On a Collision Course

June 8, 2021

By Melinda Schuman | Conservancy of Southwest Florida Biologist

On a sunny morning in the spring of 2020 I was walking toward a research site in the heart of Naples, Florida. I study the invasive cane toad — an exotic and toxic amphibian species that has made life more challenging for wildlife and pets alike. As I continued down the familiar path between the beautiful two-story homes, I saw something ahead of me on the ground that made the scene different than it had been every morning before.

The first thing I noticed was a vivid black and white pattern, the next was that it was a bird. I had never seen a bird like this in the wild, and wasn’t familiar with the unique tail coloration, so an identification didn’t immediately pop into my head. However, any excitement I may have felt about seeing a new-to-me bird species was not to be, because something was terribly wrong with the scene that morning. This glorious bird was on the ground next to a home where it most certainly should not have been. It had hit a window, broken its neck, and subsequently died there on the lawn. My first sighting of a yellow-billed cuckoo in the wild was heartbreaking.

I wish I could say that this is the only experience like this that I have had. However, the sad truth is that I have personally documented dozens of birds condemned to the same fate in the past two years alone. American redstarts, black and white warblers, great crested flycatchers and winter wrens are just a few of the species I’ve seen lose their lives to collisions with windows.

In support of these observations, the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida has received a myriad of these tiny creatures from around the city due to the same cause, with the migration months of April and October seeing the worst of it. Most do not survive. These are just the birds that are opportunistically found and transported to the hospital by caring people.

The reality is that this is primarily a hidden massacre. Most collision victims are rapidly scavenged by local wildlife, or simply not detected at all because they are often quite small, making the actual scale of the damage inflicted on bird populations unrealized.

This image shows eight dead birds - all victims of window strikes admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital in one week.

Naples provides a home for numerous species of resident birds and acts as a rest and recharge spot for untold numbers of migratory birds. The city serves as a beacon of blues & greens for humans and wildlife alike to enjoy safely.

Isn’t that why we all love being here?

However, for birds, our windows are creating a death trap. Birds cannot see the glass for one of two reasons, either because it is transparent and appears as a space they can fly through, or it reflects the natural background and mimics a continuation of their environment. Regardless of the reason, it is difficult for them to change their flight path before it’s too late. This threat can be further enhanced at night by artificial nighttime lighting. During nighttime travel, birds have a tendency to move toward light, increasing the chances for collisions.

It is simple: if there are windows, there is a threat to bird lives.

Window collisions result in an estimate of between 100 million and 1 billion birds killed annually in the United States. These collision deaths are second only to feral and free-ranging pet cats, which are estimated to kill four times as many birds each year.

The encouraging news is that many of these bird deaths are preventable when windows are made easier for birds to see. Some progressive planning is being done on a larger scale in some big cities such as San Francisco and New York City.

Locally in Naples, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida will be incorporating bird-safe glass into a new skylight installation for the John & Carol Walter Discovery Wing inside the expansion of the Susan and William Dalton Discovery Center.

Initiatives are also being worked on federally to make public buildings safer, which you can help support here: Support the Bird-Safe Buildings.

Fortunately, as residents who care about the fate of the birds, we don’t have to be left to the whims of slow-moving legislation. There are simple changes that can be made now to existing windows, of homes and office buildings, which provide visual cues to birds and help prevent collisions.

Just a couple of the American Bird Conservancy approved options available include insect screening that covers the entire glass area of windows; paracords that hang in a vertical pattern that visually break up the open space of the window; and film that can be affixed to the outside of the window with bird deterring patterns. There are even options for having glass fabricated with UV patterns or horizontal line frit patterns for new construction.

Most options are aesthetically pleasing and so subtle that you may not even notice them once they are installed… but the important point is that the birds will!

The Department of Natural Resources Tawes Building in Annapolis, MD using Acopian BirdSavers (paracords). Photo credit: SafeSkies Maryland https://abcbirds.org/glass-collisions/photo-gallery/?_paged=5
The Department of Natural Resources Tawes Building in Annapolis, MD using Acopian BirdSavers (paracords). Photo credit: SafeSkies Maryland https://abcbirds.org/glass-collisions/photo-gallery/?_paged=5

There are so many threats to our native wildlife that it can feel challenging to know what actions we can take to make a difference in their lives. This is an opportunity where helping our feathered friends is something we can all do starting right at home. I know I will someday see a living yellow-billed cuckoo in the wild. However, if there is a way we can all make their lives a little safer in the meantime, then it’s worth the wait.

Yellow-billed cuckoo. Photo credit: Mark Kraus https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/63635751