Chicago Lawmakers Make the Case for Bird-Friendly Buildings

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Chicago's is one of the most deadly cities for migratory birds in the country. A new ordinance calls for new buildings to utilize bird-friendly design features. (Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr)

The relationship between migrating birds and Chicago, a city with no shortage of sleek, glass-sheathed edifices that soar impossibly high above the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan, couldn't appear to be more incongruous.

Centrally located along the Mississippi flyway, Chicago is one of the five most perilous American cities for migrating birds alongside New York City, Houston, Atlanta and Dallas. As noted by Bird Friendly Chicago, an alliance that includes Chicago Audubon and the Illinois Ornithological Society among others, the built environment kills a billion birds annually in North America. In the Chicago Loop alone, 26,000 bird fatalities caused by building collisions were recorded over a 10-year span.

Writes Chicago public television and media station WTTW:

While bird species like pigeons and sparrows are familiar with the urban cityscape, hundreds of migrating bird species from rural areas become easily confused by the unfamiliar sight of glowing skyscrapers and gleaming glass windows.

Ornamental lighting, including clock faces and flashing antennas, shine up into the sky from building tops and fatally draw birds down from their migratory routes into the path of buildings. Others fly in circles before eventually falling out of the sky from fatigue.

Chicago's iconic skyline, no matter how bright, shiny and disorienting to migratory birds, isn't going anywhere. It will only keep growing upwards and outwards. But there are ways to make one of the city's defining attributes — that preponderance of glistening glass high-rises — a little less deadly.

dead bird, Chicago
Dead birds are an unfortunately common sight on Chicago sidewalks during migration season. (Photo: Daniel X. O' Neil/Flickr)

The city, for the most part, has embraced these methods. This includes creating new and super-alluring migratory bird habitats to keep winged travelers away from the city's deadliest, glassiest buildings like McCormick Place Convention Center. And in 1995, the city launched Lights Out Chicago, a voluntary initiative that implores the owners and managers of tall buildings to turn off or dim exterior and decorative lighting during the overnight hours while migration season is in full-swing. Inspired by a landmark lights-out scheme in Toronto that's spurred similar action across North America on both a city- and state-wide level, Lights Out Chicago has helped save the lives of an estimated 10,000 birds traveling along the flyway every year.

Lights Out Chicago is a commendable start (with energy-saving benefits, to boot). But Bird Friendly Chicago thinks the city can do better than voluntary lights-out programs — it pushes for mandatory change that involves adjusting the laws that dictate how buildings in the America's third most populous city are designed and built.

One piece of legislation recently introduced to Chicago City Council by Alderman Brian Hopkins does just that.

Making bird-friendly design the law of the land

Dubbed the Bird Friendly Design Ordinance, the legislation follows in the footsteps of compulsory design regulations introduced in other cities — namely San Francisco and Toronto, always the trailblazer on this front — in that it establishes and enforces material and design standards for new building construction. The planning departments of numerous other cities have instituted recommended bird-friendly design guidelines.

"Over the past several decades, Chicago has taken action to make our beautiful city a less hazardous place for the millions of birds that pass through here, especially during the migration season," a press release from Bird Friendly Chicago notes Hopkins as saying. "This ordinance makes the powerful statement that as we build an even more vibrant and dynamic city, we will do so in a way that minimizes our city's negative impact on native and migratory birds."

Annette Prince, chair of Bird Friendly Chicago, calls the proposed ordinance a "win-win for the people of Chicago and for the birds that enrich our lives and that are crucial for a healthy environment."

As Blair Kamin details for the Chicago Tribune, the ordinance, among other things, would forbid new buildings from being clad in glass from the sidewalk up to 36 feet unless the glass has bird-friendly design elements such as ceramic fritting or UV patterns that help to prevent them from careening into it. The legislation also requires that building owners switch off non-essential exterior lighting between 11 p.m. and sunrise. Any greenery or landscaping located inside a building that's visible from the exterior must be behind specially designed glass.

Aqua, Jeanne Gang
Studio Gang's green roof-topped Aqua is an example of a cloud-brushing Chicago high-rise designed with innovative, bird-friendly features from the get-go. (Photo: Roman Boed/Flickr)

Existing buildings that aren't undergoing large-scale renovations would be exempt as would detached homes, townhouses and residential buildings with six units or less.

Numerous Chicago-based architects support the ordinance including internationally lauded sustainable skyscraper specialist, Jeanne Gang, whose 82-story Aqua is the tallest woman-designed high-rise in the world.

Using "visual noise" to help keep bird carnage at a minimum, Gang's design avoids vast surfaces of highly reflective glass and employs a range of other techniques that give birds helpful visual cues to prevent collisions. Completed in 2009, Aqua's bird-sensitive architecture remains a remarkable feat in a city populated by 600-foot-plus-tall mirrors. (The Guardian has called the skyscraper "a mighty bird's nest of sorts, an urban rock face for people with a fondness for heights to nest in.")

"If we keep environmental impact in mind from the start of the design process, we can create buildings that are functional and aesthetically pleasing, and also bird friendly," says Gang. "This ordinance is a great step forward by a city with a history of groundbreaking architectural advancement."

Early pushback from building owners

As for Chicago's Building Owners and Managers Association, which worked alongside the city and Audubon Chicago to launch and manage the Lights Out program, the reaction to the ordinance has been less enthusiastic. After all, voluntarily reducing a building's artificial glare during the overnight hours a couple of times year is different than fundamentally changing the way tall buildings are designed and built in a city where glass — and lots of it — is a top selling point.

"I think we're all interested in doing what we can to protect the birds during their migration season," Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, tells the Tribune. "I think it's a matter of determining what are the most cost-effective measures to do that."

Canadian geese, Chicago
A wide variety of birds travel through Chicago along the Mississippi flyway including Canada geese. The flyway is one of the busiest migration paths in North America. (Photo: serk1/Flickr)

Cornicelli's main rub seems to be that older buildings undergoing permit-requiring renovations are also subject to the rules. He argues that bird-friendly glass and other design elements are much harder — and more expensive — to incorporate into older buildings undergoing overhauls compared to new construction. He also notes that Lights Out Chicago already experiences a high level of compliance among building owners and managers.

And as Next City points out, while illuminated and glass-clad towers get a lot of attention during migration season, they aren't the only problem when it comes to bird mortality and the built environment. According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, less than 1 percent of all bird-window collisions happen at high-rise buildings. Fifty-six percent occur at one to three-story commercial structures while the remaining collisions happen at detached single-family homes, which aren't included in the new ordinance. (Mind those sliding glass doors, folks.)

Federal buildings should be bird-friendly buildings

While coalitions like Bird Friendly Chicago are pushing for changes on a local scale, Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat representing Illinois' 5th congressional district and a longtime member of the Sierra Club, is behind proposed bipartisan legislation that impacts buildings on a nationwide scale.

Quigley's Bird-Safe Buildings Act of 2019 (H.R.919) requires that all public buildings that are built, substantially renovated or purchased by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) feature "bird-safe building materials and design features, to the maximum extent possible."

"Almost one third of all bird species in the U.S. hold endangerment status, which gives us the responsibility to protect birds from preventable deaths," says Quigley in a news release. "By using materials that conceal indoor lighting to the outside, we can dramatically reduce the frequency of birds colliding with glass buildings. With birding activities supporting 620,000 jobs and bringing in $6.2 billion in state tax revenues, this is both an environmental and economic issue with a relatively simple, cost-neutral, and humanitarian fix."

This is the fifth time Quigley has introduced the bill, the first being in 2010. Enjoying bipartisan co-sponsorship from representatives hailing from New York and Tennessee, the legislation is endorsed by a range of conservation groups, zoos, the Humane Society of the United States and U.S. Green Building Council.

(No one tell the birds that Quigley, a tireless champion of all wildlife, introduced the Big Cat Public Safety Act just weeks after reintroducing the bird-friendly building bill.)