02 September 2008

UNL Makes Changes to Keep Its Birds Alive

By ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star
Tuesday, Sep 02, 2008 - 01:08:30 am CDT

Song birds are dying by the hundreds on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln City Campus and elsewhere in the state.

The killer is not West Nile or any other avian disease. These birds are dying because they crash into big plate glass windows and fall helplessly to the ground.

Birds see the reflections of the trees and other landscaping in the windows and think they are flying into a park-like habitat, said Bob Harms, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Grand Island.

And that’s when they get killed or seriously injured.

Most of the casualties are song birds that migrate through the area in spring and autumn. April and May and mid-September to early November are the highest mortality periods.

The deadliest places for birds appear to be glass-walled passageways between university buildings and large structures with window facades. More than 100 bird species have been recorded on City Campus. Here are some of the worst areas:

* Cather Residence Hall to Pound Residence Hall to Neihardt Residence Center.
* Oldfather Hall to Bessey Hall and Burnett Hall.
* Nebraska Hall to Walter Scott Engineering Center.
* Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.
* Memorial Stadium, east side.
* Architecture Hall, new addition.

No accurate count on the bird-strike deaths is available because groundskeepers pick up the carcasses as part of their daily rounds. Also feral cats walk off with dead or injured birds.

However, local bird enthusiast and conservationist Jim Ducey has been tracking bird-strike deaths on City Campus for two years and more recently in Omaha. He’s also researched records dating back to 1985 kept by the University of Nebraska State Museum, which over the years has gathered up dead birds for its specimen collection.

Based on his scattered data, Ducey estimates the city is losing at least a couple of hundred migratory song birds annually on City Campus alone. He said bird-strike deaths also were happening on East Campus and in Lincoln’s downtown.

In downtown Omaha, Ducey counted 150 dead birds during the past four months. The Qwest Center and the Omaha World-Herald’s Freedom Center, with their big glass windows, have some of the highest bird-strike numbers.

"A wide variety of birds, in my opinion, are dying unnecessary deaths," Ducey said. "There are architectural methods that can be utilized to avoid the problem. Those have been mostly ignored. We don’t need any bird deaths from striking a building. It’s not necessary."

Thanks to Ducey’s efforts, the USFWS is working with UNL officials and others in Omaha to reduce the number of bird deaths. The federal agency is involved because migratory birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

"It’s happening elsewhere in the state, and it’s happening elsewhere in the country," Harms said, referring to bird-strike deaths.

In 2002, the USFWS estimated that between 97 million to 970 million birds were killed each year in window collisions.

As a result of on-going discussions, the university has installed special ultra-violet decals on some of its large plate glass windows to try to reduce the number of bird strikes. The decals supposedly cut down on reflection and make windows appear solid.

Ted Weidner, vice chancellor of facilities management and planning, said the manufacturer said the decals catch light in the ultra-violet range, which only birds can see. But he’s a little doubtful.

"We can see them to apply them," he added.

The large decals have been applied in two areas where a lot of dead birds have been found: the Oldfather Hall links to Bessey Hall and Burnett Hall, and the Cather-Pound-Neihardt passageways.

The university also is looking at other areas where bird strikes have occurred to see whether the UV decals will work.

Decals would be impractical on places such as the east side of Memorial Stadium and Sheldon Art Gallery.

"It would be like putting a sticker on the State Capitol," he added.

Lighting may have to be examined in those buildings. Turning off lights or shielding them are possibilities.

Weidner said he also would like a small student study to find the most effective way to convince birds not to fly through glass. The university may examine its landscaping practices to see whether something needs to be done in that area to keep birds away, he said.

Ducey praised the university for its bird-protection efforts, calling it a great beginning.

"I think UNL has really stepped up and changed the whole dynamics and taken responsibility for what is occurring on this campus," he said.

Ducey doesn’t want the university to do anything that would ruin the architecture of its buildings. Neither does Harms.

"The Sheldon building and Memorial Stadium are sacred places in Nebraska. Not everything would work. We don’t want to reduce the importance of the decor of these buildings," he said.

Said Weidner: "The university is attempting to be a good place for humans and birds."

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