Death From Above: Lawmaker Envisions Bird-Safe Buildings in New York City

Death litters the base of the sky-mirroring Time Warner Center. Dozens of badly damaged songbirds bash into its panes and disappear when they meet Charlie Alamo's broom and dustbin.

"I've seen a lot of dead birds here," he told Newsweek last year.

Collecting chirpless birds has become part of the 43-year-old maintenance worker's routine at the Columbus Circle high-rise.

"Some of the birds just have the head left," he said while pointing toward the peregrine falcons nested above. Alamo's seen them routinely mutilate songbirds as snacks while also controlling the block's pigeon and squirrel populations.

Summer mornings must prove deceptive for the warblers and woodcocks here, because that's when Alamo says he collects most of the downed prey.

"I love birds," he said. "It's heartbreaking to see that."

Nearby, a Time Warner Center security guard, who requested anonymity, claimed the glass canopy sheltering the revolving door egress piles up with raining carcasses.

"They're little birds and there are a bunch of them that end up there during the summer," the uniformed worker said, peering upward. "Luckily, I'm not the one that has to clean them up."

Over the years the 749-foot tall, twin-towered sliver joined fellow New York City sky slayers to reportedly down hundreds of thousands of songbirds to a silent death.

Building A Bird-Safe NYC

At a stoplight on Tenth Avenue during a sunny afternoon drive, New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick winced at the laser glare off the looming Hudson Yards construction site.

That blinding moment compelled Glick to stop the proliferation bird-killing glass buildings. "We're seeing too many glass towers that seem to be the main focus of architects," she said.

Glick, who represents some bird-collision hot spots in both Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, last year introduced a bill that called for every building construction project in New York City to establish "bird collision deterrent safety measures" and use "bird-safe building materials and design features."

Its measures call for premium materials such as ultraviolet treated or fritted glass (the near-invisible porcelain ball patterns that birds can detect) when applied from the ground level to 50 feet high, where most collisions occur. Screens or netting are other makeshift ways to cut down on "one of the largest threats to bird populations in New York City."

"The reality is birds are dying," Glick said. "Bats are dying. Bees are dying. People are becoming aware of these things -- especially young people and the future is going to be in humans making things that are less damaging to the natural world."

Indeed, New York City's skyline contributed a substantial number of bird mortalities.

"We think that between 90,000 and 230,000 is approximately the number of birds that collide with buildings every year," New York City Audubon conservation biologist Kaitlyn Parkins said.

bird-collision deaths
Reflective glass facade building where trees and blue sky can deceive foraging birds into fatally mistaking it for the real thing.  Dr. Daniel Klem Jr.

Parkins co-wrote a 2015 paper and analyzed the Audubon's data between 1997 to 2009, tallying total deaths that "could be as high 243,000 per year." Based on field evidence, such as performing infrequent persistent studies, a whopping 63 percent of all birds suffering injury or death from building collisions in the city "were not reported."

Once introduced, Glick's feather-friendly bill gained sponsors, but failed to pass.

On Jan. 9, the unflappable legislator reintroduced the bird-saving bill.

"I think my experience has been 'you sometimes have to pass bills several times before they're taken up,'" Glick told Newsweek days before Bill A00705 was posited.

On her second try, Glick believes the country's biggest city will do the right thing and own up to its environmental hazards.

"We are destroying not just the environment, but we are putting ourselves in danger because we do not have an inherent value in nature," she said. "And many other creatures play a much more crucial role in protecting the planet than we do."

The bill still demands that any building that undergoes construction or reconstruction work "shall be designed to comply with bird collision deterrent safety measures."

That includes incorporating glass that is essentially bird-splat proof and approved by the division of migratory bird management in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We would like to require the city of New York to have bird deterrence and bird-safe glass in all new constructions and major renovated buildings," she said.

Not Flying Solo

Glick isn't alone.

State Assembly Member Steve Englebright, who reps Suffolk County on Long Island and chairs the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, last January re-introduced the "bird-friendly building council act."

Unlike Glick's bill, there was no binding ultimatum forcing the city's building projects to adopt bird-friendly measures.

Instead, Englebright's bill proposed an 11-15 member "Bird-friendly building council" to establish rules and criteria to "reduce or eliminate bird mortality from building collisions. After the council conferred, recommendations would be sent to the governor, the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the assembly "for their consideration of being codified in state law."

Englebright attempted to get the bill passed three previous times without success, an aid confirmed.

Even as the fourth try to pass his bill petered, Englebright praised Glick's resolve.

Glick's bill set a high bar that Englebright believes would prevent "needless mortality to migratory birds" and aim to repair the city's abundance of glass buildings, which he also charges have brewed "a bird-glass collision nightmare."

bird-collision deaths
Deceptive patio door in rural Pennsylvania with indoor planter duped a sparrow that bashed into it. Peter G. Saenger

In 2017, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, along with House Representatives Mike Quigley and Morgan Griffith, tried pushing forward the Federal Bird-Safe Buildings Act which sought to modernize the nation's federal buildings to become more bird-friendly by integrating "patterned glass that contains UV-reflective or contrasting patterns that are visible to birds."

In an email, Booker's press secretary informed Newsweek that the bill would be reintroduced in the "new session of Congress" but the timetable was still being worked out.

And while Glick's bill is the first of its kind for New York, it is following cities that passed bird-friendly building legislation like San Francisco, Highland Park, Illinois, and Toronto, Canada, among others.

To pass, Glick will need to prove bird collision deaths are deserving of legislators' consideration amongst urban crises like affordable housing and homelessness.

When questioned about Glick's submitting her bird bill again, City Councilman Eric Ulrich suggested New York is already "over-regulated and over-burdened."

"Instead of raising the cost of construction, we ought to be making it easier and more affordable for people to live in their homes and stay in the city," he said in a statement.

Councilman Robert Holden sees some promise in Glick's effort. While he's "not opposed" to it outright, in a statement he too wondered how it would achieve its tall objectives.

"I'm not opposed to taking measures to protect birds and building residents from collisions, given that New York City is a region with significant bird migration paths," Holden argued. "This bill is a start, but it seems too vague and does not take into consideration the added costs for property owners and further strain on regulatory agencies to enforce it."

Should it pass, potentially bird lethal buildings could be forced to get a facade fix.

In fact, Glick expects retrofitting such properties must occur to prevent more mortalities. "I do think that major retrofits would be included," she said. "So if there's a major renovation for some of these older buildings they would likewise be required to consider this as part of their renovation cost. It seems like a reasonable thing to do."

Looking backward may prove most critical.

Michael Mesure, Executive Director of Toronto's FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program), a non-profit that trailblazed the city's bird safety laws since the early aughts, emphasized how existing buildings are the biggest offenders.

"The vast majority of birds are dying at existing buildings," Mesure said. "It is therefore essential that any ordinance or bill that is designed to address the bird-building collision issue include mandatory requirements for retrofits. Limiting these requirements to new construction acts as nothing more than a Band-Aid."

If politicians are tepid, Glick expects the construction sector to bristle.

"The building trade never likes anything unless it's a subsidy for more buildings. I get it," she said.

Brian Sampson, president of the Empire State Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, which works on behalf of over 400 construction and contracting firms throughout New York State, said he's actually a bird fan.

It's just that saving them from deadly building crashes with a new law is "unnecessary" and "pretty far down the list" compared to other big cost-drivers affecting construction such as the dusty scaffolding laws, the calculation of prevailing wages, and even recreational marijuana legalization that has been floated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a possible law that he said could endanger pot-free hardhats working alongside legal users.

Plus, Sampson contends that bird-friendly glass costs more (though Glick said the comparable glass and other bird-safe materials are "cost neutral.")

So far, Sampson isn't convinced.

"Ultimately the person trying to buy a house or a condo or affordable housing unit is going to be paying more because a member of the legislature made a decision to introduce a bill that pits human beings versus birds," he said.

bird-collision deaths
Silhouette of a fallen bird carcass from a collision and captured by Photographer Francois Portman who shadowed New York City Audubon's Project Safe Flight at the ritzy Time Warner Center in Midtown Manhattan. ©Francois Portmann / fotoportmann.com

From Eyesore To Eden

Buildings have gone into rehab before.

Take the state-owned Jacob K. Javits Center.

Between 2009 and 2014, Bruce Fowle, architect and founding principal of the firm FXCollaborative, transformed dingy convention spot from being a bird-deathtrap to a bird, bee and bat sanctuary.

Fowle conceded that when it comes to pairing conservation and construction, there is a "fear factor" at play.

"The main concern for the development community is first they need to be educated to understand that this is not going to break their bank," he recalled.

He points to the success of Javits as a cost-conscious example that worked.

Six thousand glass panels were replaced with ones made from "a very sophisticated coating" which contain an energy-efficient, 8-inch porcelain dot-fritting pattern.

This material, commonly used on car windshields to provide shade, has proven effective in warding away birds and lowering energy costs.

Since reflectivity dropped from 35 percent to 8 percent Javits Center President and CEO Alan Steel confirmed "bird collisions have decreased more than 90 percent."

Fowle said collision-proofing glass costs are "probably under a dollar" more per square foot compared to untreated glass. "I wouldn't have been able to get away with it if they did cost more because the state probably would not have paid extra for bird mitigation," he said.

Architect and falconer Allan Shope has for over 15 years installed collision-proof glass into two of his upstate New York homes.

He sees a movement gaining traction to "design buildings that are environmentally benign" when it comes to energy, kindness to animals and aesthetics.

While choice is more abundant, Shope estimates there may "not even be 100 residences in the U.S." who opt to use collision-proof glass because it costs time to procure and is "about 50 percent" more expensive.

As for a bird-collision building law -- that seems too onerous.

"I'm not in favor of legislation that blindly mandates something that's going to create an undo hardship on people," he said.

To Soar Again Or Sing No More

Not every collision means a bird becoming a corpse.

And when fallen birds do survive a blow, its folks like Time Warner Center's Charlie Alamo with gloved hands who cradle them and then call on a volunteer group to try to rehabilitate them.

Ruth Hart is a New York State licensed wildlife rehabilitator who volunteers on weekends with the Wild Bird Fund, a non-profit care center which is the only wildlife rehabilitation and education center in New York City.

Since 2012, the facility has treated and released mended birds and also finds sanctuary for those considered "non-releasable" like domestic ducks and chickens.

In 2018 alone, she and the staff treated almost 7,000 birds.

Sometimes there's a happy ending and hurt birds return to the skies. Other times, when the patient's injuries are too severe, they don't survive.

"It's touch and go," Hart said about window-strike patients. "I can think of four or five [birds] that I was examining and they looked fine. But when I checked the records the next day, they didn't make it."

Other birds she said "looked terrible and I didn't think were going to make it -- and actually did.

"They survived and were released."

Hart explained there was only so much that can be diagnosed during exams. Intracranial hemorrhaging or brain swelling are both hard to identify with the care center's limited tools.

But some of the injuries just require rest and recuperation.

"Window and building collisions cause concussions, not all concussions are lethal," she added.

She notes plenty of patients get released and with their wings akimbo, take flight.

"Releasing a bird back into the wild, one that would have died without our intervention is a magical experience," said Hart. "Saving their lives, helps make the fact that these animals were injured as a direct cause of human activity, a little less sad."

Beyond head trauma, some of the most severe maladies of colliding birds include fractures and also hypothermia because they fall victim to the elements while lying on the cold concrete.

It's instances when there is no other recourse and untreatable birds become unreleasable.

Lowering the curtains is handled delicately.

"We have a very gentle drug formula that makes them high, so they feel really good and get super stoned and drift off peacefully," said Hart.

bird-collision deaths
Photographer Francois Portman with New York City Audubon's Project Safe Flight captures bird mortalities at the ritzy Time Warner Center in Midtown Manhattan. ©Francois Portmann / fotoportmann.com

Bird Friendly or Feudal Skies?

Wild birds are already federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (2018 marked its centennial anniversary), and over time it has slowly expanded to offset the accidental and unnecessary deaths of all sorts of avian species.

However, the SECURE American Energy Act (introduced by Congressman Steve Scalise) was proposed and passed out of the Natural Resources committee in November 2017 before it died in the 115th Congress.

Its language boasted tapping energy sources and expanding jobs, but it also would have neutered some long-standing bird safeguards and immunized energy companies from any violation of harming certain protected species.

New York City is a major draw for migrating birds. The five boroughs, and particularly Manhattan, lie within the path of the Atlantic flyway. By the time they reach town for a pitstop, the wild birds are exhausted from flying hundreds of miles (some from as far away as South America) between wintering and breeding.

While they migrate all year long, experts peg peak migration to occur during the late spring and fall months.

The fortunate birds who flap their way to Central Park can flourish.

Though, they're vulnerable, especially in the daytime when most casualties occur.

It's the waking hours when birds are often distracted while foraging for food and dart straight into a window pane that is mirroring trees, bushes or water.

Unlike savvy local pigeons and gulls, these New York City "tourists" frequently cause smashups at The Time Warner Center and legacy mainstays like The Metropolitan Museum of Art or Bellevue Hospital. Newsweek's messages to Time Warner Center reps were not immediately returned and a Met rep declined to comment.

A Bellevue spokeswoman would only say that bird-collision safety "is not an issue" for the hospital and defended its record as complying "with the law."

It's not only glass but the dooming night light.

If birds eek out the day, some still get lured in by the city's nocturnal blinding light pollution from high-wattage signage and building facades (despite the Lights Out New York campaign where numerous buildings -- the Time Warner Center included -- voluntarily go dim or dark).

"The area of Manhattan is very risky," said Dr. Susan Elbin, New York City Audubon's Director of Conservation and Science. "The island is surrounded by a lot of water and lots of birds are flying along the water. And there's a lot of artificial light. Birds are attracted to light."

A textbook version of this played out last year when a Canada Goose took a spill that was caught on television. The bird was seen attempting to scram the Detroit Tigers contest, but instead clunked into a hypnotically blue lit scoreboard.

Raising awareness is key and takes various forms. Perhaps no more random than the "Safe Flight" IPA beer from Brooklyn-based Kings County Brewers Collective. Some proceeds from the purchased suds are funneled to protect migratory birds.

Lower Is More Lethal

In terms of kill zone, the higher up a bird flies the safer it generally is.

Elbin added that "although we have documented some collisions at higher windows, collisions happen, for the most part, within the first four stories."

bird-collision deaths
A deceptive window teasing reflecting leafless trees and bushes -- making it too easy for birds to mistake it for the real thing. Peter G. Saenger

Muhlenberg College ornithologist Peter Saenger admits that skyscrapers are established culprits, but echoes Elbin: it's the smaller structures that rise no more than four stories that are the most lethal.

"When birds are migrating and move to locations they're cruising," he said. "It's when they lower down on the ground level to feed in vegetation that they hit glass."

Saenger has been working over the last decade to better determine the risk of winged creatures venturing into cities.

Urban landings have proven especially trying for the White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Ovenbird, and Song Sparrow-- some of the species known for becoming tragic glass strike victims.

"These songbirds spread out because when migrating their food source is spread out. And they don't fly in a flock because they would compete with each other for all the bugs in a particular tree," said Dr. Christine Sheppard, of the American Bird Conservancy.

A team of scientists at the federal Fish and Wildlife Service issued a 2016 report which tallied 365 million to almost 1 billion birds died nationwide by glass collisions.

That number has history.

bird-collision deaths
Dr. Daniel Klem Jr. published his doctoral dissertation in the 1979 which estimated between 100 million (the equivalent of 333 Exxon Valdez oil spills “annually”) and one billion birds collide with glass every year. Dr. Daniel Klem Jr.

Saenger, who is also president of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, works under Dr. Daniel Klem, Jr. -- a pioneering scientist who has been banging on the bushes about human-made structures winging birds since he published his doctoral dissertation on the subject back in 1979.

In it, Klem came up with the "conservative" stat that "100 million to 1 billion birds" die when they collide with glass. That's equal to the eradication of 200 of the top cities' populations.

Saenger co-published a 2009 study on "bird-glass collisions" with Klem and three other colleagues using Manhattan as its laboratory.

Of the 73 sites studied from 2006 to 2007, they evaluated locations plotted from the southern tip of the island all the way to the Upper East Side. Over time, hundreds of birds collided into glass; and almost all of them were confirmed kills.

bird-collision deaths
A brown creeper lying dead on cold concrete in Chicago, Illinois after a window strike. Dr. Daniel Klem Jr.

"Most of the ones we found were dead or dying," said Saenger.

Of the glassless structures -- there were only 7 bird fatalities, the study found.

What does it mean?

That birds in New York City are severely prone to dying from collisions into glass pane structures.

Scott Loss, a professor at Oklahoma State University's National Resource Ecology and Management, reached critical findings accusing both "skyscrapers and low-rise buildings" leading the way to "relatively high amounts of mortality during non-migratory periods," according to a study he conducted back in 2014.

What's more, Loss's work leaned on Klem's, but also brought "conservative" estimate up from 100 million to 365 million U.S. bird-window collisions.

That's an average of a minimum one 1 million bird deaths each day.

It proves that stationary buildings leading to the countless bird collisions are almost as detrimental to the death carried out at the claws of roaming cats.

"This magnitude of mortality would place buildings behind only free-ranging domestic cats among sources of direct human-caused mortality of birds," wrote Loss.

As Glick's bill seeks sponsors -- and maybe a vote -- she's hopes legislators will recognize that these winged creatures deserve to be protected from avoidable splats.

After all, their value is often unseen, and somewhat unsavory. Experts estimate that birds annually clear the earth of pests by wolfing down around 550 million tons of insects.

"Birds are pollinators and insectivores," said Glick. "They're part of the chain of life. And so their massive deaths are not good for us."

Saenger put it bluntly: "Each bird we kill, is one less eating the pests that threaten our food sources and without food, we all die."

Death From Above: Lawmaker Envisions Bird-Safe Buildings in New York City | U.S.