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Designing Less Dangerous Architecture for New York’s Birds

The imprint of a bird that crashed into a window (photo by Erich Ferdinand/Wikimedia)
The imprint of a bird that crashed into a window (photo by Erich Ferdinand/Wikimedia)

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the west side of Manhattan was once among New York City’s top three bird-killing buildings. Now thanks to the installation of patterned avian-friendly glass across its façade, and a green roof, it’s a haven, with bird collision deaths down by 90% as of last year. Herring gulls nest on the roof among hundreds of birds that now mostly interact safely with a building that once lured them to their doom.

Map of D-Bird sites (via, nycaudubon.org, screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Map of D-Bird sites (via, nycaudubon.org, screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Bird collisions are as much a design issue as a conservation concern. NYC Audubon’s Project Safe Flight is one of many initiatives aimed at reducing the shocking numbers of birds that die in collisions. They state that a “conservative estimate puts the number of birds killed annually in the US from striking windows at 100 million,” with 90,000 of those birds killed in New York City, where numbers are especially high for sparrows, common yellowthroats, and ovenbirds. Although the Javits Center, as well as the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center, have included bird-friendly retrofits in recent renovations, other buildings remain hazardous. Data collected by NYC Audubon between 1997 and 2013, using 6,000 collected birds of 126 species, pointed at the World Financial Center, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and buildings around Bryant Park as among the most fatal. In retrospect, it does make Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Transparent Monument,” with a pane of glass and dead birds on the roof of the Met in 2006, a bit eerie.

The problem isn’t just modernist glass architecture that reflects clouds and trees, making it blend in a way that’s a little too convincing to birds. It’s also lights from skyscrapers disrupting migration patterns, birds flying low in cities during storms, and the construction of such buildings alongside parks or other bird-hubs (such as the Hudson River by the Javits Center, or Central Park by the Met). Audubon has a national initiative called Lights Out which advocates for turning off excess light during migration periods, and NYC Audubon’s Lights Out New York has successfully collaborated with sites like the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, and the Time Warner Center to turn off unnecessary lights between midnight and 5 am from September 1 to November 1, a vital time for migration.

A peregrine falcon flying by the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York City (photo by Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority)
A peregrine falcon flying by the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York City (photo by Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

All of this has helped with ongoing visibility for bird collisions. This year, the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) arranged 2,100 birds killed in Toronto in the rotunda of the Royal Ontario Museum as part of their annual installation, while in Chicago, photographs by Art Fox of migrating birds killed in area collisions are on view at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Other museums have recently taken architectural steps to improve bird safety. Guidelines for bird-friendly building design, issued last year by NYC Audubon with the American Bird Conservancy, cite improvements like the frit patterns in the mirrored glass on the Anchorage Museum designed by David Chipperfield, glass behind metal screening at the de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron, and bird strike-deterring glass at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitors Center designed by Weiss/Manfredi.

It’s easy to feel helpless when coming across a dead bird in the street, or witnessing one suddenly striking a window. In 2014, NYC Audubon launched D-Bird.org, an online app to crowdsource dead bird sightings. Anyone can enter the details on a bird found in the five boroughs, and include a photograph so experts can identify the exact species. It might seem a little morbid, but you’re contributing to a mapping project with the potential to help future birds survive.

Read more about Project Safe Flight online, and contribute dead bird sightings at D-Bird.org.

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