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Smash the Birdie - A symposium looks at the frequently fatal effect transparent glass architecture has on the migratory bird population.

From April of 2004, with updates from 2005.


Kukuk hat sich zu Tode gefallen,
An einer grünen Weider!
Kuku ist tod!
Kuku ist tod!
Hat sich zu Tod gefallen!

Wer soll uns denn den Sommer lang
Die Zeit and Weil vertreben?

Cuckoo has fallen to his death
From a green willow.
Cuckoo is dead!
Cuckoo is dead!
Has fallen to his death!

Who now through the long summer
shall help us pass the time?

Ablösung im Sommer,
Five Early Songs,
Gustav Mahler

The small, green songbirds lay dead on the ground. It was autumn, and they had met their end last flying smack into the glass along the back of the new State Street Village dorms at IIT, designed by architect Helmut Jahn, and dedicated just last July. “They were warblers in their fall colors,” says David Baker, the schools' VP of external affairs. “They were caught during the fall migration.” Homelier local birds appear not so easily fooled. “Pigeons and the sparrows don't run into the glass,” Baker explains. “I think they're just savvy, because they live around here.”

For many people it may be no big deal, but if you're someone who's felt a sudden catch in the stomach coming across a crumpled bird lying on the ground next to the wall of a building, you know how it can break through everyday routine with a sharp, intruding reminder of death and the fragility of life.

Muhlenburg College biology professor Daniel Klem Jr. has projected that collisions with buildings result in up one billion bird deaths in the United States each year. Estimates from other sources are lower, but whatever the count, Chicago - which has been called the “O'Hare of migratory birds” - has more than its share. Dr. David Willard, a scientist who's manager of the Field Museum's bird collection, has been picking up dead birds from around McCormick Place since 1982. “We would get anywhere from 1,500 and 2,000 birds every year at McCormick Place,” he says, although the number has declined since decreasing business and increased sensitivity has led its managers to no longer leave lights on all night, every night.

“Chicago has really got a unique spot here in the country because we're right along a major, major flight plane,” says Ken Wysocki, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society, who like Willard was one of the participants in “Parkitecture” a panel sponsored by The Grant Park Advisory Council on of the topic of what happens when birds and architecture mix. “You have birds coming up from South America into Illinois . . . trying to go north to Canada. If they're out over the water, they want to get to the closest green spot they can get. Most of the time, those green spots are our city parks.”

Once they reach Chicago, however, the birds run up against of the most fundamental elements of Chicago architecture - transparency. It may make for beautiful buildings, but for birds, it can become a death trap. “They see a reflection of the sky,” says, architect Jeanne Gang, another panelist. “They don't see the building at all, so they just fly into it. When they're flying at slower speeds, they sometimes see a reflection of themselves and think it's a predator, and then they might dive at the window.” In her competition-winning design for a visitors center at the Ford Calument nature reserve, she protects birds in two ways: with a find mesh that encircles the structure like a bird's nest, and by slightly tilting the generous expanses of glass so that they reflect the ground instead of the surrounding trees.

“I run an organization that's an all-volunteer organization and we rescue migratory birds that run into trouble down in the Loop,” said panelist Robbie Hunsinger, founder of the Chicago Bird Collision and Rescue Project. “We co-ordinate rescue teams. We have a hot line number.” Last fall, the group's volunteers found 436 dead birds, and rescued another 200, representing over 50 species.

“Any bird we can catch, there's something wrong with that bird,” she says. “Most birds actually die from concussion. A lot of people think they have a broken back, or broken something, but it's usually swelling. We give them an anti-concussive shot - dexamethasone phosphate. It reduces swelling, and it also keeps swelling from starting. I have a federal permit for migratory birds so I do an evaluation to determine whether they need more care, or whether we can release them, for example, in Grant Park.”

“The buildings around Grant Park are so critical; the things going up in Grant Park are critical. They're probably tired of hearing from me, but I've talked to project managers of many of the projects going up in Millennium Park: 'Are you putting up reflective glass? Are trees right against the glass? Are trees 15 feet away from the glass? We're going to have problems.' We don't want to have a dangerous Grant Park for birds. And I'm happy to say that it's looking very promising. I feel like that there's a very good chance that the wonderful new projects going up in Grant Park are going to be bird-safe.”

Hunsinger has also met success in urging building managers of high-rises to dim their lights during migration periods. “We've built on the Lights Out Chicago program that Mayor Daley is in favor of. He likes birds. He's pro-birds. He put the word out that he thought it would be great if everyone turned their display lights out on the roofs of the buildings, and that's a separate program from what we do.” The John Hancock building, for example, has been turning out its lights in spring and fall for over a decade.

“We've had a good relationship with building managements and owners,” said Hunsinger. “The security, the custodians and the sweepers, they're helping us find birds. They're educating us about what birds are hitting, and what are problem areas.” She singles out the Blue Cross Blue Shield building on east Randolph as a particular success. “They have an atrium building. It's a very difficult building to get dark. Well, it's dark now. The lobby's dark, and we do not find birds there. It's greatly, greatly reduced.” She did have to call the building's manager during the National League playoffs last fall, when the lights were arranged into a giant Cubs logo. “It's migration,” she reminded him. “Well, this is once in a lifetime,” was his plaintive reply, but she still got him to agree to turn out the lights at 3 a.m.

“I think that one of the most important things we should be talking about in terms of bird habitat in Grant Park,” said Willard, “is Northerly Island. What we think, possibly, may be happening with McCormick Place, is that it's situated in a spot where it's one of the first things that birds that are out on the Lake after a night's migration see. When I've out on a sailboat out on the lake, it's almost like a forest that's looming. The birds get in there and the lights are on and they get confused. I think if Northerly Island had a bank of trees that a lot of the problems at McCormick Place might be gone.” White Oaks, which attract a large diversity of insects, which, in turn, attract a broad selection of birds, seemed to the panel's tree of choice.

It sounds like a no brainer, but it could be a long time coming. The lightning strike Mayor Daley launched to tear up the runways at Meigs Field may have seemed like the Normandy invasion in miniature, but when it Old air terminal, Meigs Field, Northerly Island, Chicagocomes to his commitment to converting the site to parkland, all sense of urgency seems to have evaporated as soon as the last bulldozer left the lot line. Today, in the fall of 2005, the only major development is a 8,000 seat temporary concert venue, the Charter One Pavilion. As a temporary but optimistic first step, in July, 2005 Hunsinger was given space in the old Meigs Field terminal building for bird rescue activities.

Back at IIT, the school responded its own the bird collision problem with what it calls an IPRO (Interprofessional Projects Program) that engages students in a semester-long undergraduate project addressing a real world issue. “It came out the University faculty meeting last November,” says David Baker. “One of our faculty members who is now the faculty leader of the IPRO said, 'I've seen these bird deaths. What can we do about it?'” Baker, a self-professed “active birder” was quickly enlisted.

Due to cool weather, the spring migration has been a little late getting started, but it usually runs from late March through most of May. Baker says there's no real estimates of how many birds were killed last fall. “That's why one of the main goals of this spring's IPRO is to get a full documentation on the issue. Our students are going to install something we're calling “thump-sensors” - I don't think anybody's tried it before. . . . tiny accelerometers that we're going to fix to the glass, one sensor per glass panel. They're extremely sensitive and would pick up bird collisions so we can try to understand exactly what the patterns are.”

John Durbrow, an IIT professor who was project architect for Murphy/Jahn on State Street Village, is advising the IPRO and helping them come up with possible solutions. “There are a number of films available,” says Baker, “but they're just coming out on the marketplace.” At the Art Institute, they've addressed the problem of bird collisions by sticking films with images of hawks all along its glassy Columbus Drive façade, but Baker is unconvinced this would be a good fit for IIT. “You've got to put a hawk every two inches,” he says. “The big issue for us is trying to solve the problem while respecting the aesthetic of this building that's become an instant architectural success and received international attention. Our Miesian traditions have helped create this problem and we need to figure out how we can also be part of the solution.”

The IPRO is experimenting with covering the windows with a temporary netting whose current use is more than a little ironic. “It's used for corralling game . . . before they release them for shooting,” says Baker. Adapted to saving birds, however, “This looks like a pretty good solution. We're going to test whether we can do it with high-quality suction cups that would adhere to the glass and have little hooks sticking out of them about four or five inches.” The IPRO was scheduled to do a test mount of the netting along a small section of State Street Village's east facade, and bring out Helmut Jahn the end of this week to get his reaction.
(2005 Update: This year, netting was placed over the back window-walls of State Street Village, and another panel of glass has been covered with dots to make it appear less transparent to migratory birds.)

Of course birds have been dying for decades, probably ever since the first curtain wall went up along a migratory path. Current efforts to address the problem say as much about us and they do about the birds. “I think over time you're talking of endangerment of species,” says Baker, “but I think it's more . . . a dramatic increase in urban sensitivity or human sensitivity to our relationship with the natural world, the environment, and that we've been killing birds for years through our buildings and never paid any attention to it. Now there's a real shift on to understand the impact of this thing.” And it's apparently here to stay - IIT, along with various birding groups and the city's Department of the Environment, co-sponsored a symposium on the topic in March of 2005.

Ellen Grimes, architect and professor at UIC and another Parkitecture panelist, suggests that “Just as the steel mills and the stockyards gave us an opportunity to explore the capacity of industrial technology to create a compelling environment, thinking about the building as an ecology would do that as well. Not only does it give us an aesthetic and an argument, it gives a whole new range of information in which to bring into our design process. Ecologists approach their work by looking at systems and interactions rather than objects. Too often, the aesthetic of the machine led architects . . . to think of their buildings as objects, but once we have to start thinking about ecologies, all of the sudden, relationships are just as important as objects.”

“We look forward to starting to talk about how to accessorize buildings,” said Grimes. “One thing you'll be seeing in the future, with the kind of work we're doing at IIT and UIC, is a series of proposals for buildings vellums. We can begin to let our buildings molt and change with the seasons. In migratory bird seasons, you might see some of the buildings around Grant Park begin to maybe grow feathers, and become part of a celebration of the migration and the light.” The rendering Grimes used to illustrate her point - a skyscraper with its glass curtain wall wrapped in just such a bird-friendly camouflage - may have been too whimsical by half. One can imagine building managers collapsing in panic at the thought of financing such a caprice, but Grime's idea of creating architectural deterrents to bird collisions that are visible, effective and fun could help make a seasonal celebration of Chicago's unique role in bird migrations as much of an annual event as Taste of Chicago, minus the chicken wings.

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© Copyright 2005-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.



Related Links

  Chicago Bird Collision

  David Baker presentation -
    Addressing Bird-Glass
    Collisions at
    State Street Village