One spring Tuesday at dawn, on West Dayton Street, past the Kohl Center and the Gordon Dining and Event Center, past the glass panels lining the Nicholas Recreation Center, Kate and Fred Dike of Madison arrive at Ogg Hall. It’s cool and quiet and they are looking for dead birds.
They start with the shrubs at the front. As volunteers for the Bird Collision Corps, if they find birds that died from crashing into the glass, they photograph them in iNaturalist, an app that tracks the casualties, and collect their bodies.
Kate and Fred each search at their own pace, quietly, separately. From Kate’s back hangs a red drawstring bag filled with latex gloves, plastic bags, strips of paper to label a bird’s location and date, and a box to place injured birds in. “We feel it’s less likely to find them here because the windows have been treated,” she says.
The windows are spotted with a grid of small white circular decals the university added in July 2020, with support from the UW-Madison Green Fund after volunteers gathered data that showed the building caused significant bird collisions. In three semesters before the mitigation, volunteers collected 34 dead birds; after it, they found seven. In a survey, students said they appreciated the benefit to birds and the dot pattern’s aesthetic.
The grid pattern works because it allows birds to identify glass. When birds encounter glass, without grids, they see sky and trees. They fly quickly — sometimes more than 30 miles per hour — and collide with the glass head-on. They shatter their beaks and wings, crack their breastbones, their skulls, damage their eyes, and their organs bruise and bleed. If they do not die instantly they may limp at the base of the building, concussed, and die after brief flight. Often their carcasses lie in the grass to decompose or be eaten by predators.
If they fall on a monitored site, volunteers’ gloved hands place the bodies in plastic bags and store them in a freezer. Tennessee warblers, yellow-bellied flycatchers, thrushes, common yellowthroats, hummingbirds, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, brown creepers, house sparrows, chickadees, Louisiana waterthrushes, and scarlet tanagers — all have been collected on campus, counted and indexed by expert hands, and stored in paper bags in that freezer. Finally, some are taken to hang in the walls of a museum or inspected by students under classroom lights. The rest will end up in a landfill, where they will decay.
But that Tuesday morning at Ogg Hall, at the place they once called “the corner of death,” Kate says they haven’t found any birds since the university added the decals.
Every Tuesday during migration in the spring and fall, Kate and Fred wake an hour before sunrise and drive to campus to look for birds. The action for mitigating bird collisions grew out of a Joint Campus Area Committee meeting in July 2016. The committee provides feedback for the university’s capital projects to ensure that they will effect the greatest good for community members. The Nicholas Recreation Center was under design review, and a Regent Neighborhood Association member asked what the university would do to mitigate bird collisions.
“At that point, that was a new topic to me,” says Aaron Williams, assistant campus planning and zoning coordinator for UW–Madison Facilities Planning & Management. “The architect looked at the facilities folks and said, ‘We’re not doing anything, what is Facilities doing?’ We looked at them in this awkward back-and-forth and realized no one was doing anything.
“We’re all interconnected,” Williams continues. “We’re putting these inanimate objects into the landscape and knowingly killing things. Are there ways to mitigate the bird impact specifically?”
Williams researched the problem and organized a symposium on the topic in April 2017. He invited faculty from the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology; architects like Stefan Knust, one of the leaders in design for collision mitigation; and Madison Audubon, which works to protect, conserve and educate about birds.
Speakers presented on the economic and environmental value of birds, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design pilot credit for bird collision deterrence in building design, strategies to mitigate collisions, and other policies that could protect birds. Williams talked about the progression of architecture at UW-Madison, with recent edifices made mostly of glass, like the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research.
Bird deaths have increased alongside humans’ ability to manufacture and produce buildings whose entire facades are of glass. A 2014 paper that compiled results from 23 studies estimated that between 365 and 988 million birds are killed annually through building collisions in the U.S.
Williams’ symposium inspired the Bird Collision Corps, a partnership among Madison Audubon, UW-Madison, the Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center, and the American Bird Conservancy. The Bird Collision Corps consists of volunteers like Kate and Fred who canvas the ground near buildings for birds, collect them, and log their photographs and locations in iNaturalist. Later, Anna Pidgeon, a professor at UW-Madison overseeing the research aspect of the project, and other ornithologists at UW-Madison, verify the identifications and compile the data.
The program is Madison Audubon’s first citizen science effort. It’s modeled on a campaign by Dave Willard, a former collections manager at Chicago’s Field Museum who with colleagues and the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors have collected 40,000 dead birds at McCormick Place since 1978. One response to that group’s work has been that more Chicago buildings started turning off their lights at night to avoid confusing birds.
Citizen science programs don’t require degrees or expertise, only a certain personality type. “It’s the people who feel it in their bones that they want to be able to help in an effort like this,” says Brenna Marsicek, director of communications and outreach at Madison Audubon. “Large-scale projects can only get completed with passionate volunteers.”
UW students also assist with the program. The UW-Madison student chapter of the Audubon Society also works with the Bird Collision Corps. In 2019, the UW Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society applied to the Office of Sustainability’s Green Fund, which offers money and direct support for student ideas that aim to improve campus sustainability. The students worked with staff to install the pattern on the windows as a test case for potential future mitigations, and the Green Fund and University Housing split the cost of the installation, with each paying about $10,000.
In January 2021, the Linden Drive Ramp (Lot 67) was the university’s first project to entirely use bird-friendly glass; the new UW-Madison Natatorium and Veterinary Medicine buildings will follow.
The Bird Collision Corps now monitors 22 buildings on campus, up from 10 in spring 2018, along with properties around the Capitol Square, at American Family Insurance headquarters, Holy Wisdom Monastery and, new this spring, the Verona Public Library.
In October 2020, the city of Madison passed an ordinance that requires new buildings larger than 10,000 square feet to use bird-safe glass, which uses dot patterns, lines, metal screens, or other approved methods.
In July 2021, five developers represented by The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued the city over the ordinance, maintaining the ordinance does not conform to the statewide building code, and that increased building costs will harm businesses. The lawsuit poses a common argument: that sustainability diminishes profits and disregards human interests. The city is fighting the lawsuit, and the American Bird Conservancy, Madison Audubon and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology have filed an amicus brief in support.
“There’s a cost to not doing anything,” says Marsicek of Madison Audubon, noting that birds are crucial for pollination and dispersing seeds, help make Wisconsin a desirable recreational destination, and just bring people joy. Designing bird-safe buildings is “a relatively easy thing to do.”
What’s not easy is picking up dead birds. Volunteers like Kate and Fred say they do it because ultimately, the project is doing good — they’re not finding dead birds at the buildings that have been altered.
On the brisk Tuesday morning, they continue along the back of the Kohl Center, stepping between shrubs to search the base of the building. When they emerge, they’ve found nothing. The sky has lightened, revealing shades of blue and tan among the sparse white clouds. In the green, unseen, house sparrows noisily sing.
There’s still time for more citizen scientists to join the Bird Collision Corps: the spring 2022 collection period runs through June 1. Signups for specific sites are available at madisonaudubon.org/bird-collision-corps.