At about this time of the year, Cindy McCormack frequently peeks from her condo overlooking Esther Short Park, searching for flashes of color that dart between tree branches.
A yellow streak may signal that a Western tanager, a tiny and slightly reclusive bird, successfully completed its journey from a neotropical zone to feast on bugs in the park square. It’s a worthwhile trip that promises a buffet of delicious wasps, stinkbugs, caterpillars and ants.
Though not all who make it are guaranteed to remain.
“It’s one of the birds I see hit glass a lot in downtown,” she said. “I’ll pick them up off the ground as I’m walking.”
McCormack, an avid bird fan and Vancouver Audubon’s interim president, said bird strikes like this happen often in the downtown corridor, especially during migration season and estimates that it’s a common occurrence in surrounding neighborhoods.
Though there isn’t an official tally tracking these strikes locally, McCormack’s observations mirror a nationwide trend.
The National Audubon Society estimates that roughly 1 billion birds die annually by colliding with urban structures, which contributes to the bleaker finding that North America has 3 billion less birds today than in the 1970s.
There are solutions to the problem, which take root in building design standards and individual action. Collectively, they seek to foster a bird-friendly community.
Creating safe passage
As the name implies, bird-friendly communities are just that: a space that offers a safe, native habitat where birds can thrive, said Connie Sanchez, National Audubon Bird-Friendly Buildings program manager.
Washington’s bird population consists of species that are permanent residents, such as crows, or those that migrate in the spring and fall. Around this time of the year, for example, Western tanagers will leave their homes in Central and South America to fly northward where they can feast on insects, shrouded in the comfort of pine and fir trees.
Though the sky is a vast and open space, ongoing urbanization — full of sprouting developments and tree removal — results in fragmented landscapes, hindering the ecological safeguards they provide for wildlife. Tightly knit treetops brushing the sky now dwindle as patches mixed with office buildings. Leafy understories providing shelter and nutritious food have become open yards or parks.
Sanchez, in her position as Audubon’s program manager, specifically focuses on the threat urban structures pose to birds, one of the main hazards they face.
Windows, though seemingly invisible, cast clear reflections of vegetation outside, which birds interpret as a welcoming branch to fly into, she said. During the nighttime, nocturnal birds may also attempt to fly into lighted windows.
It’s not that the birds are unintelligent, Sanchez said, but they can’t pick up on architectural cues the way a human does. The sheen and color of glass doesn’t register for birds, leaving them oblivious to a building’s hidden solid barriers.
There’s an added degree of peril for birds aside from physical obstacles, and it comes in the form of artificial lighting.
During peak migration season, lights that remain on during the evening — whether it’s indoors, upward light or decorative lighting — can confuse birds as they glide overhead, Sanchez said. This is because birds migrate in the evening, using the stars and moon as guiding lights. Artificial sources steer birds from their path and, in attempting to course-correct, drains them of their energy — leaving them vulnerable as they sit on the ground.
Resolving issues presented by buildings and light are straightforward.
Building owners can dot windows or hang cords outside so glass is identifiable, as well as turn off excess lighting during peak migrations. To address light pollution generally, municipalities and developers can participate in “lights out” programs or abide by Dark Sky principles, which outline how to responsibly use outdoor lighting.
As waterfront developments add a rising skyline to Vancouver, there will be consequences for birds who strike reflective buildings or become disoriented in halos of artificial light, according to Vancouver Audubon.
Not everything is doom and gloom, however.
The city of Vancouver’s Climate Action Framework, adopted last year, contains action items that call for implementing green building and development standards. Within these guidelines, there are explicit notes to limit light pollution in accordance with dark sky principles in both public and private sectors.
Chad Eiken, city community development director, said staff are now researching best practices for the upcoming codes, including the nexus between bird-friendly and green building standards. Although these city-imposed development standards haven’t been born yet, there have been local efforts to protect birds.
The Port of Vancouver requires future developments at Terminal 1, a piece of the 10-acre Columbia River waterfront, to meet bird collision deterrence requirements. This means new buildings must have bird-friendly features, such as treated windows and appropriate lighting plans.
Conservationists and birders alike recommend homeowners take individual actions to create inviting habitats by planting native food sources. This may include serviceberry, chokecherry, bittercherry and elderberry — all of which attract the Western tanager. But they wouldn’t be the only benefactors. Cedar waxwings, black-headed grosbeak and thrushes would flourish in the fruitful setting.
Though small, these changes can further accommodate the natural world in an evolving urban one.
“Birds do provide a host of services … that are beneficial to people, but they also are a source of joy and fascination for many, including me,” McCormack said. “We all need a healthy world to survive and prosper, if a change benefits our native bird populations, it is beneficial for us.”
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