09 February 2009

Birdstrikes at Newspaper Building in New York a Historic First

Rendition of the New York Tribune building in 1877.

When the New York Tribune built a new sky-scraping office building in 1875, it became an architectural wonder to behold. It was originally nine stories in height, topped with a dramatic cupola. Large glass windows are shown throughout in classic imagery of the structure.

At the time, the building was described as "the highest building on Manhattan Island" and was located on Park Row, across from trees and urban landscaping. History also relates that it was the "first building in New York to surpass in height the 284-foot spire of Trinity Church."

The structure has another claim to fame of a different sort as a result of a short article published by a bird watcher.

Ernest Ingersoll was a preeminent American naturalist, and after going west in 1874 on with F.V. Hayden, on a government-sponsored expedition, described in "Knocking 'round the Rockies." He wrote various bird-related stories, including some about the autumnal migration of birds for the Christian Union, and a several, just in 1875, for the fledgling outdoor's journal Forest and Stream, for which he was natural history editor at the time. He was instrumental, along with Franklin Benner, in setting up a meeting in March 1878, that led to establishing the Linnaean Society of New York, and was the organizations first recording secretary. Starting in 1880, he wrote a number of books, the first about the nests and eggs of North American birds.

It is one of the latter items which has some bird-related details pertinent for the newspaper building. In a November 1875 issue, there was a brief note about several species which during the New York nights - around midnight - flew in at the upper windows of the Tribune offices during the previous month, October.

Species noted were: pine-creeping warbler, dark-eyed junco, green black-capped flycatching warbler or Wilson's Warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet, golden-crowned kinglet, white-eyed vireo and two instances of the white-throated bunting, better known now as the White-throated Sparrow. There were no details on the fate of the birds, whether they were captured alive and released, or identified once dead.

This is the first known detailed report in the historic literature for ornithology that indicates an occurrence of bird interaction with a building. There undoubtedly were earlier instances of birds being impacted by buildings in New York, as well as other large eastern U.S. cities with tall buildings, but the information was apparently not written up and sent in to get published in any of the other natural history serials of the era.

Here is a brief account from Rochester, New York, with particular details on birds being killed by striking glass windows.

"Birds And Windows. The library building of the Rochester University — across the street from us — has very clear windows opposite one another, and during the year, especially in the spring and autumn, many birds are killed by flying against them. The greater part are found on the north side. Most of the birds are small; but lately two Robins and one Golden-winged Woodpecker were found among them. Curiously enough there are no English Sparrows among the slain, they probably being sufficiently acquainted with windows to avoid them. — Frederic A. Lucas, Rochester, N. Y."
April 1881. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 6(2): 125.
"I believe that every person should regard himself as a trustee of nature for the benefit of his fellows and posterity; and that the wanton destruction of animal life is a sin against nature, against heaven and against humanity. I believe that the man or woman who commits that sin should be looked upon with such stern disfavor as that which society metes out to those who transgress the laws of the land." - text from a lecture by Ernest Ingersoll, circa 1888

Burroughs Notes Bird Strike at Washington D.C. in 1860s

The famed John Burroughs adds another bit of historic lore to the first records of bird strikes. During his years at Washington D.C. from 1863 to 1868, he was an avid bird-watcher, and devoted an entire chapter on this topic in his book, The Writings of John Burroughs."

The chapter "Spring at the Capital - With an Eye to the Birds" has particular detail of interest:

"The occupants of one of the offices in the west wing of the Treasury one day had their attention attracted by some object striking violently against one of the window-panes. Looking up, they beheld a crow blackbird pausing in midair, a few feet from the window. On the broad stone window-sill lay the quivering form of a purple finch. The little tragedy was easily read. The blackbird had pursued the finch with such murderous violence that the latter, in its desperate efforts to escape, had sought refuge in the Treasury. The force of the concussion against the heavy plateglass of the window had killed the poor thing instantly. The pursuer, no doubt astonished at the sudden and novel termination of the career of its victim, hovered for a moment, as if to be sure of what had happened, and made off."

This recollection certainly adds a distinct view to the history on this topic.

Birds and Windows. Reading in the April Bulletin to note by Mr. Lucas on "Birds and Windows" brings to mind that when in business in Hartford, Conn., in 1871 and 1872, I found in the spring the following birds that had been killed by flying against the Charter Oak Life Ins. Co.'s building - a very high building with "the windows opposite one another." Myiodioctes canadensis, Geothlypis trichas, Icterus baltimore, Chaetura pelasgia, Trochilus colubris (6 specimens). - John H. Sage, Portland, Conn.

1881. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 6(3): 188.
"Birds and Plate-Glass. I fancy that the introduction of plate-glass into our windows must have been very fatal to the birds. Since my residence here many birds of many kinds have come to a sudden and untimely death by a flight against the glass. At first this destruction was quite distressing, but I am happy to say that each year it is becoming less. I suppose that they (the survivors) have gained experience. Plate-glass alone could have withstood the impetus with which some have met their fate, coming with a bang against the pane, like the report of a pistol. Amongst the victims I may mention a few: a sparrowhawk, two partridges (which being in season did not grieve me much), a misletoe and many common thrushes, chaffinches, two nightingales, and many other species; and a few days ago, during a severe frost, and in the dusk of the evening, seeking shelter from the cold, a golden-crested wren flew against the window, but was fortunately only stunned : I brought it in, and, before it had quite recovered, placed it in a small covered Japan basket upon a bed of rose-leaves. It never moved, and, fearing it might be dead, I carried the basket across the room some hours afterwards, and though the cover was removed in the full glare of the light the beautiful thing was not disturbed : it was asleep, and one round ball of feathers, the bead and neck invisible. Upon coming into the room next morning I found it all alive and well, and gave it its liberty. Birds when asleep must fall an easy prey to their enemies; they are very deaf, and, except some (which sleep, as they say Bristolians do, with one eye open), blind to approaching danger. — W. C. Hewitson; Oatlands, February 22, 1864."
1864. Zoologist 22, page 9019. This journal was published at London.

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