New York City Council passes bird-safe glass bill

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Since the end of the last Ice Age, birds have migrated between the Arctic tundra and the Caribbean along the Atlantic Flyway, a migration route that passes over New York City. Drawn by an evening glow, the birds often fly into the city by night, drop into green spaces to forage, and leave the city by early morning.

In the rise of the modern age, the glass towers of the New York skyscape have made that migration treacherous. Today, nearly a third of the world’s birds migrate through the city in the spring and fall, often hitting windows reflecting outdoor foliage. According to scientists at New York City Audubon, an estimated 90,000 to 230,000 birds die in New York City every year from “bird strikes,” or collisions with glass. Most such accidents happen during the early morning, according to research by the American Bird Conservancy.

Birds now have protection thanks to a “bird friendly glass” bill that was approved by the New York City Council this past week. “A lot of these bird deaths are totally avoidable, and it is incumbent on us to do what we can to prevent these animals from dying unnecessarily,” said Corey Johnson, City Council speaker and a wildlife advocate. Brooklyn council member Rafael Espinal introduced the bill.

Corey Johnson posted these photos from a visit to the Wild Bird Fund on November 4, 2018. Photos courtesy of his Twitter account.

This is the first law in New York City that is centered on birds, and will go into effect in December 2020. The city joins Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, San Jose, California, and Toronto, which already have bird friendly laws in place, Katherine Heintz, executive director of NYC Audubon said. A New York State bill establishing a bird friendly building council is under review and requires Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. This council would research the problem of both daytime and nighttime collisions and make recommendations for a state law.

The bill requires 90 percent of glass in newly constructed and altered buildings to be “bird safe,” or visible to birds, in keeping with a rating system developed by the American Bird Conservancy. This only applies to the lowest 75 feet of building, an approximate tree canopy height. The bill also applies to glass balcony railings and glass corners, as well as 12 feet above green roofs. The city has 45,000 active construction projects, according to Melanie La Rocca, commissioner of the New York City Department of Buildings, who supports the new law.

Half of collisions take place in low-rise building up to about 11 stories, said Dr. Christine Sheppard, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s glass collisions program. “We have data showing that strikes above 75 feet are less than 1%,” added Molly Adams, advocacy and outreach manager for NYC Audubon. “This bill is a compromise forged by our diverse consortium, which wrestled with and reconciled competing interests of many sorts — design, light, height, use, location, cost, bird mortality,” said Heintz.

NYC Audubon has documented bird strikes since 1997, when it founded Project Safe Flight, a conservation effort to rescue injured birds and prevent future collisions. Volunteer Terence Zahner, who photographs birds in north Central Park, has observed 110 different species in the city. He started to find dead birds below the Circa Central Park, a residential building on Frederick Douglass Circle in Harlem made primarily of glass, beginning in the fall of 2017.

As of Oct. 9, he recorded 107 “collision victims” nearby, comprising 28 different species. While Zahner is encouraged by the bill, he said that “there is still an immense amount of effort needed to monitor and address existing problem buildings.”

Rita McMahon, co-founder of the Wild Bird Fund, said that her rehabilitation center is caring for over 300 birds between its Manhattan and Queens locations, and it’s not unusual to receive several dozen birds in a single day. “We make them comfortable, safe, warm, give them anti-inflammatories. But their brains are swelling from the impact,” she said.

Scientists often teach architects about the problem and work together on solutions. The American Bird Conservancy’s Sheppard said that the 2014 expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center – once a top “bird-killer” – is a leading example. The building’s glass was silk screened with small ceramic dots, called a “frit technique,” to reflect sunlight and conserve energy. An added benefit was that the glass was bird safe, and due to its dual-purpose didn’t increase costs.

Today, bird deaths at Javits are down by 90%. The building’s nearly seven-acre green roof also attracts migrating birds. “New York City has set a new standard for the U.S. and for the world. It is no longer possible to say that acting to protect birds is too hard or too complicated,” Sheppard said. “We have the science, we have the tools, and we have the materials to make buildings safe for birds, without compromising design or function.”          

New technology such as UV glass is “relatively expensive,” said to Dan Piselli, architect and director of sustainability at FXCollaborative, which designed the Javits expansion. Buildings can employ creative techniques, including screens and sculptural shapes on façades, Piselli said, but the frit technique is the most cost effective. Piselli contributed to Sheppard’s creation of a bird friendly building design guide and helped educate the council members who wrote the bill. According to a City Council statement, a “film” can be placed over regular glass, making the glass less reflective and preventing some bird strikes.

Piselli noted that glass is a complex material and can look either reflective or transparent under different light conditions; each scenario is dangerous to birds. His firm has only installed bird safe glass in commercial buildings, including the Columbia School of Nursing and the Statue of Liberty Museum.

The Circa Central Park, where Zahner continues to find dead birds, was designed by FXCollaborative. But NYC Audubon’s Adams said it was impossible to persuade developers to use bird safe glass without a binding law.

For now, Zahner continues to collect and freeze dead birds, handing them over to NYC Audubon, where they will be preserved at the American Museum of Natural History. “Seeing birds faced with extinction… these might be an important scientific record in the future,” he said.

Advocates believe that even more can be done beyond the city’s new law. Rita McMahon of the Wild Bird Fund is disappointed the bill does not mandate bird-safe glass for retrofits of existing buildings, only for new construction. Nonetheless, she remains hopeful. “If the biggest city in the U.S. is raising the bar on preserving wildlife, hopefully other cities, architects, developers and individuals will follow NYC’s compassionate lead,” she said.

Correction: A previous article referred to a City Council statement stating that a “glazing” can be placed over regular glass, making the glass less reflective and preventing some bird strikes. The correct technique is a “film,” placed over regular glass.

October 6, 2019: “Parasites or another intestinal ailment may be the reason this American bittern wound up stranded in an E. Village garden. An intimidating prospect under any circumstance, this guy is deploying all his defenses, including the ‘giant spider.’” (Wild Bird Fund, Facebook)

October 11, 2019: “This black-throated green warbler lost some primaries and tail feathers in a window collision, which will delay his migration south. We might have to hitch him a ride.” Photo courtesy of Phyllis Tseng, Wild Bird Fund (Facebook)

October 7, 2019: “So you found a woodpecker, but you’re not sure which one? Two usual suspects are the Northern flicker (above) and the yellow-bellied sapsucker (below), both migrating through town in large numbers right now. And both prone to window strikes…”

“…Unlike most woodpeckers, flickers are often seen on the ground eating ants and other ground-dwelling insects. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers eat tree sap and insects that get stuck therein.” Photo/text courtesy of Phyllis Tseng and the Wild Bird Fund (Facebook).