Birds, nature study, Spring, Urban

Birds and Buildings

03.08.09 | 3 Comments

dead birdPigeontoed by the Karma Police on Flickr.

It’s early spring and migrating season. In our yard we know this because the Robins arrived not long ago with their throaty chirping and the Cedar Waxwings were running ribbons of scree-song through the holly.

The arrival of spring can be a little bittersweet, too. If you live in the city, perhaps you might have noticed on early morning walks small songbirds, dead below tall buildings. Sometimes during flight, birds will meet fate head-on in a tall building. Even in the suburbs, it only takes a single glass window pane.

Ford stands tall above the small bird on the sidewalk. He pauses like a detective, looking around for clues. I help out, “He ran into the glass. It happens sometimes.” This was a hard strike, he guesses. Chas sheds immediate sympathy and wants to touch it but can’t bring himself to, instead mock-cradling the bird’s body with his hands– warm, solemn parentheses. “Mommy, it’s not fair that some birds get to fly.” The injustice bothers him, and he internalizes the scene for a moment before asking those eminent, daunting questions about his own mortality. He is fascinated, absorbed by the concept of death; maybe as uncomfortable with it as I am. Uneasily, I hasten towards a happy diversion of ice cream, even though it’s only nine in the morning.

Sometimes, when a bird hits a building, it is merely stunned or sustains superficial injuries from which is may recover. In these cases, birds bang into windows because they think they see another bird in their territory,  or because they are being chased by predators. In most other cases, they fly into windows because they don’t see the window during free flight, and the impact usually results in death. It is most common during spring and fall migration, but it can happen at any time of the year. So if you find a dead bird outside your window, or at the base of a building, you can bet it was a window strike that occurred during free flight.

What do you do when you find a fallen bird? What is the best thing to do?

Years ago, one might have bagged the dead bird and taken it home to sketch or to study more closely, maybe to enrich your home nature lab. Not anymore! Nowadays, finding a dead bird this way can actually help people who need the data because they are conducting research in your area. It can help city planners to become more aware of human threats to migrating wildlife. It can also become a donation to an educational facility. These days, the best thing one can do is report the bird.

If you suspect that the bird has hit a window, and is lying there on the sidewalk, don’t assume they are dead — they might be stunned.  I’ve been startled before to find a bird suddenly right itself from death and fly off in the other direction! Approach it slowly to investigate; there’s only one way to find out.

If the bird is dead, and you would like something good to come of the tragedy, here’s what to do:

You can donate the bird to an educational or research institution, ensuring that the bird did not die in vain! Go to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology article “So You Found a Dead Bird” and follow their guidelines explicitly.

If the bird is indeed alive and you would like to rescue it, you’ll have to be prepared:

(And, as a rule of caution, you’ll have to stay CLEAN afterwards. Be ready to soap up when you are finished.)

You’ll need:

  • a cardboard box large enough for the bird, not much larger (or else the bird will injure itself flapping around). Poke holes in it beforehand.
  • a large pillowcase
  • some masking tape to secure the box
  • your cell phone to contact a licensed rehabilitation professional

Here’s what to do:

  1. Eliminate distractions to keep the bird’s stress level as low as possible.
  2. Grab your cell phone and call a licensed wildlife rehabilitation professional in your area*. To find the nearest licensed wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife care center, call your local humane society, veterinarian, or Department of Fish & Wildlife office, Department of Natural Resources or whatever your state agency is called that deals with wildlife.
  3. Get the cardboard box or container ready.
  4. Slowly approach the bird and drop the pillowcase flat over the bird. Don’t chase the bird. Be patient.
  5. Scoop up the bird in the pillowcase and very gently place it, as a bundle, into the box.
  6. Tape the box, but make sure the bird can breathe.
  7. Place the box in a dark, warm area where there are no loud noises (no radio, not even NPR!) or drafts.
  8. Leave the bird alone until you deliver it to the rehabilitation expert. Stress kills!
  9. Deliver the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation professional or a veterinarian who is willing to accept the bird.
  10. If you want, you can ask the rehabilitation expert whether you can release the bird — if he is able to get well again. THAT would be a happy ending, wouldn’t it?

* If you live in New York City, and you find an injured bird AND you are willing and able to do so, take the bird to the Wild Bird Fund.

If the incident happened outside your home, and you don’t want any more birds to run into your windows, follow Wild Birds Unlimited’s advice:

With the exception of window feeding shelves, feeders and bird baths should be located a safe distance away from windows. If feeders are close to the window move them to within three feet so if the birds ‘flee’ the feeders, they have not built up much speed. Window screens are a great deterrent but are not practical for many picture windows. Decals, including cut-outs of raptors, and leaded glass decorations are only moderately successful. Vertical exterior tape stripes not more than 10 cm apart are a good deterrent. Interior vertical blinds with the slats half open will cut down on some casualties. Windows can be soaped to camouflage it. Shade trees planted outside the window should cut down on some of the reflection.

And if you want to learn more about how tall buildings, in general,  really affect birds, read a complete list of FAQ.

Not surprisingly, a higher percentage of window strikes occur within the city, especially in foggy conditions (i.e., many days in San Francisco), where birds seem to confuse lights in glass buildings with the stars above and fly toward them. If you live in an urban setting with many tall glass buildings, you may not often discover casualties before a predator or a routine morning cleaning crew has arrived on the scene. But if you wake up early and go peek, you might be astonished with what you find. In fact, last month, the San Francisco Audubon Society called out for volunteers to count dead birds at the base of skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco in order to conduct research on the relationship between glass buildings and birds. Pretty glass skyscrapers have a hidden cost, according to researchers. Plate glass is blamed for one billion bird deaths a year. One expert says a single skyscraper can kill 200 birds in a day:

Although cell phone towers, oil spills and power lines raise the ire of conservation groups, those hazards pale in comparison to glass..Only habitat destruction kills more birds. When glass is clear, birds see only what’s on the other side; when it is reflective, birds see only reflected sky and trees. –Muhlenburg College biology professor Daniel Klem Jr.


Buildings and birds will always remain a part of the urban experience, but people who think are capable of improving the relationship over time. Here are a couple of final, hopeful links:

NYC Audubon Society’s Project Safe Flight improves our understanding of the causes behind urban bird collisions, and studies ways to prevent bird collisions from occurring. Each migration season a scientific study is conducted involving multiple variables and field research.

NYC Audubon Society’s Bird-Safe Glass Working Group promotes the development and use of a new type of glass that will be transparent to people but visible to birds.


Cyndi (aka Ladybug Zen) over at Collecting Leaves and Other Experiences, says:

“are you still taking comments here? great stuff on birds and buildings. loved it.”

Thanks! Hey, we’re working through the commenting glitch. Stay tuned….  🙂

add to kirtsy


speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.
Subscribe to these comments.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>