Glass Buildings Are Killing Hundreds of Millions of Birds Every Year

©. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Here is another reason to hate the Hudson Yards in New York City.

It is de rigueur to be critical of the Hudson Yards project in New York City. Oliver Wainwright calls it the Horror on the Hudson, and Kriston Capps complains about its financing in Another reason to hate Hudson Yards. Now we will pile on with yet another reason: all that mirrored glass, which is killing birds by the millions.

One recent study from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bright lights in the big cities: migratory birds’ exposure to artificial light, found that "in the contiguous US, annual fatal bird collisions with buildings, communication towers, power lines, and wind turbines cumulatively number in the hundreds of millions," and that a major cause is due to attraction to Artificial Light At Night (ALAN).

The disproportionate relationship between the land area occupied by cities and the amount of ALAN emitted leaves little doubt where conservation action is most needed: urban centers.

The study authors note that there are competing interests that have to be satisfied:

Reducing nighttime lights for the benefit of migrants and other wildlife represents yet another instance of anthropogenic and environmental trade-offs, in this case among avian safety, human safety, energy expenditure, and societal and psychological expectations. It is therefore important that conservation efforts and future research are directed to the times and places where they will have the largest impact.
Chicago at night

Chicago is the worst city in USA for bird kills/ Public Domain Pictures/CC BY 2.0

This is something I have never understood, how there are societal expectations for pretty bright skylines in cities. There is really no good reason not to turn the lights out if nobody is working. There is no good reason not to design buildings with glass that deters birds.

Ryerson Student Centre

Snøhetta's Ryerson Student Centre, Toronto, with bird-friendly glass/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Toronto, Canada, has had bird-friendly glazing standards since 2007, which have been widely copied (PDF here). They recommend:

Glass can have an image or pattern screened, printed, or applied to the glass surface. Ceramic frit and acid-etched patterns are commonly used to achieve other design objectives including a reduction in the transmission of light and heat, privacy screening or branding. By using patterns of various sizes and densities, manufacturers can create any kind of image, translucent or opaque. The image in the glass then projects enough visual markers to be perceived by birds.

They also strongly recommend that "mirrored glass is the most reflective of all building materials and should be avoided in all situations," which clearly is ignored in New York City, the fourth deadliest city after Chicago, Houston and Dallas.

Hudson Yards

Chris6d in Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

According to Lauren Aratani in the Guardian,

New York City Audubon conducts “collision monitoring studies” in September and April each year, sending dozens of volunteers into the city streets to track fallen birds. The organization estimates about 90,000 to 200,000 birds are killed via building collision in the city each year....
On a national scale, the Smithsonian’s migratory bird center estimated the number of deaths to be between 100 million and one billion birds annually, using data from a wide variety of different groups across the country.

There are many other things that kill birds, from cats to wind turbines, from oil spills to forest clear-cutting. Despite the President's worries about bird deaths from wind turbines, his Fish and Wildlife service just revised protections for migratory birds. According to Reveal, "Fish and Wildlife no longer prohibits loggers from cutting down trees with nests in them, even if it destroys live eggs or chicks." They no longer get involved when birds are killed in oil spills.

But as the Cornell study noted, the action is most needed in urban centers. Building design is local and cities can regulate it. Architects can stop designing mirrored and all-glass buildings. We don't need more of these.

This isn't hard.