Guest column by Andy Jones (Cleveland Museum of Natural History) and Marnie Urso (Audubon Great Lakes)
Published on October 27, 2019

As we enjoy the beauty of fall in Ohio, bird migration is well underway in our state. Ohio is blessed as one of the best places to witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Warblers, shorebirds, hawks, and waterfowl are moving through our state in vast numbers, following age-old routes from northern nesting grounds to warmer winter hideaways. There are countless places to enjoy this phenomenon, from your own backyard, to the local park, and to our great state parks, national wildlife refuges, and national park sites.

But for thousands upon thousands of birds, their incredible journeys will be cut short here.

While the spectacular migration makes Ohio a wonderful place to see birds, our birds are in serious trouble. As Audubon’s recent report, “Survival by Degrees: 389 Species on the Brink,” has revealed, the future of birds is threatened by climate change and all the associated threats that it magnifies, while a new study in Science found that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

One of the most significant dangers birds face during migration is from building collisions. The numbers are staggering. Studies estimate that up to 988 million birds are killed by building collisions in the United States every year. For declining and rare species, the impact can be especially significant.

This isn’t solely a big problem for birds, or birdwatchers. Birds are big business in Ohio. It’s in our economic interest to do everything we can to sustain their populations.

Fortunately, we have the solutions at our fingertips that can dramatically reduce this ongoing tragedy. There are two issues to address collisions: lighting and glass. Studies have demonstrated that birds are drawn in by lighting during their nighttime migration, which throws off their navigation and attracts them into cities. Then, trapped and fatigued, and searching for appropriate habitats to rest and feed in, they fly into glass surfaces that are imperceptible to birds.

Our Lights Out Cleveland effort has been monitoring building collisions in the city for several years.

In 2018 alone, more than 3,000 birds were collected in downtown Cleveland that were either killed or stunned by collisions, including 311 white-throated sparrows, the most of any species, according to Cleveland Museum of Natural History records. You can still find these sparrows, known for their clear, sweet, whistled song, in your backyard this time of year. The blackpoll warbler was also one of the most numerous species collected.

These small songbirds fly over water nonstop from eastern Canada or northeastern United States all the way to northern South America in the fall and are already vulnerable due to habitat loss and a changing climate.

One-third of all the birds collected in Cleveland were rehabilitated and released, but the other two-thirds were fatal collisions.

So here’s what we need to do in Ohio:

First, cities and buildings should join the Lights Out programs in each of the larger cities across Ohio. To prepare for the fall migration, we recommend reducing or eliminating lighting from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31, from midnight until dawn.

Second, we need to advance practices and policies to make building facades more bird-safe. In addition to voluntary updates and state and local guidelines, Congress should advance the Bird-Safe Buildings Act. This legislation would show federal leadership to ensure our public buildings are bird-friendly, and inspire further action on sustainable buildings.

It is encouraging to see leadership from Ohio’s delegation on bird conservation and energy conservation. Sen. Rob Portman championed the Migratory Birds of the Americas Act, which provides grants for protecting key habitat across the flyways, and is leading the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, which would increase the energy efficiency of federal buildings.

Bird-safe practices and energy-efficient design go hand in hand, as design features that reduce the risk of bird collisions often make buildings more efficient, as well, whether it’s strategic reductions in glazed surfaces or adding small patterns or coating to glass that reduce solar-heat gain and cut down on cooling costs.

As the debate continues in Washington about sustainable public buildings, we hope our delegation will see this as an opportunity to advance bird-safe design to address one of the most significant yet preventable causes of bird mortality, and make Ohio and our country a better place for birds, and for people.

Andy Jones is the William A. and Nancy R. Klamm Chair and Curator of Ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History)
Marnie Urso is policy director of Audubon Great Lakes. (Luke Franke/Audubon)

Andy Jones is the William A. and Nancy R. Klamm Chair and Curator of Ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Marnie Urso is policy director of Audubon Great Lakes.

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Migrating birds need our help to avoid deadly building collisions: Andy Jones and Marnie Urso