UW News

November 20, 2023

New research aims to reduce fatal bird collisions on campus

The students combed the perimeter of the Nanoengineering & Sciences Building on a recent fall morning, as a pair of volunteers does every morning, looking for signs that a bird has met its end.

On this day, the students found only feathers – not remains – a sign that crows may have already scavenged the carcass.

With its facade of windows, NanoES is one of the buildings along a route – the route itself one of three campus loops – that volunteers trek as part of Bird Friendly Campus, a project led by College of Built Environments Ph.D. researcher Judy Bowes. The goals: Count the number of bird-building collisions on campus, provide recommendations about bird-safe design to UW architects, and educate the community about the harm that transparent and reflective glass presents to wildlife.

“We can find a balance in design that benefits humans and birds,” said Bowes, who discovered a love for birds while growing up in Pennsylvania. “Birds cannot detect glass. This is a design problem, not a bird problem. We can use less invasive designs and protect wildlife in ways that benefit all of us.”

A small dead bird lies on the pavement next to clear glass panels that run along the walkway.

This tiny song sparrow likely died flying into a glass railing, one of the most common lethal barriers on campus.Bird Friendly Campus

For the past year, Bowes has been training and leading volunteers to walk through campus, using a student-created app to log where they’ve been and what they’ve found, along with photos. The volunteers wear gloves and carry with them a kit for collecting dead birds to bring them to the Burke Museum. Teams have found 20 different species of birds, Bowes said, most commonly the varied thrush. And perhaps not surprisingly, numbers of dead birds increase during the local winter migration season.

Volunteers find only about 10% of the more than 10,000 birds that collide with campus buildings each year, estimates based on Bird Friendly Campus’ collision data from last year and formulas that predict yearly loss that have been developed by other researchers in the field. Nationally, estimates range in the hundreds of millions.

Bird Friendly Campus is looking for volunteers and sponsors. Click here for more information.

Just in the past month, nearly 1,000 songbirds crashed into the windows of the McCormick Place Lakeside Center in Chicago in just one evening. The remains were found the next morning by a volunteer monitor. The New York Times recently featured a Manhattan condominium building, dubbed by some in the city as a bird “death trap,” and the efforts to retrofit the glass there so that it is more visible to birds.

Bird-safe glass is a key solution, Bowes explains, often in the form of tiny opaque dots, or a grid pattern made of weather-resistant vinyl that can be affixed to windows, allowing natural light to still enter the space. Apparent up close but not obstructive to the view of those inside a building, these tools can turn what is see-through or reflective into a barrier visible to birds, reducing collisions by as much as 80 to 90%. A few structures on campus, such as the Gallagher Law Library at William H. Gates Hall and the Life Sciences Building, use glass that incorporates bird-safe patterns.

A view through a large window, seen bewteen tiny vertical lines painted on the glass with minimal disruption to the view outside.

An example of bird-safe glass used in windows at the UW’s Life Sciences Building.Judy Bowes

Also helpful: leaving space between buildings and vegetation and limiting the use of artificial lighting at night.

“It’s a big eye-opener for most people, particularly architects,” Bowes said. “I believe that we can just treat hot spots on buildings. We don’t have to treat every square foot of glass surface area. It’s our responsibility, I believe, to protect living things and to prevent collisions.”

Bowes and her team will submit data from their study to campus architects for inclusion in the UW’s Green Building Standards. An informational presentation is planned for the campus community this winter.

For more information, contact Bowes at jbowes2@uw.edu.