Volunteer Finds Nearly 300 Dead and Injured Songbirds in NYC

It was 'like a nightmare.'

A collection of dead birds
Some of the 297 birds found in New York City on Sept. 14, 2021.

 Melissa Breyer

A couple very early mornings each week during migration season, Melissa Breyer loads up a backpack filled with paper bags and other supplies and heads from her Brooklyn home to the streets of Manhattan. She then walks a prescribed route, looking for dead and injured birds that have collided with buildings.

On a good day as a volunteer for New York City Audubon’s Project Safe Flight program, Breyer finds no birds or only a few. But on Sept. 16, she found nearly 300.

The night before, BirdCast—which offers bird migrations in real time—issued a “high alert” for the area, meaning birds would be migrating over the area in high densities.

“Whenever I see a high alert, I brace myself,” says Breyer, who is Treehugger’s editorial director. “I had a bad feeling and got a lot more paper bags.”

On a normal day, she prepares about 5-10 paper lunch bags with platforms in them to hold any injured birds she finds until she can get them to Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehab clinic. But on this day, she prepared 30 bags, which she had never done before. Breyer told her boyfriend she felt like she was preparing for war.

“I just felt we were due for a bad night. I was really prepared, which was good,” she says.

Drawn to the Lights

An estimated 365 to 988 million birds are killed annually by building collisions in the U.S. According to the National Audubon Society, for every collision victim bird found, three more typically aren’t discovered. They either fly somewhere out of sight before they fall or are taken by predators.

Aware of these alarming statistics, Breyer started volunteering with the Audubon program in fall 2020. All volunteers have defined routes around buildings with very active bird-window collisions. 

New York City is along an ancient migration route known as the Atlantic flyway. The birds are drawn into the city by the lights at night.

“The birds don’t really know to steer clear of New York because they’ve been doing this forever,” Breyer says. “They get drawn in by the light or buildings that are illuminated. And then they can either get disoriented and crash into buildings at night. Or they will find a green space—a little park or a tree—and then when they wake up to go forage, they’ll crash into the glass. They either don’t see the glass or they see the reflection of greenery or sky.”

Volunteers walk their routes one time, doing a circuit of the buildings between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. The observation and collection typically takes about 30 minutes, Breyer says.

“You look for dead and injured birds and you learn pretty quickly if one is dead or one is alive by their shape or posture,” she says. “You look everywhere from the curb and under trees to all the way into corners and doorways of buildings.”

Volunteers pick up dead birds and place them in a bag, noting the time and place they were collected and any details about their condition. They scoop up injured birds and put them in paper bags with platforms, sealed with a binder clip. Then those bags are placed into a shopping bag.

Shopping bags filled with bags
How to get 30 injured birds to the rehab clinic.  Melissa Breyer

'Like a Nightmare'

On the recent catastrophic morning, Breyer says she braced herself as she looked at the side of the first building.

“There were birds everywhere. Everywhere I looked, up the street, down the street, they were just everywhere. It was like a nightmare. Every few feet there was a bird,” she says.

“I just went into panic mode and started picking them up as quickly as I could. I knew the street sweepers were coming out. If all these birds died, I at least wanted them to be data. It was a race against the sweepers.”

And then there were also the live ones she was trying to gather into bags while also trying to educate the horrified people on the street who stopped to ask her what had happened.

It normally takes Breyer about 10 minutes to circle two buildings on this particular route—3 World Trade Center and 4 World Trade Center—but it took her 65 minutes on that day.

It was nonstop as people began helping her and bringing her live birds. Then she went over to One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) where another stranger began helping her out.

But the worst of it wasn’t over.

“Birds were flying into the glass while we were there, one after another,” Breyer says. “It was awful.”

Bags of Birds

When she was finished, Breyer had 30 birds that had to go to the hospital and 226 dead birds in her backpack. She also observed others on awnings that she couldn’t physically take with her. In the end, by her latest count, Breyer documented 297 birds in just over two hours.

The most prominent species were black and white warblers, Northern parulas, American redstarts, ovenbirds, and magnolia warblers, as well as a few wood thrushes, Blackburnian warblers, and more.

Breyer then took a quick train ride—loaded with paper bags that were wiggling and scratching—to Wild Bird Fund to drop off the injured birds.

“Some of them are really docile and lethargic and they're really easy to pick up and they just go in the bag and they stay quiet," she says. "But some are really mad when you put them in the bag and they scratch, scratch, scratch."

It’s tempting to think maybe the angry, active ones are OK and don’t need to be taken to the clinic, but they likely have concussions or internal injuries from their collisions with the buildings, she says. If they fly to a tree with a concussion or worse, they could die, or if they try to migrate with a concussion, they could run into problems.

“So they go to the clinic and they get anti-inflammatories and fluid and a little relaxation for a few days,” she says.

All dead birds are carefully documented and then dropped off at NYC Audubon headquarters. The organization distributes the birds to natural history museums to put in their study collections.

“Not that there's any way that is ever OK but at least it's just not a bird going and getting swept up or going to the trash. It becomes a data point for advocacy, it becomes a study tool, and we try to do the most we can.”

A selection of birds being documented.
Each bird was photographed during documentation.  Melissa Breyer

Drawing Attention to Bird-Window Collisions

Breyer tweeted photos of some of the birds she collected on that busy morning. Audubon and Wild Bird Fund retweeted and the news and the images are getting a lot of attention and calling more notice to the plight of birds and window collisions.

Bird conservationists say the solutions are to turn off lights at night as much as possible and treat glass on buildings to be bird-friendly, such as placing patterns on reflective glass or installing specific types of screens. That usually only involves the ground level and lower stories which are in the bird collision zone. That's where birds are most often looking for food and where plants and trees are reflected the most.

Until all buildings are altered and lights are dimmed at night, Breyer will be hitting the streets each week with her backpack and paper bags. She of course prefers the quiet mornings when she doesn't find any animals that have been harmed.

But she’ll do what it takes to help the birds.

“I love all animals, just so much. But I think being in the city and knowing that these Neotropical migratory birds come through, I just have such an affinity for them,” Breyer says.

“Some of them, they travel thousands and thousands of miles, and it's just so remarkable. I mean I love our city birds very much, but these Neotropical songbirds that are flying through are so special. It's just amazing to me.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Local Bird Migration Alerts." BirdCast, 2021.

  2. Loss, Scott R., et al. "Bird–Building Collisions in the United States: Estimates of Annual Mortality and Species Vulnerability." The Condor, vol. 116, no. 1, 2014, pp. 8-23., doi:10.1650/condor-13-090.1

  3. "Reducing Collisions with Glass." Audubon.

  4. "The Issue With Birds and Glass." Audubon.