Look at any city, town or village from afar and you will doubtless see one thing in common, despite the shapes, sizes and arrangement of buildings: one thing dominates, and that is glass. There are barely any human structures that do not contain windows of some kind. Of course, we need windows to see the outside or inside world, to help promote our own health, safety, and security. But this marvel of sand chemistry that lets the light through has a very dark side, one that causes the deaths of billions of birds every year. If you think you’ve never had a bird hit your window, consider the more logical possibility that you just weren’t there when it happened.
As the crow flies
There are two scenarios in which glass can be fatal for birds, one where the glass is clear, and one where the world outside is reflected back. Birds do not see the glass itself.
Both scenarios create an illusion: in the former, clear and unfettered glass simply makes the glass invisible, and the landscape and sky can be seen right through it. In the latter, the landscape or sky exists as reflection, again mimicking the natural world and presenting the bird with an assumed pathway onwards. Birds simply keep flying straight ahead, thinking they are just passing through air. The hard reality stops them short with a sickening thud, and if death is not instant then it is very likely imminent, as internal injuries caused by collisions with glass are often major and the bird can die within a few hours, even if it manages to fly away seemingly unhurt.
A sea of glass
First of all, let’s talk about those thousands of miles, both horizontally and vertically, of windows that we, on an individual level, feel powerless to do anything about. The planet is awash with dazzling crystalline cityscapes, and how are we to change any of that?
As you’ll see with our own home solutions, there are things that can be done to those windows to make them less dangerous, it’s just on a bigger scale. The key is getting all of those building owners and managers and architects on-board, so voting for lawmakers who include bird-friendly glass measures in their policies is a step in the right direction. The solutions exist and there are plenty of dedicated contractors and conservationists champing at the bit to make the changes. One fine example of bird-friendly glass technology that is making headway is the frit dot pattern technique, where ceramic, ink or ground glass spots are fused onto the existing glass in a specific pattern that makes the glass visible to birds but still see-through for us.
This technique has been pioneered by Daniel Klem, Sarkis Acopian Professor of Ornithology at Muhlenberg College, PA., USA, who has been studying bird window collisions for decades; in 2007, windows at the college were treated this way and there have been no bird deaths since. Another fantastic solution that is now in play in multiple glass manufacturers is ultraviolet coated patterns on glass; the birds can see them, and we cannot. By applying what we know already in a simple manner, we can save so many lives.
But it’s not just the towering skyscrapers of the city that are in need of changing; small windows like ours at home, even the really small one in your basement can cause death: birds are small, and they only need a small space filled with glass to do the damage.
Technologically advanced solutions like the UV strips and frit technique may be hard to come by for residential purposes, but very simple things exist that provide the same answer; all we have to do is apply them.
Below, we list some easy to make or find materials that you can apply to your windows to help the birds see them for what they are, and steer clear. The MAIN thing to bear in mind is that this all needs to be applied to the OUTSIDE of the window to be fully effective.
1. Most birds will avoid patterns consisting of vertical strips, which should be around an 1/8” wide and hung about 4” apart, which has been found to be the distance which birds figure there isn’t enough room to pass through. You can hang anything from simple string, threads or ribbons, and you can braid in some beads, buttons, seashells and so on at random intervals. Get creative!
2. Glass or tempera paint can be added to any window in any design you like, either freehand, with a stencil, or with a forensically mapped out unique design all of your own. Tempera is rainproof, non-toxic and long-lasting.
3. Attach decals, available from many craft stores or online, or even semi-transparent to solid tape can be used in the same way. You can apply as much as you like making sure your patterns are spaced roughly following the two-by-four-inch rule: two inches apart horizontally and four inches apart vertically. A single decal or tape pattern won’t work.
4. If you don’t want to place anything on or near your windows at all, then just ensure that you close curtains or blinds during the day and especially at night when your lights are on, as artificial light can also be distracting and entice birds.
5. Remove any houseplants or anything that looks like inviting foliage from your window spaces!
6. Odd as it may sound, placing bird feeders close to your window is a good idea – they have to slow down to land on them, and in so doing, if they misjudge, they should have reduced their impact speed to be negligible.
Canadian poet Margaret Atwood sums up the needlessness of these innumerable bird deaths in her poem Fatal Light Awareness in the introduction to the photography book Bringing Back the Birds by Owen Deutsch. She speaks of her regret and sorrow at the death of a thrush, “one lovely voice the less”, and how not taking simple steps to prevent it were her own folly: “…and by my laziness: Why didn’t I hang the lattice?”
It cannot be denied that glass is dangerous for birds, and we have a responsibility to address this issue – especially given the fact that there are so many solutions available, with some at little to no extra cost. By making just a few adjustments to the windows around your home, you can help make a world where glass is no longer a threat, sparing the lives of birds who would otherwise come to an abrupt, fatal halt.