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The ‘Ground-Up Problem’ Of Bird Window Collisions: BBH Professor Advocating For Bird-Safe Glass On Campus

Whether they steal your food on the HUB lawn, abruptly wake you up with early-morning chirps, or almost collide with you as you’re running to your next class, birds possess a strong presence here in the Happy Valley. 

However, being a bird at Penn State is no easy feat, as large, high-scale glass buildings have led to an increase in bird deaths on campus. 

These deaths are due to window collisions that occur when birds mistake windows for open space and fly directly into the glass surface. Penn State has a large number of buildings with naturally reflective windows, making it the perfect breeding ground for these deadly accidents. 

This string of avian glass impacts caught the attention of biobehavioral health associate teaching professor Joseph Gyekis, as he now dedicates his time to bringing awareness to this issue and advocating for the installation of bird-safe glass across campus. 

Gyekis started paying attention to this issue on campus about three to four years ago, but he said his passion for birds is deeply rooted in his upbringing in a bird-loving family. 

“I have been a bird watcher since I was a kid, and my mom was also. She was the one that got me into it when I was young,” Gyekis said. “We lived in a big house in the woods with some big windows, so we knew about bird-window collisions simply because we had seen them happen.”

Growing up learning about bird interactions, and even having a friend who ran a blog recording local bird-window collisions, Gyekis started to take notice of the issue on campus. 

“Once I realized it was affecting a lot of birds, I just started to look around more on campus. I began to start a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different species we recorded and from what buildings,” Gyekis said.

The more he recorded, the more Gyekis saw the seriousness of this issue. 

His team has documented over 80 different species that have been victims of these collisions on campus. Brown thrashers, warblers, hummingbirds, and even woodpeckers have died as a result of glass windows on campus. The reason so many birds meet their demise from these collisions is mainly due to their speed and the location of the building they run into. 

“If we as humans bump into the glass, it doesn’t feel bad. But if we are going 30-40 miles an hour, that is life-threatening for us. It is also just as life-threatening for the birds,” Gyekis explained. “Even if they just break their beaks, they still will not live without a functioning beak.” 

While speed is the most important factor for birds, it is also the location of these windows that really seals the deal. Most of the bird collision hotspots are windows low to the ground and are surrounded by shrubs, bushes, and trees.

A good example of a prime collision location is the deadliest building for Happy Valley birds: the Huck Life Sciences Building. While a beautiful place to study, admire campus, and take a stroll across the glass bridge, it’s a glimmering death trap for many birds. Approximately 150 to 170 birds have been killed at the Huck Life Sciences Building alone. Gyekis explained how this is due to the large amount of oak trees and bushes that surround the building. 

“In the fall, these oak trees lining the street are the best places for foraging among all native plant species. Birds will start foraging in these trees, and they can see through the glass bridge, so they will fly right through,” Gyekis said. “Most of these birds have been born and raised in the forest and do not know the least thing about glass. They just see a reflection of an oak tree and assume they can fly over to the next tree.”

This trend continues at the Chemical Engineering Building and the Millennium Science Complex, as both rack up high numbers of bird deaths due to the surrounding lush greenery and trees that reflect off the building windows. The popularity of glass-paned buildings may make for aesthetically pleasing study spots, but are killing droves of birds each year.

Gyekis said that the key to solving this issue is through the installation of patterns and designs on Penn State’s windows. Exterior designs and spaced patterns distort the window’s appearance and allow birds to easily distinguish between glass and open space. 

“One of the main goals of our group that is paying attention to this issue is to get a treatment on the windows. Basically what has to happen for birds is that there has to be a pattern on the glass,” Gyekis said. “For hummingbirds, there has to be a pattern with space about two inches wide, and for other birds about four inches wide.” 

Whether it be a simple adhesive polka dot or striped pattern, the current top priority for those involved in the issue is to get these designs on some of the most reflective windows at Penn State. 

It’s safe to say that the future of bird-safe glass at Penn State is looking bright despite its challenges. From OPP members to students passionate about bird safety, the advocacy for bird-safe glass has spread tremendously on campus. 

“We’ve found a lot of support from important people, but there’s such a big legacy of not bird-safe glass on the campus that we are going to have to figure out ways to improve it,” Gyekis said. “With at least 50-100 birds per year getting killed, the sooner the better.”

Improvement to this issue is not limited to the Penn State community. Gyekis encouraged public involvement and explained that anyone can take part in making their home a safer environment for birds. 

“From the news, people get this idea that the skyscrapers and inner cities get the worst of the problem, but it’s not true,” Gyekis said. “It’s our homes and medium-sized buildings, offices, and campus buildings that are affected. It’s really a ground-up problem rather than a sky-down problem.”

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About the Author

McKenna Murphy

McKenna is a second-year agricultural science major from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She is a Disney enthusiast, a proud ginger, and an iced coffee addict. You can follow her on Instagram @mckenna.murph or email her at [email protected].

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