-efficiency and can pay for itself over time.

What about retrofitting buildings? Can that help solve this issue?

Yes. Kaitlyn shared success stories from two high-profile retrofit projects that reduced bird collisions: 

  • The Javits Center was once one of the top bird-killing buildings in the city. The center’s owners and managers understood that sustainable buildings should consider wildlife impacts as well as the traditional metrics like energy efficiency. In 2014, the Javits Center was retrofitted with fritted glass, reducing both energy costs and bird collisions, the latter by 90%.  
  • Prior to 2003, the USPS Morgan General Mail Facility’s park-facing windows were killing a lot of birds. Those windows were essentially unused—they looked into storage rooms.  The facility completely blacked the windows and reduced collisions by 100%.  

Kaitlyn admits, however, that addressing the collision issue on a building-by-building basis in a big city like New York can be overwhelming and that progress can be slow. Legislation for new builds is instrumental in solving the issue on a large and longer-term scale. 

New York City’s Javit’s Center

What is your personal commitment to this issue? What inspires your work?

Prior to working for NYC Audubon, Molly was an injured bird transporter volunteer. She went on to experience bird/window collisions first-hand while working in the offices of local conservation organizations. “It highlights how big the issue is when it is happening at organizations that are dedicated to conservation,” says Molly.

Kaitlyn’s early work with NYC Audubon involved cleaning and importing data sets to D-Bird. All that data helped her understand the full scope of the issue. During her childhood, Kaitlyn remembers seeing an occasional bird strike at her home and thinking, “That’s sad, a bird died.” She goes on to say, “Now I am able to connect numbers and dead birds to this data and it is compelling. Now I want to fix this.” 

What myths exist about bird glass collisions?

  • This is a skyscraper issue. 
    • A small percentage of strikes are on skyscrapers, and those that occur are usually at the lower levels. Migrating birds do fly high in the sky, but that is not when bird strikes are occurring. 
  • This is a commercial building issue.
    • Residential homes continue to pose great risk to birds, as it is about the reflectivity of the glass, and not the building type. Molly notes, “Out of a lot of global issues, there is a lot of hope in the solutions that already exist. Especially for homeowners, there are so many ways to solve this issue.”
  • It is just a bird or two, once in a while.
    • That may be true of your own experience, but it adds up when multiplied over the millions of windows in an entire city.
  • The solution is always window decals.
    • Decals are one solution, but each building may require a different solution to reduce bird/glass collisions. A building offers different hazards depending on its location, glass reflectivity, and proximity to vegetation as well as architectural features like fly throughs and glass corners. 
  • The bird flew away, so it must be okay. 
    • Some birds can have lasting effects from a strike for up to 24 hours. Injured birds may seek a hiding place, and either die unseen or be taken by a predator. If you see a stunned bird from a window strike:
      • Collect that bird in an enclosed, safe space for up to an hour to assess if it can fly away. 
      • Ideally, consider taking the bird to a rehabilitation facility. To find the closest rehab facility near you in the United States, start with Animal Helper Now,
      • Most importantly, take action to treat the window that caused the bird strike. American Bird Conservancy and FLAP Canada have extensive resources for assessing risks and selecting solutions. 

What advice do you have for a city, like Seattle, just starting this process?

For cities just starting this process, preparing volunteers to do outreach is essential. Training volunteers early on will be helpful for grassroots advocacy such as writing postcards. Building a coalition with diverse perspectives and expertise will also be important to the work of co-developing successful legislation. Having a sample bill, such as the legislation that passed in NYC, is powerful in convincing lawmakers to adopt similar policies in their own cities. NYC Audubon was able to provide two decades of science, powerful images of dead birds, and maps of collision locations throughout the city, all of which helped sway the public and city council.

Molly reminds us that, “Especially in urban areas, I find that there are so many people that are just clinging to any way to protect their connection to the natural world, that includes protecting parks and animals in the city.” A good reminder that we as citizens have the power to effect change in our community. 

How can I make a difference and get involved in solving bird collisions in Seattle?

Seattle Audubon is advocating for similar legislation in the City of Seattle. Members can join our efforts through a variety of ways including:

  • Sign up to be an activist through our Seattle Conservation Action Network (SCAN).
  • Through our new strategic plan, Cities at the Center, we will invest significant resources to the issue of bird glass collisions. You can fund the launch and continuation of this work by making a donation to Seattle Audubon.  
  • Do your part to make your home and workplace a safe place for both birds and people. {LINK to homemade decals video}
  • Have you ever witnessed a window collision or found a bird injured or killed by hitting a window? Tell us your story: {LINK to EveryAction storygathering platform}

A big thank you to our friends and partners in bird conservation at New York City Audubon. Together, with other urban Audubon chapters, we continue to advocate and organize for cities where birds and people thrive.