Birds vs. Buildings: Citizen scientists’ death data could spark change

A citizen science project is calling attention to the dangers a downtown can pose to birds, especially during a migrating season like right now.

In the name of science, the day starts before sunrise for Miriam Karmel. It starts in downtown Minneapolis.

"The skyways are deadly for birds," she said. "They’re just a magnet for bird collisions."

Karmel is an Audubon Society volunteer scanning the ground near skyways and skyscrapers, looking for small casualties.

Her first find on Thursday was a slow-moving sparrow. The bird didn’t fly away from her. It just hopped and not far.

"I think this one is stunned," Karmel said.

Minutes later, she found her first dead bird of the day on the ground next to the glass walls of the convention center. Her second followed not far away.

"It makes me want to cry," she said.

By the time she found number three, her mind raced back to the first bird, needing some kind of victory. 

"I hope that other one we saw early on flew away," she said.

Karmel is part of a week-long effort to collect data about birds colliding with buildings. Nationally, experts estimate at least 600 million birds die every year by flying into buildings in the United States.

Last year, Twin Cities volunteers counted 214 deaths in a week.

Through this year’s first four days, Karmel alone has found 19 dead birds, most of which will end up studied at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum.

"We're turning these little tragedies into science," said Dr. Sushma Reddy, an ornithologist at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum.

Ornithologists learn a lot about bird diets, environments, and movement from the recently deceased.

They say birds have migrated the Mississippi Flyway for thousands of years, and they’re not always prepared for an artificial detour.

"These animals evolved in the absence of bricks and glass," said Dr. Keith Barker, also an ornithologist at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. "And so those are substances that they aren't used to seeing in their environment."

Glass skyscrapers are especially problematic for birds because they reflect the sky or trees resembling the normal path. One potential workaround is using so-called "bird-friendly" glass like they have in the skyways at the Hennepin County Government Center.

Since 2016, the city of Minneapolis has required that type of material in all new skyways. It’s not much more expensive than regular glass, but retrofitting an entire building can get a little pricey. There is a much cheaper option, though, and it’s proven very effective.

"Dimming the lights during migration season is the number one thing that any of us can do as a society," said Dr. Reddy.

Dozens of building owners have signed on to Lights Out Twin Cities, pledging to keep the buildings dark between midnight and dawn during spring and fall migration.

Some of Minneapolis’ best-known buildings are on board, including the Wells Fargo Center, Capella Tower, and IDS Center.

"It’s actually why we go out and do this really sad project," Karmel said.

Back at the convention center, the lights are bright, but Karmel hopes citizen science and a lot of chirping can lead to change. And the stunned first bird she saw vanished, apparently ready to avoid the detour and return to its annual migration.