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Mass deaths of birds reported in New York during migration

Carcasses collected by Melissa Breuer on Tuesday morning.

Photo: Melissa Breuer

When Melissa Breuer packed her suitcase on Monday night for her volunteer shift on Tuesday morning at NYC Audubon, she decided to get serious.

It was not her task to participate in bird counting– at least not counting live birds. She took part in Safe Flight Project, an attempt to track how many migratory birds die while traveling in New York. She loaded her backpack with dozens of plastic bags for carrying bird carcasses, as well as paper bags designed to carefully transport injured birds to the caretakers – several times the size of the bags she usually brings with her on shift. Predictions indicated that many migratory birds would arrive in the city on Monday night and Tuesday morning, and she wanted to get ready.

“I packed my bag like I actually packed it, packed it full, full, full, with all the accessories I needed,” said Breuer, editorial director for environmental publication Treehugger.

Unfortunately, this vision turned out to be far-sighted. In the two and a half hours that Breuer spent exploring the World Trade Center complex in downtown Manhattan, starting at dawn, she noticed hundreds of dead birds. Tuesday was a particularly dire day for migratory birds in New York at a dangerous time of year for winged creatures passing through the city on their way to warmer places for the winter along the Atlantic Flyway.

“Once I got there, I saw more birds than I could count, in every direction I looked in as far as I could see,” she said. “Right, left straight ahead, I was just in shock.”

Breuer collected 226 carcasses of birds that died in the collision with the windows. She also collected 30 injured birds and sent them to the Wild Bird Foundation’s Bird Rescue Center. On the glass canopies of the World Trade Center buildings, she noticed 35 more birds that died after being hit on the windows.

The staggering death toll in one location, calculated in just a few hours, was due to several direct factors. A large stream of migratory birds swept through the city. There was a storm on Monday night and bad weather can disorient the birds and cause them to fly lower, making them more likely to collide with windows.

Another photo of bird carcasses collected by Melissa Breuer on Tuesday morning.

Photo: Melissa Breuer

But the death of birds in clear weather is also common. New York Audubon It is estimated that up to 230,000 birds die each year from crashing into windows, and during the Atlantic Flyway migration season, when flocks of birds travel thousands of miles in both hemispheres, die. Kaitlyn Parkins, New York City’s deputy director of conservation and science for Audubon, said there were two main reasons for the clashes.

“We have night clashes caused by disorienting lights,” she said. “Birds are attracted and disorientated by light, so light from buildings can transport them to places where they can collide with buildings. We saw many night-time clashes on Monday evening. And another reason for the collisions is reflective glasses all over the city. There were so many migrants here that night that the birds collided with the windows all morning and even in the afternoon. ”

Last spring, there was a massive death of birds, albeit on a smaller scale than on Monday night at the World Trade Center, when dozens of migratory birds were found dead near the house. glass clad apartment building in Harlem… (Rita McMahon, director of the Wild Bird Foundation, called it “bloodshed” at the time.)

This is not just a problem in New York. Collisions are the second largest bird killer in the United States, second only to street cats. Parkins said it is estimated that around 1 billion birds die each year when they collide with windows.

These numbers are grim, but we know how to lower them. One important mitigation strategy is turning off lights at night – a simple step that studies show can significantly reduce lethal outcomes. Some Texas municipalities implemented this strategy at the city level with a ‘turn off the lights’ policy. However, this policy was difficult to implement in the so-called city that never sleeps.

The bird that Melissa Breuer collected on Tuesday morning.

Photo: Melissa Breuer

Another important fix is ​​to make the windows more visible. New York has made significant progress in this regard. In 2019, the city council adopted law requiring glass panels on all new buildings to make their glass panels more bird-friendly, including making them translucent or opaque, or by engraving designs on them to make them more visible. However, this does not affect existing buildings such as the World Trade Center, but New York Audubon is working to make more buildings in the city safe for birds.

If you are worried about bird encounters – and they honestly are – there are ways you can help as a person. You can turn off your porch light every night before bed to prevent birds from reaching for your windows. And you can put adhesive stickers on your windows so that the birds can also see that they are there. If you are in New York, you can also volunteer with Project Safe Flight and help monitor and report bird collision

“The only good thing about decisions is that we know how to fix them,” Parkins said.

Update, 9/15/21 4:37 PM ET: This post has been updated to note that Breuer was a volunteer for the New York Audubon and not the Audubon Society.


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