Sept. 12 marked a milestone for birds in Evanston, particularly benefitting those that migrate through the city. City Council unanimously passed an ordinance amending Title 4 of the City Code, “Building Regulations,” by adding Chapter 24 – Bird Friendly Building Design.

Credit: Mike Roche

Evanston’s downtown has glass buildings, both residential and commercial. Northwestern has glass buildings. In both locations, residents and volunteers with Chicago Bird Collision Monitors collect dead birds near buildings that were designed without attention to bird safety. 

This ordinance will mean that new developments will be designed to foster safe passage for birds in Evanston. Working with developers, Bird-friendly Evanston (BFE) has learned that developers would like to have standards upfront to guide them. 

Some background

When the Searle building was constructed on Northwestern’s north campus in 1972, birds began hitting its reflective windows. There was a great deal of concern among birders, but no action. Back then, there was no research showing how glass could be made to be safe for birds.

From 2019, artist and bird rescue volunteer Peggy Macnamara removes a dead warbler from of one of the Searle buildings.

Fast forward some 30 years. Well before 2004, Daniel Klem’s dissertation at Southern Illinois University had illuminated the problem and suggested solutions. If trees and shrubs are reflected in glass, birds see a place to rest and find food and shelter; they don’t see the glass. 

But if glass is patterned with small spaces between patches, or continuous dots, birds see it and veer away from it. And people can still see out of the glass. It’s a win-win situation. 

For years people had been pasting silhouettes of individual Falcons on windows, to no effect. Klem’s research showed why. The accepted pattern on glass today is the “2×4” rule, where lines or dots or other markers are separated by 2 inches if they are applied to glass horizontally, or 4 inches if applied in vertical columns. The pattern must cover the entire window.

Other problems with building design became clear. Glass railings had become all the architectural rage, but birds fly right into them. See-through corners on buildings invite birds to fly through them, only to hit the glass barrier.

Isabella Rotman, a Preparation Lab volunteer, shows a drawer with preserved migrating birds killed by colliding into building windows. The Lab was set up 30 years ago by now-retired bird curator and migration specialist Dave Willard, when large numbers of migrating birds were being killed at McCormick Place. Photos by Ellen Galland

Windows reflecting landscaping on parkways are another problem. Even indoor plants visible through glass deceive birds, appearing to them as a safe haven. And lighting is an enormous problem. Birds are attracted by light; they fly toward it, slamming into glass. Environmentally friendly green roofs attract birds and pose problems if the surrounding walls are made of glass.

Evanston North Shore Bird Club began monitoring Northwestern buildings in 2002, with the cooperation of Northwestern. 

Klem visited the campus in 2004 and met with representatives of Facilities Management. Then, in 2017, Northwestern opened the glass Kellogg Global Hub. Bird-friendly Evanston activities stepped up considerably.

Monitoring showed approximately 150 birds had died at the building in one week. Chicago Bird Collision monitors began monitoring the campus buildings. By 2019, Northwestern had announced it would become a U.S. leader in being a bird-friendly campus.

After retrofitting Searle with bird-friendly tape, bird deaths there declined significantly, showing that the strategy of applying bird-friendly tape to existing buildings works. Some retrofitting was done at the Global Hub before the pandemic. Unfortunately, Northwestern has currently budgeted no funds to continue to retrofit the glass on its buildings.

The first existing record of a Bird-friendly Evanston meeting was in January 2016 at Lucky Platter restaurant. Bird-friendly Evanston members Leslie Shad, Judy Pollock, Nancy Brandt, Allison Sloan, Kathleen Gillespie and this author continued meeting to discuss a sample ordinance.

BFE members also met with developers to assess and suggest bird-friendly modifications to design. Developers were interested in hearing suggestions and were receptive. One easy fix was to replace glass railings with metal. 

From the memorandum in which city staff recommended council adopt the ordinance:

“Staff is proposing the inclusion of bird friendly design strategies into development projects to reduce bird collisions and death. These practices include consideration of the overall architectural design to reduce hazards, the use of bird friendly materials, especially glass, exterior and interior lighting provisions and consideration of site planning and landscape design to reduce potentially hazardous situations…. The ordinance applies to planned developments, city-owned financed buildings, new commercial, multi-family and industrial construction projects and renovation projects of an existing building that includes the replacement of the building’s exterior glazing.”

Passing the ordinance is an exciting accomplishment. According to Bird-friendly Evanston, the group looks forward to continuing to work with city staff to implement the ordinance and continuing to work with developers, architects, building designers, landscape architects and any others responsible for new buildings in Evanston.

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