Study: DC wildlife rescue group documents crystal-clear problem for migratory birds

(Video courtesy Abby Milberg)

A 10-year study by a D.C. group documented a disturbing trend in bird migration.

More migratory birds appear to be dying in collisions with glass buildings, according to a study by Lights Out DC and City Wildlife.

Over the years, volunteers with Lights Out DC, a program that’s part of City Wildlife, have found and documented a growing number of birds killed or injured outside buildings in D.C.

“We went from picking up 100 birds to last year we ended up picking up 500 birds,” said Anne Lewis, president of City Wildlife, which cares for injured wildlife.

The birds include all kinds of warblers — tiny, often colorful songbirds — to marsh birds — such as the sora rail, (think of a long-legged chicken) — and even the wood thrush, the official bird of D.C.

And D.C. isn’t alone. Other cities have seen similar problems.

In Philadelphia just five days ago, Lewis said, “They had a massive bird strike episode. They picked up between 1,000 and 1,500 birds just in one morning.”

Just 16% of the injured birds found by Lights Out DC volunteers do well enough to be released after being cared for.

The vast majority are collected and cataloged by volunteers, such as Lisbeth Fuisz, who coordinates the Lights Out DC program. Fuisz said it’s a difficult but important task.

“It’s heartbreaking to see,” Fuisz said. “It’s particularly upsetting to find them when they’re still warm,” knowing that just moments before, they were alive and had a chance at surviving.

When a bird is found alive, Fuisz and her volunteers collect the bird in a paper bag to be taken to City Wildlife. She said putting a bird in a box can lead to injuries if the birds panic. They can batter themselves against the rigid sides and top of the box. A paper bag provides a safer environment until the bird can get care.

“It sometimes can take up to six to eight hours for a bird that’s been stunned to be able to recover fully to fly,” Fuisz said.

She also said it’s best to get the bird to a rehabber if you can.

“You can’t always tell just by looking at a bird what type of injury it sustained. They often have trauma to their brains, or they could have something broken that’s not readily apparent,” Fuisz said.

There are efforts to change building designs to prevent the kind of bird strikes most often seen near buildings that feature vast glass surfaces and interior atriums that can fool birds into thinking they’ve found open space.

“There’s one architecture firm that has really done good work in this, and that’s Quinn-Evans,” Lewis said.

The firm has designed the new bird house under construction at the National Zoo, and it is designed to be a “purely bird-safe building,” Lewis said.

Lewis also credits changes made at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where translucent strips are spaced across the glass, breaking up the reflective surface. Lewis said bird collisions stopped as a result.

Another building whose glass structure and interior-illuminated atrium attracted birds — often with fatal results — began dimming lights at night, and that cut the number of bird strikes.

“Once they dimmed the lights, there was a two-third reduction in the number of birds hitting the buildings,” Lewis said.

Fuisz said the continued efforts to document the losses of birds due to bird strikes is paying off — slowly.

“There is change afoot if you will,” with building designers paying more attention to the issue. “And that’s very exciting,” Fuisz said.

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