The Need for Bird-Friendly Design
by Christine Sheppard
For many people, birds and nature have intrinsic worth. Birds have been important to humans throughout history, often used to symbolize cultural values such as peace, freedom, and fidelity.
In addition to the pleasure they can bring to people, we depend on them for critical ecological functions. Birds consume vast quantities of insects, and control rodent populations, reducing damage to crops and forests, and helping limit the transmission of diseases such as West Nile virus, dengue fever, and malaria. Birds play a vital role in regenerating habitats by pollinating plants and dispersing seeds.
Birds are also a vast economic resource. According to the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service, bird watching is one of the fastest growing leisure activities in North America, and a multibillion-dollar industry.
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The Legal Landscape
At the start of the 20th Century, following the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the near extinction of other bird species due to unregulated hunting, laws were passed to protect bird populations. Among them was the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which made it illegal to kill a migratory bird without a permit.
The scope of this law, which is still in effect today, extends beyond hunting, such that anyone causing the death of a migratory bird, even if unintentionally, can be prosecuted if that death is deemed to have been foreseeable.
This may include bird deaths due to collisions with glass, though there have yet to be any prosecutions in the United States for such incidents. Violations of the MBTA can result in fines of up to $500 per incident and up to six months in prison.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — originally the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 — the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Wild Bird Conservation Act (1992) provide further protections for birds that may be relevant to building collisions.
Recent legislation, primarily at the city and state level, has addressed the problem of mortality from building collisions and light pollution. Cook County, Illinois, San Francisco, California, Toronto, Canada, and the State of Minnesota have all passed laws or ordinances aimed at reducing bird kills, while other authorities have pushed for voluntary measures.
The International Dark Skies Foundation, an environmental organization whose mission is "to preserve and protect the nighttime environment" now actively supports legislation designed to protect birds by curbing light emissions.
Glass: The Invisible Threat
Glass can be invisible to both birds and humans. Humans learn to see glass through a combination of experience, visual cues, and expectation, but birds are unable to use these signals. Most birds' first encounter with glass is fatal when they collide with it at full speed.
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Morphosis designed 41 Cooper Square, a LEED Platinum-certified academic building for the Cooper Union in Lower Manhattan. The building features a skin of perforated steel panels shading a glass-and-aluminum curtain wall that improves the facade's thermal performance while also making the building safer for birds.
Photo: Iwan Baan
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41 Cooper Square section drawing, looking southwest.
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A bird, probably a dove or pigeon, hit this office building window hard enough to leave a ghostly image on the glass.
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