Migrating Birds Get Boost from Science, Art Collision

A student reports a dead body on the Aftermath Café patio near the windows. The victim is a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the indirect cause of death is the potted, red geranium just inside the window.

This brightly decorative plant was placed to enhance the atmosphere for students sipping lattes during much needed breaks between their studies. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned decoration presented unintended consequences. The hummingbird was attracted to the geranium's bright blooms in hopes of a nectar meal but it encountered a window en route to the flowers.

This bleeding lead has a solution. In this specific case, it's simple: Move the flowers away from the windows. But bird-window collisions go beyond a single geranium. And finding the bigger solutions takes action at the window-scale, yard-scale, town-scale and beyond to make the world a safer place for migratory birds.

This case illustrates a common problem, that of windows causing as many as one billion bird deaths annually in the United States. Glass can reflect trees and plants that make windows appear as forests or habitat to flying birds, but there are many solutions for problem windows.

Birds can see ultraviolet (UV) light and we cannot. Decals, tapes, paints, films, and other applications with UV treatment are inexpensive, short-term solutions that work for many windows. Long-term and often more expensive solutions involve installing decorative or specialty glass such as that which is etched, frosted, fritted, stained or has UV reflective material within the glass itself. Some solutions have the added bonus of also reducing your energy costs and increasing your privacy.

Not all solutions are as attractive as people would like. There is a need for more aesthetically pleasing designs that can be applied to windows. At Michigan Tech University, science and art students are working together to identify problem windows and then design attractive yet practical window applications as prototypes. This conservation-art collaboration is challenging students to reduce bird-window collisions and also communicate across the science-art divide.

At a regional scale, the obstacles and the solutions get bigger. Many migrating birds collide with man-made structures such as communication towers, power lines, and wind turbines; they face loss of habitat needed for refueling and protection from predators during stops along their migratory journey. This period in the life of a migratory bird is the most dangerous and also the least understood -- there is need for much research.

Collaborations like the Midwest Landbird Migration Monitoring Network are working with partners to strategically address the needs of migrating birds. The recently released strategic-action plan for this network aims to address large-scale migration questions that can be answered only through partnerships of many researchers and bird observatories across a region. Bird migration is one of the great wonders of the world and collaborators in the Midwest are poised to help understand it.

Collaborations can happen in many ways, can involve people of any age, and often result in finding creative solutions to particular local needs.

Fifth graders from the Hartland School of Community Learning in Wisconsin built a chimney roost for migrating Chimney Swifts, aerial insect-eating birds. The project started when a student learned about the proposed removal of a local historic building containing a large chimney, which was known to house as many as 1,000 swifts during migration. The students collaborated with local businesses to raise the funds to build the swifts a new roost site. The free-standing chimney is an attractive sculpture of brick and is a monument to the role that even our youngest members of society can play in helping migrating birds.

Near Belgium, Wisconsin, a novel bird rest stop has been created at an unusual location. Through a partnership between the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory, a golf course was converted to host birdies of a different sort. The greens, fairways, and hazards were restored to prairies and wetlands to create the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. The partners planted a diverse mixture of native plants rich with seeds, fruits, and insects to provide a veritable buffet of foods to refuel a wide variety of migrating birds. The site is along the Lake Michigan shoreline and provides critical resources for migrating birds that need a safe place to rest and prepare for the next leg of their long journey.

You don't need a golf course to restore bird habitat, though. Everyone has a role to play to aid migrating birds, from reducing bird-window collisions at your home or work place to planting native plants, shrubs, and trees in your yard or community to help birds recover during their long journey. This spring I challenge you to treat at least one problem window where birds are known to collide or to convert a patch of lawn to a diverse mix of plants and shrubs that are native to your locality to provide food and shelter for your migrating birds. And if you find this rewarding, share your experience with neighbors, family, schools, gardeners, and local clubs.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.