Fast Company

Buildings Kill A Billion Birds A Year; Its Time To Stop This Carnage

It's James Audubon's 226th birthday, a good day to think about birds and green buildings. According to the Audubon Society, up to a billion birds are killed each year by colliding with windows, the second biggest threat after habitat loss, and a whole lot more than wind turbines. If you read Sheryl DeVore's article in the Chicago Tribune, you would think that LEED certified buildings are particularly lethal for birds. She writes about Chicago's new LEED Platinum FBI Headquarters, which brought in Annette Prince of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors to help reduce bird deaths at the building. DeVore writes:

The FBI building isn't the only LEED-certified structure to cause problems for migratory birds. Some of the more than 33,000 certified LEED buildings in the United States use glass to bring in natural light and save on energy. All that glass can confuse birds. "A building that kills birds is not a leader in energy and environmental design," said Prince.

And a building that is covered in glass is not necessarily LEED certified. In fact, glass is the de facto standard skin for every crappy energy-sucking environmental disaster of a building in North America. This isn't a LEED problem, it is a universal building problem.

Chicago, New York and Toronto all have guidelines for reducing bird kills, ranging from the basic and obvious (turn out the lights at night) to more sophisticated ones, such as using fritted glass (glass with ceramic dots or patterns baked on). Since fritted glass significantly reduces solar gain, saving lots of energy, it tends to be used more in LEED certified buildings. Julie Leibach writes in Audubon Magazine:

"It's what we call a win-win-win situation: The planet wins, the birds win, and your bottom line wins," says Fred Charbonneau, a leader of Detroit Audubon's lights out program, Safe Passage Great Lakes. "There's no downside." As for glass, fritted patterns can block out rays of sun, thereby cutting down on cooling costs, as in the case of the science center at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. The college installed fritted glass into the center, a notorious bird killer, four years ago. The project cost $20,000 but has saved the college about $48,000 in cooling fees since then. "That's really what good, sustainable, integrated design is--solving multiple problems with single solutions," says Hillary Brown, author of "Bird-Safe Building Guidelines" and a principal architect at New Civic Works, an architectural firm focused on environmentally friendly building design.

I suspect that Ms. Devore and Blair Kamin (who titled his Cityscapes post Are LEED buildings killing birds? have it backwards, and that LEED certified buildings kill a lot fewer birds than unrated buildings. If you look at the City of Toronto's guidelines for bird friendly buildings, they involve control of light and other features that are found on green buildings. They may have a problem at the FBI (atria with greenery are a recognized issue) but she paints with a pretty broad brush.

Fatal Light

Much more balanced and sensible is Ed Wilkinson-Latham's article Fatal Light in the Toronto Standard. He accompanies members of the Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP (warning: site is useless in Chrome),  as they look for injured birds at the Toronto-Dominion Centre. FLAP Founder Dave Mesure describes the problem:

The tenants needs to be aware that there are two issues here," Mesure says. "Lights being left on at night, and the reflective surfaces during the day. They're addressing the nighttime strikes, but more bird deaths actually occur during the day. Tenants need to go to their management and demand some solutions to these day time strikes." Statistics show that trees in the financial core often stand between 12 and 16 metres high. By applying visual markers -- adhesive decals at that height above ground level -- these collisions could be avoided. Many owners resist, however, claiming such markers mar their buildings' original design. Mesure's job is to convince owners there are safety precautions that are both financially and aesthetically appealing.

Some buildings are such bird killers that activists are taking their owners to court; Eco Justice and Ontario Nature are suing Menkes Developments, the owners of a big glassy spec office building in the East end of Toronto where over 7,000 birds have died in the last decade. In a press release, Ontario nature explains why:

"Not only are these deaths preventable, we allege that they are violations of the law," said Ecojustice lawyer Albert Koehl "There are numerous ways to make these building safer for birds. We hope that a successful prosecution will send an appropriate message to other building owners, including downtown building owners, that action must be taken to avoid this unnecessary tragedy."

Really, just as all of these 1984 vintage glass buildings need to have energy retrofits, perhaps it is time to demand bird retrofits as well. And how hard is it to just turn out the lights?

More in the Toronto Standard

[Image Credits: Magnus Bråth Creative Commons, City of Toronto Bird Friendly Development Guidelines PDF, City of Toronto Bird Friendly Development Guidelines PDF, credit Vince Pietropaolo]

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