Living in a city or town, it can be hard to go birdwatching, so we try to bring them to us with feeders or plants we know they like. The irony is that not that long ago the birds were there already. Can an urban landscape and birds happily co-exist?
That we all have to live somewhere is not in dispute.
In the mid-1980s, the US Department for Fish and Wildlife Services published a revised edition of their pamphlet “Fifty Common Birds of Farm and Orchard”, first released just after the turn of the 20th century; but it bore a new title: “Fifty Birds of Town and City”. This edit not only acknowledged the vast changes of urbanisation and industrialisation that had occurred in the half century or so since, but notably dropped the word “Common” entirely, as birds just weren’t anymore. Acknowledging that the beautiful illustrations within were reminders of a clean and wholesome environment, the authors lamented that for some people, birdwatching in the town and city was now the only window to the natural world left to them. What a sad state of affairs, where we have managed to remove ourselves from the very thing we still need.
The majority of town and city planners in the past and even now have no truck with elevated, “unrealistic” and romantic ideals – how is it possible to house so many people who must live in communities of this size in order to turn the cogs of necessary industry AND leave room for dirty, wild nature, getting in the way all the time? Save for a few manicured parks, nature can stay over there and we will stay here and everything will be fine, thank you very much.
Except it isn’t fine, evidently not for the birds, and if we dare to admit it, not for us either. Research into mental and physical health over the last few decades has categorically shown time and again that certain environments are bad for us whereas others are good. Anger, fear and stress manifest in our bodies and there have been proven links between this disconnection with clean and healthy nature and a rise in illness, physical and mental imbalance and a decline in overall happiness. Spending time in nature can drastically reduce the ill effects of high blood pressure, rapid heart rates, muscle tension, and potentially increase our mortality. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, interest in birdwatching has soared, with bird food, binocular and field guide sales increasing ten-fold, and there has been a notable surge in bird ID app downloads. More and more people have discovered or re-discovered the joy of this simple pastime, and it has helped many of us deal with the existential issues of our current predicament.
This emerging field of architecture promotes health and wellbeing.
But what of prevention rather than cure? We seem to have bypassed our own superior axiom in the widest and most heinous arc imaginable. The consequences of this disconnection have been bubbling to the surface for decades, with some factions of society in denial it is happening at all whilst others acknowledge it but lament it is too late.
That we all have to live somewhere is not in dispute, but recent research has shown that those birds that have adapted to live in our cities as “uninvited” guests are actually becoming more successful at breeding or developing skills designed to facilitate their spread. Given the vast amounts of money that is pumped into largely ineffective bird-deterrent measures in towns and cities, be it spikes on rooftops, sonic devices, even electric shocks, it seems strange that, until recently, the concept of co-habitation hasn’t taken flight.
Looking at city architecture bluntly, it could be said that they have been designed to essentially kill birds. Now we know that wasn’t the intention, but that this is the result should not be ignored. Aside from the obvious annihilation of the natural habitat in which the birds used to live, skyscrapers block the path of known migratory flyways, light pollution causes sensory and navigational confusion, mile upon mile of reflective glass deceives birds into believing their way ahead is clear but in fact results in sudden death: often in great numbers as flocks try to find their way through the shining corridors of diamond-hard, unseeable mirrors.
In October 2019 in Philadelphia, 1000 migrating birds were killed in a single night, possibly due a horrible mix of scattered cloud cover causing the birds to fly lower, reflections of certain astronomical objects they use to find their way, and the presence of many new birds, fledged chicks having never come this way before. This event shocked many. Thankfully several city councils around the world have taken wonderful steps to attempt to rectify these mazes of death; in Toronto, San Francisco, New York and Madison, Wisconsin for example, any new builds require construction companies to use bird-safe materials such as stippled glass to break up the reflective surfaces, or tiles and framework that incorporates nesting holes. The National Audubon Society created the Lights Out movement in Chicago over 20 years ago and participating cities now report an average 80% drop in bird collisions. Accepting that entire cities can’t exactly turn all the lights off and still function safely, Colorado University created an alert map that informs residents of approaching migrants over a three-day window.
In 2015 Vancouver unveiled its Bird Strategy, recognising that its geographical position on the Fraser River Delta is a stop off point on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route that stretches from Alaska to South America along the Pacific Coast. Mapping breeding and nesting sites, banning toxic pesticides, expanding on public education, encouraging bird-safe lighting practices and committing to landscape and architectural schemes to “weave the city together by protecting and enhancing connected ecosystems and waterways and to connect people with nature”, the strategy is a work in progress that has already seen huge improvements in terms of increasing species numbers which has led to a surge in bird tourism and therefore economy. But one city is not enough – ideally, other cities will follow suit and create their own flyway within the flyway.
But a major change is needed in terms of starting anew. The next generation of architects and designers should be educated and trained to think about birds and other animals that used to exist in the habitats we took from them: if not reverse our concrete rampage, at least create it for them as well as us. Thankfully, there are numerous men and women out there doing what they can with what they’ve got, and what they’re doing is nothing short of spectacular.
The concept is known as biophilia, a term coined by biologist and environmental theorist Edward O. Wilson; it describes humanity’s connection with the natural world. Working alongside the late Stephen R. Kellert Ph.D., a professor of social ecology, together they published articles and wrote books on the “architecture of life” and helped pioneer the concept of biophilic design. This emerging field of architecture promotes health and wellbeing by creating connections between people and nature in the built environment, and several notable examples of this concept already exist in the world.
The very first recipient of the Stephen Kellert Biophilic Design Award was the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore. This island nation is already a world-leader in vertical gardens and roof garden habitats. Motivated by the desire to compensate for the loss of tropical rainforest that would have existed on the site, the hospital design team worked alongside government agencies to incorporate an existing storm-water pond. A cost-sharing arrangement was struck whereby the pond was redesigned as a park, and the concrete edges of the pond were removed and populated with aquatic plants instead, cleaning the water and creating niche habitats. A walking trail was added, linking the park to the hospital and a nearby residential estate. The hospital itself is a series of concrete blocks arranged in a V shape creating a vast central courtyard that is part jungle, part community garden, part hospital. The total surface area of horizontal and vertical greenery is almost four times the size of the land that the hospital sits on.
Forty percent of the hospital is publicly accessible, and visitor footfall has increased steadily by 400% since it opened in 2010; these are not always people visiting patients – a survey carried out found that 58% of visits were from the local neighbourhoods taking in the green and blue, the natural light and the northerly breezes skimming the storm pond stirring the rich scent of over 100 species of fruit trees, 50 species of vegetables and 50 species of herbs. Community outreach groups and resident volunteers tend the gardens and schools regularly hold workshops there.
From its creation to today, there are now 61 bird species living among the greenery, which comprises 13% of the total species population of Singapore. Among them are the rare white-rumped shama, blue rock thrush and long-tailed shrike.
Think about our own urban or rural environments from the bird’s viewpoint.
In 2020, a new book called The Bird-Friendly City was published, written by Timothy Beatley, a “long-time advocate for intertwining the built and natural environments, takes readers on a global tour of cities that are reinventing the status quo with birds in mind” (islandpress.org). In the book the author helps readers think about their own urban or rural environments from the bird’s viewpoint, as well as discusses a range of subjects from art, education, civil disobedience and wholescale urban planning.
Whilst we’re waiting for the clever people with blueprints and budgets to create our bird-friendly cityscapes, remember all the things you can do too. Using our voices in elections is one of the best things we can try in terms of large-scale change: elected officials may not fully grasp how much we, their constituents, care about birds but the uptake in birdwatching across the world recently alongside the growing awareness of the link between health and nature can be enough to push the agenda for some. At some point this pandemic will end and it may be easier to get those views across.
In the meantime, fill any outdoor space you own with native plants and trees if you can, ensuring birds have sufficient habitat and food, and a safe place to breed and raise their chicks. You too can reduce any exterior lighting, and seek out bird-friendly herbicides and pesticides. Always provide a fresh water source, and if you have cats, try keeping them indoors during breeding season or at least wear a bell on a collar if not. Small steps like these can help birds integrate into our spaces if we want them, and you will also feel the benefit.
To think of this in terms of “habitats that will be good for birds will be good for humans” is a very typical thing to do, of course; it is important to remember that no animal should have its existence justified based on what we can get out of it; but if the consequence of those human-centric measures means thriving bird communities that live alongside us in harmony as well, then it’s a huge step in the right direction.