09 November 2008

Windows are Clear Danger for Migratory Birds

By Maggie O'Brien, Omaha World-Herald Staff Writer
Sunday World-Herald 144(6): 1B-2B. November 9, 2008

An Omaha bird enthusiast thinks federal wildlife officials should be doing more to require businesses to take steps to prevent migratory birds from flying into their buildings and dying.

Jim Ducey, who tracks bird deaths in downtown Omaha, says that since May at least 360 birds have died after hitting tall buildings. He said the glass windows in modern building designs are pretty to look at but deadly for birds.

"The problem is, the people who put up a building with glass make it look really cool, but they don't pay attention to birds," said Ducey, whose hobbies are birds, nature and conservation matters.

The deaths are unfortunate, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say.

But compared with the thousands of birds that die yearly from encounters with utility lines and other hazards, 300-plus is not a large number, they said.

Still, migratory birds are protected under federal law by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which says they cannot be harmed or killed, even unintentionally.

Under that law, businesses, once notified that birds are flying into their buildings, could be fined up to $15,000 per bird if they don't take steps to prevent the deaths. Federal wildlife officials said they contact the businesses, notify them of the deaths, and offer suggestions to prevent further harm.

No fines have been levied in Nebraska because of birds hitting buildings, said Mark Webb, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Lincoln office.

Fines have been imposed on some utilities and road construction crews that ignored the agency's recommendations for protecting birds, Webb said.

Robert Harms, a biologist with the wildlife service in Grand Island, said bird deaths have increased with the number of buildings.

Migratory birds, many of which follow the path of the Missouri River every spring and fall, get too close to Omaha buildings.

When the glass is clear, birds see only what's on the other side. When it is reflective, birds see reflected sky and trees. Both types trick them into flying directly into the glass, Harms said, killing most instantly - and leaving a mess.

"Is it a violation when the bird flies into a building?" Webb asked. "Yes. It's sad that we're losing birds from flying into buildings, but where do you draw the line? We haven't reached it yet."

Some companies may be reluctant to spend money on netting, decals or other measures that could help save birds, Webb said, but "businesses are going to be ahead in terms of money if they just comply with the law. As long as building owners are willing to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, they won't get fined."

All bird species are vulnerable to flying into buildings. But according to Ducey's count, purple martins, common yellowthroats and Nashville warblers are among the most common locally.

Last month, the Nebraska Medical Center draped temporary coverings across a skywalk near 44th and Farnam Streets to protect a large nest of purple martins that had roosted in about a dozen nearby trees.

The idea was, the birds would see the covering, instead of reflections, and avoid the glass. At least 15 purple martins died before hospital crews put up the coverings; afterward, none did.

Paul Baltes, a medical center spokesman, said the purple martins now have left the area, continuing on their journey south for the winter. With no other problems, the coverings have been taken down, he said.

Daniel Klem Jr., a professor of biology and ornithology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., recommends netting. He said some skyscrapers in New York are draped with netting to protect birds.

Decals are another option, Klem said. Such decals might be shaped like butterflies, for instance. Birds will avoid glass if they think other creatures are there.

"(The decals) have to be numerous, and spaced properly to effectively eliminate strikes," Klem said. "The more decals, the more lives saved."

The Qwest Center Omaha is looking into using ultrasonic waves, something like invisible fencing that keeps dogs from leaving a yard, to discourage birds from approaching the building. The system, although expensive, would make sure the birds - and the building's aesthetics - are protected, said Roger Dixon, president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority.

Unfortunately, said Dixon - who is working with federal wildlife officials - the Qwest Center's budget lacks the money to pay for ultrasonic waves, but he hopes to find room in next year's budget.

"We didn't build in the path of birds to do harm," he said. "This has made us aware that birds are being unintentionally taken."

Harms and Webb said most building owners want to protect birds.

"It's a totally new thing. . . . They've never had to think about it before, while me, as a biologist, I think about them all the time," Harms said. "We just want people to try and people to work with us. People in Omaha care about wildlife."

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