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  • Writer's picturePayton Pan

Sparrows, Woodcocks, and the Worsening Avian Crisis

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

An injured American Woodcock flies around my body, soaring to a startling speed before crashing directly into the glass face before me.

Circling the streets of downtown Baltimore, the glass buildings above me stretch out in the first light of morning. I had driven down sometime around 5:30 a.m. to walk through the city with an organization by the name of “Lights Out Baltimore,” an environmental nonprofit fighting for the safety of migratory birds who pass through the area. I had recently learned that window strikes are one of the top causes of bird deaths, accounting for over a BILLION deaths each year in the United States alone, sometimes of extremely rare species. So why then don’t we see birds strewn all across the streets every day?

The most common fates of these birds after collision are either to be eaten by scavenging predators, or thrown away by maintenance workers. Dead birds are bad press. In fact, most companies with a glass building downtown have their janitorial staff do a sweep of the grounds each morning, before any crowds should arrive. This is why I had to get there so early in the morning: walk quickly or they’ll be gone by the time you get there.

I had agreed to walk with a volunteer from the LOB organization because I had recently gotten involved with an activist group pushing for legislation in Maryland to require future infostructure to be bird safe. This made much more sense during that morning’s walk. Glass buildings are like pure bird death traps. For those traveling during daytime, glass reflects the clouds, trees, and blue sky. Birds thinking to land in some nearby vegetation may instead be met with a cold hard concussion. And often death. This was the case for the four White-Throated Sparrows we saw on our walk, like the one below. They are small birds, and none of them survived the collision. We packaged them to send to the Smithsonian for research purposes. Roughly 60% of birds don’t survive collision, and most who do still suffer an injury.

A White-Throated Sparrow, and the thing that killed it.

And the birds migrating at night, which a lot of species do, have it even worse. Since these birds use the stars to guide them directionally, glass buildings at night with their lights on are a bird magnet. That’s why the organization is called “Lights Out Baltimore.” All they want is for buildings to turn their lights off at night. Doesn’t sound like much considering this would be financially beneficial and harmful to no one.

But let me end with some good news. We found four other birds as well, all American Woodcocks, a larger, rarer songbird. We were able to rescue every one, even the one refrenced in the first sentence. After hitting the glass once, it was still on the ground, but when we approached, it flew off startled. Straight into the glass. But after both collisions, amazingly, it recovered. All four woodcocks were sent to Phoenix Wildlife Center for rehabilitation, and within weeks, all were released again into the wild.

The rescue of an American Woodcock

Volunteers from LOB walk every morning during migration season, and can find up to 50 birds in a morning. But this isn’t where the real fight is. Saving a few birds here and there is a great cause, but the real change is made through legislation. So it is even better news that Howard County recently became one of the first counties in America to pass the legislation we are fighting for. Basically, any new, government funded building has to be constructed bird safe. This can include a variety of things, including less glass, or even ‘feather-friendly’ window dots. These applications can also be applied to your own home, if you experience bird collisions. We are trying to get this same legislation passed in all of Maryland.

I mean just think about it. Most Marylanders are in support of the conservation of these bird species. If these people are paying for government funded buildings through taxes, shouldn't the buildings be made bird safe? And it wouldn’t even cost money. Most projections show that through savings in energy (less windows = cheaper heat and a/c) and a cut in architectural costs, this proposal would save everyone money! Not to mention the other environmental benefits; Glass is notoriously damaging to the climate, for the same reason that it raises your energy bill. It just cant keep heat in. Or out. So lets take the necessary steps to protect our birds and our climate. And please, turn off your lights.

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