A Black-and-white Warbler lay on a Portland sidewalk after colliding with a glass window.
A Black-and-white Warbler lay on a Portland sidewalk after colliding with a glass window. (Portland Phoenix/Nick Lund)
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The Black-and-white Warbler shown here began its northward migration sometime early this year. We don’t exactly know where it came from — this species winters in a wide swatch of tropics between south Florida and northern Ecuador — but it had certainly spent weeks on the move, flying at night and stopping each morning to seek safety and refuel. This individual had certainly flown thousands of miles, avoiding predators and weather systems, before finally reaching Maine where, on the morning of Tuesday, May 30, it accidentally flew into a glass window on Fore Street and died.

Glass windows are an insidious new threat to migrating birds, tricking birds by reflecting sky or habitat. Our understanding of the scale of the glass collision problem has grown in the last few decades, and researchers estimate that between 365 million and one billion birds die in the U.S. each year after colliding with glass windows. That means that, using the most conservative estimates, at least one million birds die after colliding with windows in the U.S. every day. 

Nick LundIn 2020, Maine Audubon joined with the University of Southern Maine and the Portland Society for Architecture to form BirdSafe Maine, dedicated to the study of the glass collision problem in Maine. We’ve engaged with volunteers over six migratory seasons to walk the early morning streets of Portland looking for dead and injured birds. We’ve found hundreds of individuals representing more than 40 different species of warbler, sparrow, woodpecker, hummingbird, nuthatch, chickadee, thrush, flycatcher, creeper and more.

Using building-type data provided by the city we’ve calculated that between 40,000 and 50,000 individual birds collide with windows in the city of Portland every year.

Cities across the country are reckoning with their role in environmental conservation. Why are we fighting to protect forests, reduce pesticide use, and take other actions to raise bird populations, just to have them die on city streets during migration?

Thankfully, architects, builders and conservationists in Portland and around the country are taking action. 

There are many ways to make buildings safer for birds, including using less glass, reducing the prevalence of dangerous architectural features like glass skywalks or using products that make windows visible to birds. It’s true, though, that it’s much cheaper and easier to consider bird safety in a building before it’s built rather than retrofit an existing building. To that end, cities and states across the country are enacting ordinances to require the use of bird-safe techniques. 

Just this month, Maine became just the third state in the nation to take statewide action on birdsafe architecture. Sponsored by Rep. Sophia Warren of Scarborough, LD 670 tasks the state with developing guidelines for the potential use of bird-safe architecture in state-funded buildings. 

We must keep going. More than a dozen cities across the nation have enacted municipal ordinance requiring the use of bird-safe materials, including major centers like New York and Washington, D.C., but none yet in New England. Last year, City Councilor Andrew Zarro asked BirdSafe Maine to develop a potential ordinance for Portland, and we’ve done just that.

In the past year we’ve worked with representatives from the local building and design community and learned lessons from other laws across the country to draft an ordinance we believe is the best in the nation. The BirdSafe Maine team is looking forward to hearing feedback from the public, others in the design community, the City Council, and others as we work towards passage this summer. It may be too late for the Black-and-white Warbler seen here, but other birds still have a chance if we act now.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.

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