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Bird's-eye view: How dead birds are changing windows at USU

LOGAN — Few moments are more startling or tragic than the sudden thud of a bird flying into a window.

So when an entire flock of birds flew into the windows of the University Inn and Conference Center at Utah State University, many people called Kim Sullivan in tears.

"It was very traumatic for the students and the employees working in those offices to just watch the birds rain down," Sullivan said. "Lots of birds, all at once, falling out the sky and dying in front of you."

The USU associate biology professor has extensively studied why birds fly into windows and die by the hundreds each year on campus.

"Birds' eyes cannot see glass as a solid object," Sullivan said. "They can’t see the windows. They see either all the way through the window or the reflection.”

She and her students are working on a yearlong research project studying how windows and landscaping of university buildings increase risks for bird collisions.

Over a six-week observation period last fall, nearly 250 birds died after hitting the windows of eight USU buildings. Sullivan said that's a conservative estimate.

"Sometimes we only find a pile of feathers," she said. "We only count if it's a really definitive mark. We're probably under counting the number of strikes."

During a 15-week period this spring, around 150 birds were found dead near the same eight areas.

"It’s not like they all die in one place at one time," she said. "When you add them all up, it’s a huge number."

A 2014 study from the American Ornithological Society estimates up to a billion birds die each year nationally from flying into windows.

Window incidents rank second only to cats as cause of death among birds. Half the birds die on impact, Sullivan explained. The other half recover if cats and crows don't find them first.

Recently, students found several dead Western tanagers and lazuli buntings, two species migrating through this time of year.

"But the most common birds that we pick up are cedar waxwings and American robins," Sullivan said. "We also pick up a lot of hummingbirds."

Through their research, Sullivan and her team are trying to find "hotspots" on campus where bird deaths occur most often. Many buildings on campus have large amounts of reflective windows, creating the perfect illusion for unsuspecting birds.

"They get flying at 30 mph within 15 feet," Sullivan explained. "They head for the next tree that they see reflected, they’re flying fast enough to break their neck."

Small buildings from four to 11 stories tall pose the highest risk for birds, the 2014 study reported. These buildings account for more than half the deaths, while skyscrapers cause fewer than 1 percent of bird fatalities.

The university buildings under observation are the USU Welcome Center, the Aggie Recreation Center, the University Inn and Conference Center, the Biology and Natural Resources, the Chase Fine Arts Center and Old Main. Two glass walkways connecting buildings are also being watched.

One USU student surveying the campus is Danielle Johnson, an undergrad studying biology and biology teaching.

"We really want to get a lot of data and evidence that this bird strike problem actually is a problem," Johnson said. "We don’t want to be No. 1 for killing birds and leaving them all over the place."

Another undergrad student in the biology program, Rachel Sagers, works with community volunteers to search for fallen birds.

"The purpose of the research is to pinpoint the exact areas on the campus that need the most attention," she said.

University officials are already making changes to building regulations to decrease the number of casualties. Bird-friendly design standards are in place for two new buildings under construction, said Jordy Guth, an architect and assistant director of facilities planning, design and construction at USU.

"There’s lots of different solutions, not necessarily glass," Guth said. "We’ve been careful about where we’re placing trees, whether the trees have fruit. That type of thing affects whether or not birds want to hang out there."

One solution includes using windows of fritted glass, or glass with small 1/8-inch circles placed every 4 inches.

"You’ll still get all the light, you still get the transparency, it won’t be that noticeable, but the birds will see this as something they can’t fly through," Sullivan said.

The next step is modifying the existing buildings and landscaping, Guth said, but officials are waiting for data from the research project.

"The goal will be first for them to help identify the highest priorities, the biggest hotspot areas that are killing the most birds," she said.

The research project caught the attention of Cyndi Lanham, a facilities worker at the USU Brigham City campus. She was also keeping track of how many dead birds she found when she was working on the university grounds.

"I didn’t know I wasn’t the only one who was having so many birds crash into their building," Lanham said. "I thought nine birds was a lot, but apparently compared to theirs, it’s not a lot.”

Jessica Habashi, a senior lecturer at the USU Brigham City campus, plans to get students in her general biology class involved in similar research.

"It got me thinking about our new building," Habashi said. "I wonder if we're having some problems like this, or what the extent of these problems are."

Eventually, USU professor and extension wildlife specialist Terry Messmer said he would like to create a statewide extension program to work with institutions, landscapers and builders to adopt bird-friendly construction and designs.

"The emphasis is conservation," he said. "There's a number of different things that can be done that are simple, low-cost solutions. If folks were aware of the opportunities they could do a couple things even in their own home."

For now, Sullivan said she's just happy the university is making changes.

"It’s not just trying to save the birds," she said. "We’re also trying to make it a pleasant working environment."