U participates in bird collision study

The Twin Cities’ position along the Mississippi River made it a prime location.

Allison Wickler

While many people see or hear birds collide into their homes, city buildings may be an even larger factor in the injury and death of birds migrating through the Twin Cities.

Project BirdSafe, an effort between the University, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other wildlife groups, will enlist student volunteers to collect downed birds on the West Bank to investigate the influence of man-made structures on bird deaths, said professor of ecology, evolution and behavior Bob Zink.

Organizers plan to use the findings to change the design of large structures in order to protect flying birds.

Project coordinator Joanna Eckles said area residents will also collect birds in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Dead birds will receive autopsies at the University, while live birds will be rehabilitated.

Eckles said after she heard about similar studies in Toronto and other cities, she found no one was investigating the issue in Minneapolis, which is along a major migratory route – the Mississippi River.

Zink, the Breckenridge Chairman of Ornithology at the Bell Museum of Natural History, said the study will research the number of each species killed, if bird age or gender is a factor in collisions and what percentage of all bird deaths is caused by buildings.

There are plenty of variables in this type of research, Zink said, from building size to location, which makes it difficult to determine how many birds actually die.

In addition to research, Eckles said project officials asked city building managers to turn off architectural lighting, including floodlights and spotlights, from midnight to sunrise during spring and fall migration as part of a “Lights Out” initiative.

Bright lights confuse night migrants when bad weather forces them to fly lower, Zink said, causing them to circle the lights and fly into buildings. They can also collapse from exhaustion from flying around the buildings nonstop.

During the day, trees and other surroundings reflected in glass buildings and windows also create confusion, he said.

Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Program started monitoring bird and building collisions in 1993.

Michael Mesure, the program’s executive director, said its studies showed that as buildings reduced lighting over a five-year period, there was a coinciding reduction in bird deaths.

Mesure said building collisions could push some sparse bird populations over the threshold to extinction, but sometimes architects are reluctant to alter the aesthetics of buildings.

Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota, said Audubon focuses mostly on promoting the Lights Out portion of the project, but addressing reflective glass will be the next and more difficult step.

“A valid question is, ‘Can you show us it’s a problem before we start modifying our behaviors?’ ” he said.

However, once building owners learned of the issue, the Lights Out measures were easy to support, said Kent Warden, executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Building Owners and Managers Association.

“It came as news to most of us that there was even an issue there,” Warden said.

He said turning out lights will also contribute to green energy practices, so it fulfills a dual purpose.

Carrol Henderson, the Minnesota DNR nongame wildlife program supervisor, said there aren’t concrete numbers of bird deaths, but measures in other cities showed that Lights Out won’t affect public safety because it doesn’t change street-level lighting.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel Ö before we can make some recommendations,” he said.

Eckles said she hopes to conduct studies each migration season and get architects and city planners to think more about bird-safe designs.

“Why bother doing all this unless it goes somewhere or teaches you something?” she said.