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

Up to a billion birds are killed each year by colliding with windows. But this isn’t a LEED-certified problem, it is a universal building problem.

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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

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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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