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Petition Takes Flight: Save UTC's Birds from Window Collisions

By Mason Edwards, News Editor

Collection of birds in David Aborn's lab. Monday, April 1, 2024. Photo by Ethan Johnson, University Echo staff photographer.

On campus, there’s an unspoken, distasteful problem: the corpses of birds pile up around UTC’s large buildings. In fact, since 2000, UTC professor and ornithologist David Aborn has identified over 1,200 carcasses on campus belonging to at least 80 different species of bird.

When Noah Smith needed to complete a directed project this semester, he chose to bring awareness to window collisions. Since January, he’s gone from classroom to classroom giving presentations about the problem. Now, his petition has gathered over 200 signatures.

“Birds are hitting campus windows, dying or sustaining injury, by the hundreds,” Smith wrote. “To fix the problem, bird friendly decals or materials– i.e. patterned decals, one-way decals– must be added to the exterior of existing problem windows…”

Window strike bird casualties are a global issue, with far reaching effects on habitat conservation and the billion dollar birding industry. According to the National Audubon Society, up to 1 billion birds die from window impacts each year. Yet, students like Amy Johnson, a graduate assistant pursuing a master’s degree, haven’t lost hope.

Johnson keeps a pair of binoculars next to her window seat office in Holt Hall. In her free time, she’ll peer across Mocs Alumni Drive and watch the birds around the cemetery, but most of the time, she’s helping students understand topics like global warming and the biodiversity crisis.

“I think when I teach them about these topics, my students start to feel hopeless... that there’s nothing they can do about it,” Johnson said. “So I try to present [window strike casualties] to them as an opportunity. This is an issue that’s on your doorstep.”

Johnson and Smith’s advocacy is backed up with scientific research conducted by Aborn.

“In my lab, I’ve got a whole freezer full of birds that I’ve picked up,” Aborn said. “And then either I or students go ahead and make museum preparations of them for the University Natural History Collection.”

Aborn shows his collection of frozen birds in his lab. Monday, April 1, 2024. Photo by Ethan Johnson, University Echo Staff Photographer.

Most of UTC’s window collision fatalities are smaller songbirds, which can be flying as fast as 20 miles per hour– an impact forceful enough to be heard on the other side of the glass.

“The more glass you have, the more collisions,” Aborn said. “The problem is the reflection. They see the sky and the vegetation in the reflection and think it’s clear sailing. They just hit it full on.”

When he can, Aborn will take the birds to the local songbird rehabilitator, but his research has found that even the apparent survivors have little chance of survival.

“A bird will seemingly be okay. I’ll approach it and it will fly off.” Aborn said. “But a lot of those wind up dying later from either a slow brain bleed or other type of internal injury.”

According to Aborn, the bird carcass count likely underestimates the actual number of bird casualties. He doesn’t check every building or every day. A study found around 40% of carcasses might get scavenged before their discovery, and UTC staff regularly dispose of the dead birds without counting them.

“Since the library opened in 2015, about two thirds of all the casualties I find come from the library,” he said.

Finding bird carcasses around the library is a common occurrence for many of the building’s staff. Access Services Specialist Savannah Beach said they get student complaints every semester, and sometimes they hear from faculty who have offices in the building.

“Usually we’ll call the facilities maintenance people,” Beach said. “They’ll come clean them up.”

Aborn released a summary of window casualties in 2023, and even though he gave the UT System a report and suggested solutions, he hasn’t seen meaningful change.

"There are all sorts of options for bird safe glass,” Aborn said. “There are films that you can put on the outside of windows that will reduce the reflectivity, and there are various sorts.”

Ultraviolet options would be visible to birds and minimally intrusive to UTC’s architectural designs, but companies like Feathered Friendly make films with visible tiny black dots. With enough funds, these products could be applied to retrofit buildings into bird safety compliance.

Collection of birds in David Aborn's lab. Monday, April 1, 2024. Photo by Ethan Johnson, University Echo staff photographer.

Smith’s petition also called for bird-friendly design in ongoing and future building construction on campus. Aborn and Smith think the nearly-finished Wolford Family Athletic Center, the attachment to the McKenzie Arena, could become an additional hotspot for bird casualties.

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