The east side of Northwestern University’s Seeley G. Mudd Library is a glassy wall, a deadly hazard to birds. Credit: Libby Hill

Northwestern University students don’t just study. They participate in multiple service opportunities.

Probably their best-known charitable activity is Dance Marathon, which since 1975 has raised more than $22 million, primarily for local children and the Evanston Community Foundation.

Now a new student initiative is focusing not on local residents but on migrating birds that travel through the Northwestern campus.

The campus buildings with substantial glass are a treacherous pathway for birds. According to Annette Prince, head of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (CBCM), “Bird collisions have been reported over many years on the Northwestern campus.” 

A formal monitoring program with CBCM began in fall 2017. Monitors are Evanston residents. Since 2017, in surveys during the weeks of spring and fall migration, close to 2,500 dead or injured birds have been documented around campus buildings adjacent to the lakefront.

Dead birds found by monitors are sent to the Field Museum for study. Those that are injured are taken to Willowbrook Wildlife Center for rehabilitation. (The CBCM hotline for injured birds is 773-988-1867.) 

“It is important to note that the 2,500 birds were only those documented during limited morning surveys of certain campus buildings,” Prince said. “If other locations and times of the day had been included, it is certain that the numbers of birds killed and injured on campus would be even higher.”

More than 360 of those hurt or deceased birds were recorded around the Seeley G. Mudd Library, primarily from collisions with the building’s east-facing entrances, lobbies, and windows.

To Northwestern’s credit, before the pandemic the university added patterned window film to the Frances Searle building, which was built in 1972, and to portions of the glass Kellogg Global Hub, another bird-lethal building.

But though Northwestern has announced its intent to become the leading bird-friendly campus in the United States, the university hasn’t budgeted any more money for the purpose, bird advocates say.

A Northwestern spokesperson did not respond to a message seeking comment.

But Students on the Green Campus Subcommittee, part of the student government’s Sustainability Committee, see students as a powerful force to address the issue of bird deaths caused by Northwestern buildings. Vlad Nevirkovets, a junior and avid birder who is majoring in environmental sciences, joined the subcommittee specifically to initiate the bird-safety project. To that end, the group has prepared a petition to influence the university administration to add bird-safety measures to Mudd Library. 

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“I have been noticing dead birds on campus since my freshman year, but for a long time I had no idea why,” said senior Hannah Dembosky, who is co-chair of the subcommittee. “There are some places on campus, like adjacent to Mudd Library, where I almost always see at least one dead bird as I walk.

“Once I learned that these deaths are caused by collisions with windows and are preventable, I decided that I wanted to push to help solve these problems,” said Dembosky, who is double-majoring in Environmental Science and Sociology. “Northwestern can take measures to decrease the number of bird deaths on campus, as was shown by how the university added patterned window film to buildings like Kellogg Global Hub and reduced bird deaths. We just need to convince the administration to care enough to put the funding and the effort into implementing more bird-safety measures.”

The group is urging currents students, faculty and staff, university alumni and members of the Evanston community and beyond to sign the petition to lobby Northwestern to prioritize bird-safe buildings in its budget.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.

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