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Northwestern takes action to make buildings bird friendly

A small brown bird on a branch with green leaves
Tennessee Warbler. Photo by Owen Deutsch.

EVANSTON - Working with the local community and experts from American Bird Conservancy, Northwestern University is using state-of-the-art solutions to keep birds from dying in collisions with glass walls and windows.

The measures put Northwestern in the vanguard of a growing movement among U.S. colleges and universities to implement practical, effective and cost-efficient strategies to reduce bird strikes, which kill up to 1 billion birds a year in the United States alone.

Unlike humans, birds do not understand the concept of glass as a transparent barrier. They take glass reflections as open landscapes and, thinking they have a clear path, crash into a solid surface.

“We’re taking an active, multi-tiered approach to bird collisions, looking at new construction, existing structures and at the daily building-management level,” said Bonnie L. Humphrey, director of design in Northwestern’s Facilities Division.

The solutions Northwestern has adopted include applying patterned window film to problematic existing windows and choosing glass with patterns visible to birds in some new construction projects.

“It’s part of our ongoing commitment to sustainability,” Humphrey said.

The University’s location on the shore of Lake Michigan makes this work especially important. Millions of migrating birds pass along the lakeshore and through the greater Chicago area every spring and fall. Northwestern’s campus sits squarely in the corridor “where birds want to move and rest during their migration,” said Annette Prince, director of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. “Obstacles are being put in their path that wouldn’t have existed before.”

Prince’s group picks up about 5,000 birds a year injured or killed by collisions in one square mile of downtown Chicago alone. The birds they find come from some 170 species, from Wood Thrush and many species of warbler to larger birds like bitterns. “The things we find sometimes are astounding,” Prince said. “We got a Painted Bunting one year. Even waterfowl can be impacted.” 

Northwestern is one of several colleges and universities with campuses on or near the lakefront. “They all have similar styles, featuring glass walls, sky bridges and walkways between buildings that can be deadly for birds,” Prince said. “Northwestern is setting a powerful example that we’d like to see other universities follow. Ideally you treat a whole building. If you can’t do that, you can at least treat the most dangerous areas.”

The local bird-monitoring community has been concerned about glass buildings on the Northwestern campus since the Searle Building went up in 1972, according to Libby Hill of Bird-Friendly Evanston. The newest, the Kellogg Global Hub, home to the University’s Kellogg School of Management, opened in March 2017. It features a sleek, glass-rich design that reflects sky, trees and bushes, and the lake—creating a hazard for birds that can’t see the hard surfaces lurking behind the reflections.

Allison Sloan of Bird-Friendly Evanston monitored the Kellogg building for bird strikes in May 2017. Sloan and other local birders got in touch with Alan Anderson, executive director of Northwestern's Office of Neighborhood and Community Relations. Anderson facilitated an introduction to Shawn Graff, American Bird Conservancy’s vice president for the Great Lakes Region, and Christine Sheppard, director of ABC’s Glass Collisions Program, for expert advice. 

“Having data from local bird monitors, plus Northwestern’s commitment, made our job easy,” Sheppard said. “We were given free rein to audit the campus, and Searle and Kellogg were the obvious priorities for phase one. There are now multiple options for remediating glass. For the Searle building, for instance, Northwestern’s team selected Solyx horizontal bird safety film, a solution with low visual impact for humans.” 

Local bird monitors praised the University for taking quick action and for showing the way. “They realized the opportunity to be a model of how a university campus can mitigate bird collisions,” Hill said. “This is a huge advance toward bird safety on campus.”

The work will continue. "We look forward to continuing our partnership with the University and using our collision monitoring data to help locate problem areas and find effective solutions to protect the birds,” Hill said. 

American Bird Conservancy is dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership. They take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats and build capacity for bird conservation.

Northwestern University is one of the country’s leading private research and teaching universities. Founded in 1851, Northwestern has 12 schools and colleges. It has two campuses located on Lake Michigan: a 240-acre main campus in Evanston, about 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, and a 25-acre campus in Chicago. A third campus is located in Doha, Qatar. Northwestern has approximately 8,000 full-time undergraduate students, 8,000 graduate and professional program students and 4,000 part-time students. A member of the Big Ten conference, its athletic teams are called the Wildcats.

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